National experts highlight how much tax cuts for the wealthy have cost NC schools

Two new reports from researchers at the Education Law Center document the extent to which North Carolina’s legislative leaders have shifted state resources out of our schools, and into the pockets of their wealthy benefactors.

The first report, Making the Grade 2020, provides an important snapshot comparing school funding in North Carolina to other states. The report assesses each state along three measures of school funding:

The failing marks North Carolina has received from ECS are consistent with findings from other researchers such as the Albert Shanker Institute and Education Week.

Sadly, North Carolina’s scores along these measures have remained largely unchanged over the past several decades. Going back to at least the late 2000’s, North Carolina has consistently ranked near the bottom of all states for funding level and effort. Consistently poor rankings have failed to inspire state lawmakers to create a funding system that’s more adequate or equitable.

As the ELC’s second report, $600 Billion Lost, makes clear, North Carolina’s lawmakers are doing far less for our schools than they were prior to the Great Recession.

The report calculates that in the decade following the Great Recession, students across the U.S. lost nearly $600 billion from states’ disinvestment in their public schools. That is, if states had maintained their pre-Recession effort levels, school funding would have been $600 billion higher in 2018.

The problem is particularly acute in North Carolina where the state’s school funding effort fell from 45th to 49th in the decade following the Great Recession.

As the economy recovered from the Great Recession, state leaders enacted a series of large tax cuts that have drained funding from schools and other state services. These tax cuts have largely benefitted wealthy North Carolinians and corporations. For example, the ELC reports that revenue from progressive the corporate income tax is 52 percent below pre-Recession levels, while the revenue from the regressive sales tax remains unchanged from pre-Recession levels.

Our schools have been paying the price from these decisions. If North Carolina had simply maintained its anemic pre-Recession funding effort levels (when we ranked 45th), our schools would have had $4 billion of additional revenue in 2018. That equates to lost funding of $2,771 per student.

Reductions in school funding have been found to disproportionately harm Black students and those from families with lower incomes. When coupled with the changes to North Carolina’s tax code, state leaders have greatly exacerbated inequality in the past decade.

North Carolina does not need to continue down this path. The 2019 WestEd report offers state policymakers a roadmap for improving the adequacy and equity of state funding, as well as additional reforms that would strengthen our public schools. The courts – as part of the long-running Leandro case – are expected to issue an additional, more detailed eight-year spending plan in the coming months.

For additional information on school funding in North Carolina, ELC has created state profile reports which can be found here and here.

NC Association of Educators wants Gov. Roy Cooper to tighten restrictions to slow spread of COVID-19

Tamika Walker Kelly

With cases of COVID-19 infections surging and nearly 4,000 people in North Carolina hospitalized with the deadly virus, the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) has called on Gov. Roy Cooper to take stronger “executive action” to control the disease.

NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a letter to the governor that educators are concerned about the spike in infections.

She asked Cooper  to “make a difficult” decision to tighten COVID-19 restrictions to slow community spread so that schools can operate safely.

“It does not matter how fastidiously educators enforce masking and distancing mandates in the classroom if infection rates are in excess of 10 percent outside the classroom,” Walker Kelly said. “Therefore, we request that you take immediate and significant executive action to again curb community spread of this virus until such time that infection rates are again under control.”

On Wednesday, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS) reported 5,098 new COVID-19 cases. That was down from the 6,851 cases reported Monday. State health officials reported that 14.7% of COVID-19 tests were positive.

In late March,  shortly after schools closed for in-person instruction, Cooper’s “executive action” to slow the virus, included a 30-day stay-at-home order requiring residents to remain in their homes to slow the spread of the virus.

Residents could only leave homes to visit essential businesses, exercise outside or to help a family member.

More recently, Cooper extended a modified Stay at Home Order for three weeks. Under that order, people must be home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Cooper issued the order on Dec. 11. It was supposed to expire Jan. 8. It now expires Jan. 29.

Walker Kelly noted that the N.C. Nurses Association said in a letter to Cooper last week that hospitals and medical personnel are overwhelmed.

“Despite clear guidance from your office, NC DHHS, and even the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], compliance with the masking and distancing protocols is not working well enough to prevent rampant viral spread throughout our communities,” Walker Kelly said.

She said schools can’t wait for the vaccine to slow the virus.

“The ongoing vaccine distribution is a welcome development, but it will still be several months before a significant portion of our residents receive the immunization, and our schools simply cannot wait until that point,” Walker Kelly said. “Your immediate action is necessary to save lives, and we implore you to do so.”

Walker Kelly didn’t ask Cooper to consider closing all schools to in-person instruction.

The Board of Education in Durham County has voted to close schools to in-person instruction for the remainder of the year in response to the surge infections. And school districts that planned to send children into school buildings this month following the holiday break are now reconsidering those decisions.

Walker Kelly said teachers are eager to reopen schools, but only when it’s safe to do so.

“The science and research around COVID safety has evolved significantly since last March, and it is clear that schools can be among the safest of places for both students and educators when proper masking, distancing, and sanitation protocols are in place, though this can only be the case when infections within the wider community are under control,” Walker Kelly said.

