Artificial income tax cap would permanently hamstring our public schools

By all accounts, the biggest issue facing North Carolina’s public schools is the lack of adequate funding. Adjusted for inflation, 18 of the 24 biggest school funding allotments remain below their pre-Recession levels, or have been eliminated altogether. As a result, North Carolina’s per-student state funding remains 3 percent below pre-Recession levels after adjusting for inflation. According to the most recent data from the National Education Association, North Carolina’s per-pupil spending ranks 39th in the country, trailing the national average by over $2,400, or 25 percent.

More sophisticated measures of school spending paint an even bleaker picture. For example, EdWeek’s Quality Counts report gives North Carolina an F (47th in the nation) for level of school spending. Research from the Education Law Project and Rutgers University reaches a similar conclusion, ranking North Carolina 48th in terms of total school spending.

Compared to other states, North Carolina devotes a shockingly small share of its wealth towards funding our public schools. North Carolina’s spending on public schools accounts for less than 2.8 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. By contrast, Vermont makes twice the effort, devoting 5.6 percent of its state wealth to its public school system. Overall, North Carolina ranks 46th in terms of school funding effort; a ranking that has fallen even as the national recovery officially began.  Rather than invest when it has been possible to do so, the current leadership of the General Assembly has continued to reduce their commitment to our classrooms and children.

If North Carolina’s lawmakers were interested in addressing the inadequacy of North Carolina’s school funding, they should want to have every revenue-generating tool at their disposal. Particularly, lawmakers should prioritize revenue options that minimize the tax burden on lower-income North Carolinians who have mostly been left behind in North Carolina’s economic recovery. Read more


N.C. State’s hyped voucher study tells us nothing about N.C.’s voucher program

Normally, when somebody hears about an evaluation of an education program, they reasonably assume the evaluation will tell them whether the program is working or not. When reading an evaluation report, policymakers, parents, and educators hope the evaluation will tell them if the program is helping the participating students. These seem like obvious, uncontroversial points.

On Monday, June 4, researchers from N.C. State released “an evaluation of the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program,” North Carolina’s largest private school voucher program. The authors enthusiastically publicized and distributed the report, making sure to provide advance copies to media organizations and pro-voucher advocacy groups. The report has been highlighted by all of the state’s major media outlets, including being the first story greeting visitors to all of last week.

But there’s a problem: the report fails to tell us whether the Opportunity Scholarship program is working. The researchers’ efforts tell us nothing about whether accepting an Opportunity Scholarship will help or harm a student’s education.

The report’s primary flaw is that it has no external validity. That is, the students tested as part of this study are different from the average Opportunity Scholarship student. As a result, there’s no reason to think that the untested Opportunity Scholarship students would similarly outperform their public school counterparts. As the Charlotte Observer‘s Ann Doss-Helms noted, just over half of the voucher schools that participated in the study were Catholic, while only 10 percent of all schools receiving Opportunity Scholarship vouchers are Catholic. Additionally, the report only looked at students who were recruited and volunteered to take a test. These students are different from the average voucher student.

Because of these differences, you can’t use the report to make claims about the average voucher student or the impact of the voucher program overall. The effects highlighted by the researchers only apply to the 89 Opportunity Scholarship students (in the researcher’s preferred comparison) who volunteered to be tested, representing just 1.6 percent of the 5,624 Opportunity Scholarship students in the 16-17 school year. The report tells us nothing about the other 98.4 percent of Opportunity Scholarship students

Unfortunately, one would have to carefully read the report to reach these conclusions. The press release fails to adequately warn readers of the paper’s limitations. One would have to dig into the ninth paragraph of the Charlotte Observer’s story on the report to find a clear description of the report’s shortcomings: Read more

Commentary, Education

With HB 514, legislature unambiguously embraces school segregation

There’s a word for what happens when majority-white suburbs pull their children from a majority-minority school district and place them into exclusionary, majority-white schools: segregation. With the advancement of HB 514, lawmakers are unambiguously embracing school segregation as state policy.

HB 514 allows four Charlotte suburbs – Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Mint Hill – the authority to create and operate their own charter schools. These suburbs can then limit enrollment in these schools to municipal residents. Cornelius is 85 percent white. Huntersville is 77 percent white. Matthews is 78 percent white. Mint Hill is 73 percent white. Students in these majority-white suburbs are assigned to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), where white students comprise just 29 percent of enrollment.

To facilitate the funding of the schools authorized by HB 514, a related budget provision (Section 38.8) creates a new authority allowing North Carolina municipalities to spend property tax revenues on any public school that “benefits the residents of the city,” including charter schools. As national school finance expert Michael Griffith notes, similar provisions in other states have led to school funding becoming “divided on class lines and on racial lines.”

