How the COVID-19 packages compare for public schools

Lawmakers have returned to Raleigh this week, aiming to pass a series of bills to help the state manage through the COVID-19 crisis. To date, the House, Senate, and Governor have all released plans to distribute funding received from federal relief bills and to modify state regulations. The plans are a reflection of the crisis we face: massive and complex.

One of the primary challenges for state lawmakers is how to mitigate the harm caused by the closure of public schools. School closures have exacerbated existing inequalities in our school system. Lawmakers must figure out how best to minimize the harm caused by fewer instructional days, diminished instructional quality and widespread trauma.

The table below summarizes the major differences between the competing plans released by the Senate, the House, the Governor, and the State Board of Education.


1 S704, Edition 1
2 H1035 Edition 1 and H1038 Edition 2
3 Recommended money and provisions, as found here and here
4 As presented at 4/23 SBE meeting here
5 Funding from child nutrition may be used to provide incentive pay for school nutrition and transportation staff involved in the preparation and distribution of meals and food packages
6 Governor’s package includes $243 million in public school funding to address the needs outlined in the State Board request, but does not specify dollar amounts for specific programs

Money Items
As the table shows, none of the plans fully fund every request made by the SBE, but the Governor’s plan comes the closest. While it omits the SBE’s request to hire additional support personnel to address students’ physical and mental health needs upon returning to school, the Governor also states that it remains his intention to provide that funding at a future date with state money.

The House plan also funds the majority of the SBE’s request, though not always to the dollar amount.

As is frequently the case, the Senate’s plan is the most miserly, providing funding only for child nutrition and a summer bridge program.

Provisions
The plans all include the technical changes necessitated by the elimination of school testing for this year. In other policy areas, however, the plans differ in the extent to which they help schools navigate the challenges they will face over the coming months.

Researchers are estimating substantial learning loss. One way schools might mitigate the “COVID slide” would be starting their school year earlier than currently allowed. Under current law, schools can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26. The House and Senate plans move the allowable starting date up to Aug. 17. In contrast, the Governor’s plan eschews arbitrary starting dates, allowing school districts to establish calendars that best address their students’ needs.

Spending flexibility is another tool that can help districts navigate an uncertain future. Lawmakers have enacted numerous restrictions in recent years limiting schools’ budgetary flexibility. The Senate and Governor’s plans fail to provide districts with new spending flexibility. The House plan takes the meager step of lifting restrictions on funds for driver’s education and teacher assistants (representing just 4% of schools’ state funding). A smarter approach would be to maximize spending flexibility as the General Assembly did during the Great Recession.

The House and Senate plans both create onerous new reporting requirements. These requirements will force central offices — already stretched to the breaking point by legislative budget cuts — to prioritize compiling paperwork for legislators instead of finding innovative ways to meet the needs of their students. For example, it’s unclear how students benefit from the Senate requirement that schools report to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee with a comprehensive catalog of every online and offline remote instruction resource used by schools.

Finally, lawmakers should avoid unfunded mandates. The Senate plan creates new school responsibilities without providing commensurate increases in funding. For example, providing technology support for all students experiencing technical difficulties and adding five instructional days will create new costs for districts without additional funding.

How to improve these plans
Both the Governor and House plans offer reasonable starting points for addressing immediate needs. In the coming days, these plans could be improved in several ways:

  • Maximizing school spending flexibility to the extent allowable under federal law
  • Distributing funding in accordance with student need
  • Removing arbitrary school calendar restrictions
  • Eliminating any reporting requirements unnecessary to comply with federal law
  • Improving budgetary stability by holding districts harmless for enrollment decreases in the next school year
  • Avoiding any unfunded mandates

It is important to remember that these plans are focused on immediate concerns that can be addressed with federal funding. The unprecedented challenges faced by our students will require additional action — and state funding — to avoid backsliding. Substantially more will be required to deliver the type of education our students are owed.

At time of glaring education needs, state voucher program remains wastefully overfunded

In a year with no budget, one program for K-12 students was guaranteed a funding increase of more than 30%: the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. And once again, that funding will substantially outpace demand for vouchers. As a result, the state is on pace to waste more than $26 million that could otherwise be used to help students in public schools.

Since its inception, funding for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program has exceeded demand for vouchers. Nonetheless, lawmakers decided in 2016 that the program should receive automatic funding increases of $10 million per year through FY 2027-28 when total appropriations for the program will reach $144.8 million.

Additionally, the 2016 changes caused the program to become “forward-funded.” That means next year’s $10 million funding increase is sitting unused in a state bank account this year, unavailable for other functional purposes.

The chart above shows the trend in unused funds in each year of the voucher program’s existence. Unused funds are defined as fiscal year appropriation, plus funds carried over from the prior year, less expenditures on administration and voucher awards.

The out-sized amount of unused funds in FY 2016-17 were largely the result of the decision to begin forward-funding the program that year. Subsequent increases have been driven by voucher demand falling further behind available funding.