Walker Kelly’s letter comes a day after a team of Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill researchers released a report showing a low-rate of in-school transmission of the virus.

The researchers studied 11 school districts with nearly 100,000 students and staff for nine weeks. They found that secondary transmissions of the virus were rare.

“Through contact tracing, NC health department staff determined an additional 32 infections were acquired within schools,” the researchers wrote. “No instances of child-to-adult transmission of SARS-CoV-2 were reported within schools.”

 

A year without testing data aids charter schools seeking longer renewal schedules

Some schools seeking charter renewals might benefit from the suspension of state testing that followed the 2019-20 academic year.

The tests were called off after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close for in-person instruction. That means achievement data isn’t available for that year to determine whether schools met state academic requirements.

The Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) voted Tuesday to extend the charter renewal schedule for two schools from seven years to 10. If approved by the State Board of Education, Healthy Start Academy in Durham and Union Prep Academy at Indian Trail, a Union County charter, will move from a seven-year renewal schedule to a 10-year schedule.

Healthy Start is led by CSAB Chairman Alex Quigley who didn’t vote on that set of renewals.

Schools that are in compliance with state law, have sound financial audits and whose most recent available achievement data trends in the right direction shouldn’t be penalized because testing data from the 2019-2020 school year is not available, the board agreed.

“If there are no financial issues, if there’s no compliance issues, there’s this kind of spirit right now, which I think is appropriate, that we’re holding schools harmless,” said CSAB member Bruce Friend, noting that school districts were held harmless for enrollment declines due to the pandemic.

In all, the board recommended that eight schools receive 10-year renewals.

Source: Office of Charter Schools

The advisory board recommended five-year renewals for nine schools, including four of which Office of Charter School (OCS) officials said would ordinarily receive recommendations for three-year renewals based on their performances.

Those schools, however, would not have enough academic data in three years to measure whether students made academic progress. OCS officials also worry that testing data collected this year might not provide a valid measure of student achievement.

“This is the reason we’re aiming for five-year renewals to give them time to actually produce data for you to make a decision when they come before you again,” said Shaunda Cooper, an OCS consultant who oversees charter renewals. 

New social studies standards criticized by conservatives on State Board of Education

A conservative wing of the State Board of Education objected Wednesday to new social studies standards designed to ensure North Carolina’s K-12 students learn “hard truths” about American history.

Those truths, supporters of the new standards contend, include complete and full-throated lessons about the nation’s original sin of slavery and the lasting racism and discrimination that followed.

“When it comes to facing the hard truths of our American narrative, what and how we teach history in our public schools matters, and it matters incredibly at this moment in history,” said state board advisor Matt Bristow-Smith, principal of Edgecombe Early College High and the 2019 Wells Fargo North Carolina Principal of the Year.

Bristow-Smith said the new standards are needed to help students understand the past so they can navigate the future and become critical, independent thinkers.

Much of the objection to the new standards came from the board’s two newest members — State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, both of whom are Republicans.

Robinson, who is Black, called the standards divisive.

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (center)

“I truly believe that you do not need to include this type of language in the standards in order to be able to teach history,” said Robinson, the first Black lieutenant governor in North Carolina. “I think we need to be teaching students about their common experiences as Americans, and in order to do that, I don’t think we need to separate into groups.”

Robinson pointed to strategies such as including the viewpoint of “marginalized groups” that he contends were already a part of history lessons when he attended public schools.

“I can remember all throughout my schooling I was taught about the American Indian, I was taught about slavery, all the things we are talking about,” Robinson said. “So, I don’t understand this need all of sudden to include these groups.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Meanwhile, Truitt applauded the process that led to new standards but questioned why explicit language is needed to help inform the standard’s guiding principles.

The explicit language was requested over the summer by state board members who wanted language in the standards that promote the inclusion of diverse voices. That was before Truitt won election to become the state’s top superintendent.

One example in the standard’s objectives for 8th grade ask teachers to “Explain how slavery segregation, voter suppression, reconcentration and other discriminatory practices have been used to suppress and exploit certain groups within North Carolina and the nation over time.

It would replace a narrower version of the objective that simply asked them to: “Explain how injustices and responses to them have shaped North Carolina and the nation over time.

“If we had what I believe to be adequate guiding principles to inform our standards that are grounded in the discipline of history, there would not be a need for explicit language to be used,” Truitt said.

She asked for more time to meet with N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCPI) staff members to “reframe the context” in which the standards were written.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis recommended that Truitt be given more time to propose additions and revisions before the board approves the standards.

“We should afford Superintendent Truitt this opportunity to work with her staff and bring ideas for consideration, but we need to make a decision in February,” said Davis, suggesting that the board hold a special meeting later this month to discuss proposed changes.

The new standards, whose adoption was delayed in July, has undergone several revisions. They were supported by 85% of the 1,572 people who responded to a NCDPI survey. The state reviews and revises standards in different courses every few years. Two U.S. History courses in high school will become one to accommodate a personal finance course required by lawmakers. The changes would take effect during the 2021-22 school year. 

“I hope that the overwhelmingly supportive public response, the 85 % number stands as an identifiable metric that your work has not gone unnoticed,” said state board member James Ford.