It’s quite the one-two punch. First, the General Assembly allows these suburbs to create schools with the legal authority to exclude children from nearby communities comprised mostly of non-white students. Then, these suburbs can then use their out-sized property wealth to provide their racially-isolated schools with resource levels denied to other students in the school district. In other words, these schools will be both separate and unequal.

Authorizing the creation of racially separate and unequal charter schools is not only immoral, it’s educationally harmful, and almost certainly unconstitutional, to boot. Read more


Legislature’s education budget highlights continued under-investment in public schools

The General Assembly has been catching much-deserved criticism for refusing to subject its budget plan to the normal amendment process. That decision is undemocratic and self-defeating, undoubtedly leading to lower-quality policies and unintended negative consequences. But lawmakers deserve to be commended for completing its budget in a timely fashion, providing school districts additional budget planning time to prepare for the upcoming school year.

Of course, it’s easy to complete a budget in a timely manner when lawmakers aren’t interested in seriously addressing the funding shortfalls faced by our public schools.

Ultimately, 2018’s secretive budget negotiations increased already-planned FY 18-19 public schools budgets by just 0.6 percent. Rather than address persistent funding shortfalls, legislators have allowed another round of tax cuts to move forward, draining state coffers by $900 million.

Once again, additional public school funds are mostly directed at increased salary and benefit costs, with little investment that would actually expand school district resources. Of the 24 biggest allotments in FY 08-09, 18 remain below their pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation and student growth. For example, funding for textbooks is down 39 percent from pre-Recession levels. Funding for supplies remains 55 percent below pre-Recession levels. And funding for teacher assistants remains 35 percent below pre-Recession levels. Read more


Legislators should reject efforts to extend failed virtual charter school “pilot”

The General Assembly should reject any efforts to extend the authorization of the state’s two virtual charter schools, and should instead focus on winding down the two failing schools.

Since their creation, North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools, North Carolina Virtual Academy and North Carolina Connections Academy, have been among the worst-performing schools in the state. Advocates for these two schools have opposed meaningful accountability or evaluation measures, rushing forward to extend without any evidence that the program is working. The schools are based on a model that has failed spectacularly in several other states, and North Carolina’s laws offer no protections against the failures of other virtual charter schools. Finally, the schools fail to meaningfully expand enrollment options for students, as the state already offers a higher-quality on-line option.

Why is the General Assembly considering an extension?

Virtual charter schools are publicly-funded schools that are governed by an independent board and deliver instruction entirely on-line. The North Carolina General Assembly authorized two such schools to operate beginning the 2015-16 school year. The authorizing language (Section 8.35 of S.L. 2014-100) established the schools as a four-year “pilot program,” requiring additional legislation for the schools to continue operation beyond the 2018-19 school year.

At its May 1, 2018 meeting, the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee endorsed draft legislation to allow the two virtual charter schools to continue operating through the 2022-23 school year. The legislation, since introduced as HB 988/SB 731, also delays by two years the first of two required evaluation reports, pushing the reporting date from November 15, 2018 to November 15, 2020.

NC virtual charter laws eschew best practices, reflecting the aggressive lobbying efforts of for-profit corporations

Virtual charter schools came to North Carolina largely via the aggressive lobbying efforts of for-profit operators, particularly K12 Inc. Their efforts led to the authorization of virtual charter schools via a four-year “pilot” program – inserted into the 2014 budget bill to avoid debate and scrutiny.

Prior to the introduction of the authorizing language, the State Board of Education had conducted a study to develop a set of policy recommendations for how best to authorize virtual charter schools in North Carolina. These recommendations were ignored by the General Assembly in favor of language crafted by virtual charter lobbyists. The legislature eschewed the State Board’s recommendations on appropriate funding levels, grade levels served, teacher-student ratios, and allowable dropout rates.

Since authorization, the Fiscal Research Division supplied members of the General Assembly and the State Board of Education with policy options to address 16 weaknesses with the authorizing language included in the 2014 budget bill. The General Assembly has failed to address any of these identified policy weaknesses. The only change to the language so far has been a move to weaken oversight of these schools’ dropout rates, allowing more students to withdraw from virtual charters mid-year without facing state sanctions.

North Carolina’s virtual charter schools are arguably the worst-performing in the state, consistent with national research

North Carolina’s virtual charter schools have performed exceptionally poorly. In their first year of operation, both virtual charter schools ranked dead last in the state for student growth. The following year proved little better. Once again, North Carolina Connections Academy finished dead last in the state for student growth. North Carolina Virtual Academy raised itself off the absolute bottom, but still finished in the bottom one percent of schools on student growth, getting outscored by 2,443 of 2,464 schools with a student growth score. Read more