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


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


General Assembly’s class-size “fix” a mixed bag

This afternoon, the General Assembly has finally revealed its plan for addressing the unfunded class-size mandate. As a reminder, under current law, General Assembly members are requiring school districts dramatically reduce class sizes in grades K-3 in the next school year, but have failed to provide the necessary funding. To meet the unfunded mandate, districts would have to expand class sizes in higher grades or reduce offerings of “enhancement” courses such as art, physical education, music, and technology.

The General Assembly’s proposed solution is a significant improvement over the status quo, but doesn’t appear to fully address the concerns of public school districts. Additionally, the bill has been paired with several non-education provisions related to the use of Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) mitigation funds and the composition of the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

For public schools, the bill does the following: Read more


Class-size “fixes” likely to come up short

According to a recent report, members of the General Assembly are “in serious negotiations to work out a deal” to address the self-inflicted class-size fiasco. As a refresher, under current law, General Assembly members are requiring school districts dramatically reduce class sizes in grades K-3, but have failed to provide the necessary funding. To meet the unfunded mandate, districts are having to expand class sizes in higher grades, and reduce offerings of “enhancement” courses such as art, physical education, music, and technology. Supposedly, the lawmakers will soon be presenting a plan to address the problems they have created.

Fixing this problem is incredibly easy and can be done with no additional state funds. Lawmakers simply need to repeal the unfunded mandate and re-align class-size requirements with actual funding levels. Such a bill would preserve funding for enhancement courses. Districts like New Hanover could continue their practice of using class-size flexibility to direct smaller classes to its most at-risk students, and districts like Warren County could continue to offer incredibly effective Pre-K courses in its school building.

Luckily, such a bill exists. SB 703 aligns class-size requirements with current funding levels, preserves funding for enhancement classes, and costs nothing. Around this time last year, the effectively same bill passed the House unanimously.

Unfortunately, Senate leadership opposes this plan. As a result, General Assembly members are negotiating to “work out a deal.” What they won’t say is whether they will actually fix the problem they created.

As a result, speculation abounds as to what legislation might emerge from these negotiations. Rumors around Raleigh have largely centered on three general approaches: Read more


More “Unraveling”: The General Assembly’s inability to craft performance pay plans for educators

Tomorrow, January 30, NC Policy Watch is presenting a Crucial Conversation with myself, Kris Nordstrom, and State Senator Jay Chaudhuri. We will be discussing the current class-size crisis, and how North Carolina has lost its way when it comes to public school policymaking. Tickets for the event, which is co-sponsored by Public Schools First NC and Save our Schools NC, can be found here.

Last month, the Justice Center published The Unraveling, a report detailing how seven years of inept policymaking has hurt North Carolina’s public schools. The report takes a detailed look at the General Assembly’s major education initiatives in each of the past seven years. As the report shows, this period has been dominated by a series of not just bad policies, but bad policies that are incredibly poorly crafted. In nearly every case, the major education initiatives of the past seven years have been both:

  1. Based on very questionable evidence; and
  2. Crafted haphazardly, ignoring best practices or lessons learned from other states.

These problems stem from the General Assembly’s approach to policymaking. Over the past seven years, almost all major education initiatives were moved through the legislature in a way to avoid debate and outside input. At the same time, the General Assembly has abandoned its oversight responsibilities and avoided public input from education stakeholders. The net result has been stagnant student performance and increased achievement gaps for students of color and low-income students.

One topic not included in The Unraveling was the General Assembly’s shambolic efforts to create performance pay plans that link educator pay to how their students perform on state tests. These efforts – while not confined to a given budget year – reinforce the findings of the report. In other words, the General Assembly’s efforts on performance pay have been based on questionable evidence and further hampered by an inability or unwillingness to govern effectively. Below, please read about the history of these efforts, which further highlight the General Assembly’s seven years of failed education policy. Read more