Ford noted that the new standards address the concerns students, teachers and parents had about the lack of diverse voices and different points of views in the state’s current social studies standards.

“The majority of our students now belong to many of the groups that have now been included in these standards,” Ford said. “We are a state public school system that is majority students of color. We are a United States school system that for the first time is majority students of color.”

Perhaps anticipating a backlash from state conservatives, SBE member Jill Camnitz offered these remarks before the discussion about the new standards:

“When we talk about the history of this country, particularly with regard to racial and ethnic experience, blame and guilt often underlie the conversation. Both of these are very human responses to our history and current reality. However, blame and guilt are not what these new standards are about, rather we’re seeking to draw on the richness of the American historical experience as a gift to our children so they can better appreciate their legacy; strengthen their sense of connection to each other and work together to improve the American experience for all. This is the spirit in which these standards were created.”

SBE advisor Mariah Morris, the 2019-20 Wellcome Burroughs Fund North Carolina Teacher of the Year from Moore County Schools, said the new standards are an attempt to focus on the perspectives of all students.

“I think that when we have these hard conversations, it’s not about are we bringing blame or shame because that’s centering on one group’s perspective,” Morris said. “We have to center on all of our student’s perspectives and we have to understand that by having honest conversations, our students will hear us and know what we’re doing and respect us for that.”

SBE member James Ford said the new, more inclusive standards are necessary because Americans share a national identity but different experiences based on ethnicity and race.

“What we have done here is we’ve stitched together a patchwork of American world civics history that doesn’t just use one thread but uses a tapestry of various different threads and challenges individuals, as Mr. [Matt] Bristow-Smith said, not to believe one thing or the other or to feel a certain way or to engender a certain euphoric experience, but rather to think critically and arrive at their own conclusions thoughtfully about what they do as well as what they do not believe.”

Guilford County Schools’ newly hired teachers eligible for signing bonuses of up to $30,000

Newly hired Guilford County Schools (GCS) teachers can earn a signing bonus of up to $30,000 depending on the educator’s level of experience and classroom effectiveness.

The bonuses range from $10,000 for beginning teachers and up to $30,000 for teachers with three or more years of “highly effective” EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System) data showing their impact on students in specific courses, grades and subjects.

The district began to offer the signing bonuses in mid-December to attract roughly 40 teachers needed to help provide in-person instruction when more of its 69,355 students return to school buildings this week for in-person instruction.

Teachers hired through Jan. 31 are eligible to receive bonuses. The district will use money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to pay for the bonuses. There’s a provision that allows them to use a portion of the money for recruitment incentives.

“We would not be able to offer the bonuses at this scale without the CARES Act money,” Oakley said. “It’s important to note that the money is specifically identified for recruiting strategies. I think they recognized when they dispersed that money to districts that districts would be trying to hire additional staff members.”

Teachers are required to repay the bonus amount if he or she leaves the district before fulfilling a two-year commitment.

By late December, Oakley said the district had received 15 to 20 applications from teachers considered “highly qualified.” It was unclear how many had accepted positions with GCS.

Oakley noted that the December rollout of the bonus program was expected to attract college students who earned degrees last month.

Recent graduates are eligible for $10,000 signing bonuses.

“That’s significant for a recent college graduate,” Oakley said of the bonus.

The district generally hires about 500 teachers each year, Oakley said.

It needs more teachers to help schools observe social distancing requirements. Fewer students in classrooms means more teachers are needed to lead new classrooms created to accommodate smaller class sizes.

“We had every single one of our classrooms evaluated for the number of students that they could hold while keeping six feet apart,” explained Whitney Oakley, the district’s chief academic officer. “When you do that, a classroom that can hold 25 kids now can only hold 14 kids. We have to have another teacher for the 11 students who go into the additional room.”

Oakley said the district will use media centers and other non-traditional spaces for additional classrooms for younger students. School buildings can accommodate older students who will likely return for in-person instruction two days a week, with half coming Monday and Tuesday and the other half Thursday and Friday.

The signing bonuses highlight how districts continue to grapple with challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic that forced schools to close to in-person instruction in mid-March.

In Wake County, the school board is expected to vote tonight on a proposal to increase pay for substitute teachers needed to keep schools open for in-person instruction, the Raleigh News & Observer reported this week.

Under the plan, substitute teachers can earn up to an extra $425 a month depending on the number of days they work. The Wake school district has had trouble staffing schools due to COVID-19 quarantines. It suspended in-person instruction through Jan. 15.

In Guilford County, the signing bonuses are contingent on educators’ willingness to work in person.

“The need to have some additional staff members who are certified teachers is because of following social distancing requirements,” Oakley said, explaining that GSC Superintendent Sharon Contreas believes that each classroom deserves a certified teacher, even amid the pandemic.

Oakley said she was unaware if any other districts offer such generous signing bonuses to new hires.

GCS competes for teachers against districts in Wake, Durham, Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties. The district also competes against neighboring Rockingham and Alamance counties.

“Everybody needs good teachers, and so it’s a competition every year, not just during a year that’s unique like this one,” Oakley said.