Commentary, Education

A modest proposal: Use the state surplus to help meet school construction needs

Image: Adobe Stock

In some ways, February seems like a lifetime ago. But in those early days of the 2019 legislative session, there was broad, bipartisan consensus that it was finally time for state leaders to do something about school districts’ $8 billion-plus of outstanding school capital needs. Senate leaders wanted to funnel more money into their pay-as-you-go plan known as the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund (SCIF) while House leaders coalesced around a $1.9 billion bond – $1.5 billion of which would support public schools.

A mere six months later, legislative leaders have failed in their attempts to provide any new support for school buildings. Both chambers have given up on trying to pass their standalone bills related to school construction, and are apparently unwilling to engage on a budget bill that could generate the necessary support from either the Governor or three-fifths of legislators.

However, fate has provided legislative leaders with a second bite at the apple in the form of nearly $900 million in one-time money from revenue coming in above projections. Currently, Speaker Moore and Senator Berger appear intent on sending $663 million of the surplus to North Carolinians in the form of $125 checks.

Berger and Moore should re-think that plan and consider using that money for a cause they both claim to care about: our state’s dilapidated public schools. After all, sending the $663 million to schools would actually go further for schools than either the Senate’s SCIF plan or the House’s bond proposal.

Both the SCIF and the bond would parse out school capital payments over about a ten-year  time horizon. Additionally, both plans would force future reductions in state expenditures that would partially off-set the benefits of the added school construction spending. Taking these factors into account, my colleague Patrick McHugh and I showed that the SCIF would provide schools with the equivalent of an immediate appropriation of $563 million while the bond would provide schools with the equivalent of $605 million.

Here’s an update to our analysis: $663 million is bigger than $563 million or $605 million. If legislative leaders still think school construction is a good use of state funds, they would be better off sending $663 million of the surplus to schools, helping them alleviate their massive capital needs. Sending these dollars to schools would help solve a real social problem, inject more money into our state’s economy, and the plan has a much better chance of becoming law than the Republicans’ rebate plan.

If legislative leaders reject this proposal, it’s important to find out what changed. Six months ago, both Senate and House leaders agreed that spending state revenue on school construction was more important than sending $125 checks to North Carolinians. Now they have an opportunity to show that their concern for the state of our schools was sincere and not simple pandering to make up for decades of neglect.

Education, News

Superintendent Mark Johnson pushes back against DIT’s stay on Istation implementation

The dispute over the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) contract with Istation to provide teachers with a reading assessment tool for students in grades K-3 ratcheted up Thursday.

Superintendent Mark Johnson accused the N.C. Department of Information and Technology (DIT) of issuing an improper injunction to halt implementation of the controversial assessment tool in K-3 classrooms.

“DIT improperly issued an injunction on the reading diagnostic contract this week that ignored due process and was in contradiction of state law and their own agency rules,” Johnson said in a statement. “DIT rendered a decision after only hearing arguments from one party, the losing vendor, and failed to give DPI its proper chance to respond.”

Johnson is referring to a temporary stay DIT issued this week in response to a request from Amplify Education to halt implementation of the reading assessment tool until DIT reviews the process by which the contract was awarded to its competitor, Istation.

Amplify made the request after Johnson refused to grant it an appeal. The state previously used Amplify’s mClass to assess reading proficiency in K-3 students.

Johnson said DPI has filed a motion to dissolve the stay.

“DIT lawyers need to understand they are accountable to North Carolinians, not the CEO of Amplify,” Johnson said. “Given that DIT procurement specialists advised DPI throughout the procurement process, it is odd to begin with that the same department that approved the process is now in charge of reviewing that same process.”

On Wednesday, Amplify and Istation issued conflicting statements about the implementation of the reading assessment tool.

Amplify claimed DIT’s stay forced Istation to stop implementing the program in North Carolina Schools. But Istation President and COO Ossa Fisher said the firm would continue its work.

“Istation will continue the work we started in North Carolina this summer training teachers and helping students develop critical grade level reading skills for a successful school year,” Fisher said in a statement.

The conflicting statements have left some school districts confused about how to proceed.

“DIT has thrown this process into chaos, which is unacceptable, careless, and unnecessary,” Johnson said.

He said DPI is reviewing its options to eliminate “the uncertainty in our schools” created by DIT and Amplify’s “frivolous protest.”

“Istation is the best reading diagnostic for NC students, parents, and educators,” Johnson said. “If you get outside the Raleigh Beltline or out of Uptown Charlotte, you get to read how Istation is already working.”

Teachers across North Carolina have been critical of the switch from mClass to Istation.

