Commentary

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

Commentary

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

Commentary

Lawmakers will trot out these talking points at tomorrow’s teacher rally — here are the facts

As educators and advocates from across the state meet with lawmakers during tomorrow’s Rally for Respect, they will undoubtedly face several planned talking points meant to deflect from the General Assembly’s poor track record on public education. The responses below will hopefully assist public school advocates in overcoming the most common General Assembly excuses for its failure to adequately fund our public schools and its failure to provide competitive pay for teachers.

1. The claim: “Per-student funding has increased every year”

The facts: Nominal funding increases have not kept pace with increased enrollment and inflation. Per-student funding remains 7% below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation.

Of the 24 biggest funding allotments prior to the recession, 19 remain below their pre-Recession levels. That means:

  • Less funding for teachers;
  • Less funding for support staff like counselors, school psychologists, nurses and librarians;
  • 7,500 fewer state-funded teacher assistants;
  • A 51%reduction in per-student funding for textbooks, supplies, and technology; and
  • The elimination of state funding for professional development and mentoring.

Over the same time period, our students are facing greater challenges, with an increasing share of public school students coming from low-income families, from homes where English is not the primary language, and from households that have experienced early childhood trauma.

Other states continue to pull away from North Carolina. Prior to the Recession, North Carolina’s per-student school funding trailed the national average by 18%. Today, North Carolina trails the national average by 25 percent. We’re even 25% below South Carolina!

2. The claim: “We’ve given five straight years of pay increases / How much teacher pay is enough?”

The facts: We still aren’t close to where we need to be to attract and retain the state’s best talent into the teaching profession. North Carolina has failed to close the gap on the national average since control of the General Assembly flipped in 2011. North Carolina’s average teacher salary trailed the national average by 16% in FY 10-11, and continues to trail the national average by 16% today. We actually would have lost ground against the national average had local districts not increased their local teacher salary supplements over this period.

Finally, our most experienced teachers have had their salaries frozen in recent years. Approximately 3,742 teachers (those on steps 31 and higher) have seen their state-supported salaries fall in inflation-adjusted terms.

North Carolina’s teacher pay will be enough when we offer teachers pay packages that are competitive with other college-degree-requiring professions in the state. Countries with successful education systems provide their educators with salaries comparable to the salaries of other college-degree-requiring professions. By this measure, North Carolina ranked 48th for teacher salary competitiveness from 2011 to 2015. Providing competitive pay will require raising North Carolina teacher salaries above the national average – a mark we still trail by 16%.

3. The claim: “When adjusted for cost-of-living, North Carolina ranks 29th for teacher pay”

The facts: Cost-of-living adjustments are an inappropriate way to make cross-state comparisons of teacher pay. The higher cost-of-living in North Carolina’s cities largely reflects the relative attractiveness of life in places like Raleigh and Charlotte, which bids down wages in those areas. The more appropriate measure is looking at how teacher pay compares to other college-degree-requiring professions in each state. By this measure, North Carolina offers some of the least competitive teacher pay in the nation. Contrary to what the uninformed folks at right-wing think tanks would tell you, North Carolina’s teacher pay is actually worse – not better – than what simple national rankings would indicate.

4. The claim: “We already dedicate 57% of the budget to education / ranks 14th in terms of share of school funding from state sources”

The facts: The share of the budget going to education tells us nothing about whether educators have the resources necessary to educate to every North Carolina student. The actual share going to our public schools is 39%, a share that has remained relatively consistent over the past 10 years.

Similarly, North Carolina’s share of funding from state sources is necessarily high due to constitutional and statutory requirements. Few states constitutions’ place as much responsibility for funding public schools on the state as does North Carolina’s. In North Carolina, state laws place all of the responsibility for school operating expenses on the state. Other states place much more funding responsibility on local governments.

These statistics, however, tell us nothing about whether educators are receiving the resources necessary to educate every North Carolina student. Our stagnating test scores and widening achievement gaps would indicate that our schools require more investment.

5. The claim: “We rank 1st in teacher wage growth in 2017, and 2nd in teacher wage growth in 2018.”

The facts: Speaker Moore has attributed these figures to data from the NEA, but the data from the NEA tell a different story. According to data from the NEA, North Carolina ranked 40th in 2016, 2nd in 2017, and 17th in 2018. It is unclear where Speaker Moore’s figures are coming from, but his figures are not consistent with the data he claims he’s using.

Regardless, these statistics are not sufficient to make up for the first five post-Recession budgets when North Carolina’s year-over-year changes to average teacher pay ranked 50th (09-10), 43rd (10-11), 47th (11-12), 45th (12-13), and 49th (13-14). Read more

Commentary

Legislature’s school funding task force is no force; not up to task

Task Force co-chairs, Sen. Michael Lee & Rep. Craig Horn

After seven meetings during this legislative interim, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform has proven itself incapable of seriously rethinking how North Carolina funds its public schools. Careful examination of a state’s school funding system is tough work. It requires strategic thinking, and good information; neither of which have been hallmarks of the Task Force’s work.

In its first year, Task Force has failed to complete even the first step towards considering alternatives to North Carolina’s school funding system – neglecting to identify which aspect(s) of our current school funding system they find problematic. In fact, they have expressly vowed to avoid examining the adequacy of school funding, even though most experts would agree that the inadequacy of state funding is a much bigger barrier to student success than the inefficient distribution of existing funds.

The Task Force’s inability to identify what problem(s) they hope to solve has also prevented they from taking other necessary steps such as defining consensus goals for the qualities they want to see in any new school finance system. The Task Force has yet to define terms like “equity” or “efficiency,” let alone establish a consensus, prioritized list of which aspects of school finance (i.e. equity, stability, transparency) lawmakers most value. Without taking these steps, the Task Force will never be able to methodically assess alternative funding proposals.

The Task Force’s work has been hindered further by a stream of presenters who have done more to misinform than inform. Read more

Commentary

2017 NAEP results present mixed bag for North Carolina students

Today, the US Department of Education published results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP). Known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” NAEP is administered every two years to a representative sample of students in each state. NAEP results are help policymakers identify trends in student performance and offer the ability to make comparisons of school performance across states.

While very useful, one must be extremely careful before using NAEP test results to draw broad policy conclusions. A few things to keep in mind:

  • NAEP assesses a different cohort of students each year, so the 4th grade cohort in 2003 might differ from the 4th grade cohort tested in 2017. Even though both cohorts were representative of the student body at that time, the share of students from low-income families or for whom English is not their first language might have changed.
  • Related to the point above, changes in trends for all students can mask trends for different student cohorts. In many states, overall performance has plateaued even though performance of white students and students of color has improved. Seems paradoxical. But if the share of lower-performing subgroups is becoming a greater share of the total student population, total performance may look flat even though achievement levels of all subgroups are improving.
  • Remember that correlation is not causation. Just because some policy happened (or didn’t happen) during the time that NAEP scores increased (or decreased) does not necessarily mean that policy is good (or bad).
  • Beware those who claim that low proficiency levels on NAEP are evidence that our schools are “broken.” Scoring “proficient” on NAEP is not synonymous with performing “at grade level” – it is a much higher standard.
  • Cross-state comparisons of student achievement levels should take into account demographic differences. While North Carolina should aspire to Massachusetts-levels of student performance, North Carolina’s higher share of students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families make it more difficult for North Carolina to reach the same level of achievement.

With those caveats in place, below are a few observations from the 2017 results: Read more