Without even getting into the merits of an unregulated voucher program (the merits are few), the continued over-funding of this program is indefensible. As documented in the Leandro consultant’s report published this past December, North Carolina’s school budget is $3.7 billion short (about 35%) of what’s needed to meet the bare minimum of what the state constitution says is required. It’s perverse to leave millions of dollars sitting needlessly idle each year when lawmakers are failing to meet their constitutional obligations to children.

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

Image: AdobeStock

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more

Senate Republican response to Leandro report is way off-base

Since gaining control of the General Assembly in 2011, Senate Republicans have expressed concern for children’s literacy. However, a recent Senate Republican press release indicates that North Carolina’s greatest literacy needs are in the halls of the Legislative Building, where Senate Republicans are unable to comprehend the recommendations of the recently-released Leandro consultant’s report and are unaware of the past 20 years of education research.

The press release claims that increases in school spending under Republican leadership will be sufficient to meet the recommendations of the Leandro consultant’s report. In reality, the Leandro consultant’s report calls for school budget increases that are about 48 times larger than what Republicans claim they will provide over the next eight years.

As the press release shows, North Carolina’s public school budgets have increased by an average rate of about 3.3 percent per year from 2010-11 to 2018-19. The 3.3 percent figure is in nominal terms; it doesn’t account for inflation or enrollment increases. It also somewhat overstates Republican budget efforts, as state spending in 2010-11 was artificially decreased by federal stimulus funding. But let’s stick with their 3.3 percent figure. Read more

Long-awaited Leandro report calls for setting new course for North Carolina’s schools

Today, the much-anticipated Leandro report was made public, giving North Carolina parents, educators, students, and education advocates have an important new roadmap for ensuring that our public schools provide every child with the education they deserve.

The report – a collaborative effort from some of the nation’s leading education experts – is a comprehensive examination of North Carolina’s public school system. The report’s recommendations have the potential to fundamentally change the direction of our state by unleashing the potential of all children to become flourishing adults, ready to contribute to a healthier, happier, and more prosperous North Carolina.

What is Leandro?

Leandro is a 25-year long court case. Throughout the case, the courts have consistently found that North Carolina has been failing to meet its most fundamental obligation under our State Constitution: providing every child a meaningful opportunity to receive a sound basic education, backed by adequate funding and resources in every public school. Additional background on the case can be found here.

Where did this report come from?

In 2017, parties to the case (the state defendants and the Leandro plaintiffs) agreed that North Carolina had been failing its children for far too long, and that the state needed a clear, comprehensive roadmap to providing a sound basic education that benefits all children. The court-appointed consultants (WestEd, in collaboration with the Learning Policy Institute and NC State’s Friday Institute) initially submitted the report to the court in June of 2019. The report was confidential until its release today.

What does the report say?

The report confirms what North Carolinians have been saying for years: The state has consistently failed to give every child in this state access to the education they deserve. Specifically:

  • A new approach is needed: While North Carolina was once making progress towards meeting its constitutional responsibilities, the past decade’s actions have left our state “further away from meeting its constitutional obligation to provide every child with the opportunity for a sound basic education than it was when the Supreme Court of North Carolina issued the Leandro decision more than 20 years ago.”
  • Providing children with what they are owed requires significant new investment: Current levels of school funding (North Carolina ranks 48th in terms of school funding effort) are inadequate to ensure all students are achieving at grade level.
  • We must direct resources where they’re needed most: Our funding formulas need to do a better job of prioritizing higher-need students and under-resourced communities.
  • More needs to be done to put qualified, well-prepared and diverse teachers and principals in every school: Educators need competitive pay, early-career support programs, professional development, and opportunities to collaborate and lead.
  • Scarcity of early-learning opportunities is leaving too many students unprepared to start school: Both Smart Start and NC Pre-K are effective programs, but funding must be restored and expanded to ensure all students enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • High-poverty schools lack the resources to help students overcome out-of-school conditions that create barriers to learning: High-poverty schools should be provided the resources necessary to expand learning opportunities and implement community school models providing health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. Struggling schools need state-level support similar to the District and School Support teams eliminated by the General Assembly in recent years.
  • Our testing and accountability system needlessly stigmatizes high-poverty schools, rather than providing useful information about educational effectiveness: Our accountability system should instead measure schools’ progress in providing each child a sound basic education by rewarding growth in student performance and highlighting school climate and equality of resources and learning opportunities.

The report contains significantly more detail. While the report’s recommendations may appear ambitious, it’s important to remember that these steps represent the bare minimum of what it takes to for the state to provide students with the education they deserve.

What happens now?

It is now incumbent upon state leaders to implement the report’s requirements and finally fulfill their constitutional responsibility to provide a quality education to every child. Judge Lee will likely follow up with a court order, requiring the General Assembly to take certain steps.

Based on similar cases from other states, a court order alone is likely to be insufficient to compel the lawmakers to meet their constitutional responsibilities. Over the next weeks and months, it is vital that North Carolinians across our state study and learn about the report’s findings and recommendations. The Justice Center will continue to analyze the report to ensure citizens across the state are equipped with the knowledge and context to push our lawmakers to prioritize these reforms in the upcoming 2020 legislative session.