Many of them have also questioned the process by which the contract was awarded, contending Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

But Johnson claims the process was tainted. He contends, among other things, that some committee members breached confidentiality on the procurement process and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify.N.C.

NC Families For School Testing Reform and the N.C. Association of Educators have asked Attorney General Josh Stein, State Auditor Beth Wood to take a look at the process used to award the contract.

Education, News, public health

Editorial: Time to roll up our sleeves and strengthen the laws that require vaccinations for school children

With a new school year right around the corner, the editorial board of the Greensboro News & Record reminds us of the need to listen to our medical professionals when it comes to vaccinating our children.

The numbers won’t be crunched for a few months, but officials fear that the disturbing trend of the last few years will continue. The percentage of children who have not been vaccinated is rising, despite the efforts of public health and school officials and despite reams of evidence from medical professionals showing that vaccinations are safe and effective.

Exemptions to the law are allowed for two reasons: medical and religious. Medical exemptions require documentation that the child has an allergy or some other condition that makes vaccination unsafe. Only about 1 in 1,000 children have a medical exemption.

The alarming increase is in the exemptions for religious reasons. All parents need to do to obtain a religious exemption is write a statement of their religious objections.

Last year, about 1 out of 300 North Carolina students were granted such exemptions.

We’ve already seen what can happen. Buncombe County, with the highest rate of parents requesting religious exemptions, had the largest outbreak of chickenpox in North Carolina since that vaccine became available. Buncombe County also had an outbreak of pertussis, called whooping cough in the bad old days when it was sometimes fatal to infants.

Officials consider the vaccines that prevent many childhood diseases to be one of the greatest public health success stories of recent decades. These diseases are not to be taken lightly.

Measles used to kill children and leave others blind or with neurological problems. Chickenpox can necessitate amputations, cause shingles later in life, and even kill infants and people with weakened immune systems. The list goes on.

Why would parents deliberately not take advantage of vaccines to prevent these diseases? Sincere religious beliefs probably figure in a few cases, but it’s likely that junk science, conspiracy theories and social media play a much bigger role.

Many of the so-called anti-vaxxers have bought in to the misinformation campaign started by the thoroughly discredited research of Andrew Wakefield, a former British physician who in 1998 published a “study” in The Lancet, a medical journal, claiming a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella — often simply called MMR — and autism. The Lancet later retracted the “study” as false, and Wakefield lost his medical license. But the myths keep circulating, despite extensive new research showing there is no link, and that the MMR vaccination saves lives.

Some parents selfishly decide not to have their children vaccinated, believing that since most others are vaccinated, their children will be safe. That’s a false assumption, as the outbreaks in Asheville prove.

The very success of vaccinations makes some parents think they aren’t necessary. Today’s parents grew up without experiencing those diseases or having known friends who died or were permanently damaged by them. They don’t see the diseases as a real threat, despite what public health officials try to tell us.

But skipped vaccinations endanger not just their own children but also others — infants, pregnant women and those who legitimately can’t take vaccines.

State officials should strengthen the sensible laws that require vaccinations for children to attend any school, whether public, charter or private.

Today’s children face enough dangers; why add an easily preventable disease to the list?

Read more

Education

Istation ordered to halt implementation of K-3 reading assessment tool in N.C. schools

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

This story has been updated to include statements from Ossa Fisher, president and COO of Istation. 

Istation must stop implementing its K-3 reading assessment program in North Carolina’s schools pending a review of the controversial process by which the company was awarded the state’s $8.3 million reading assessment contract.

That’s the word from the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT), which granted Amplify’s request for a stay in the disputed contract award to competitor Istation.

Amplify asked DIT to step in after Superintendent Mark Johnson rejected the firm’s appeal of his decision to award the contract to Istation.

The news of DIT’s ruling comes days before thousands of traditional calendar schools prepare to open their doors for the 2019-20 school year. Teachers across the state have already begun to train on the Istation assessment tool, which replaced Amplify’s mClass.

“This decision means that Istation must halt its implementation while the proceeding is pending with DIT,” said Amplify CEO Larry Berger. “We look forward to working with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DIT to ensure that all educators in the state have the critical opportunity to understand their students’ reading development at the beginning of the school year, just as they have in the past.”

Johnson said the stay would cause disruptions.

“I am disappointed in this stay as it sows unnecessary confusion for our educators just as the school year starts but am confident that the decision the State Board [of Education] and I made in support of a positive change will stand,” Johnson said.

He stood by his earlier claim that Istation is the “best reading diagnostic tool for teachers, students, and parents.”

“There were problems with the procurement process, but the final decision was fair, objective, and followed all rules, policies, and laws,” Johnson said. “This has been clearly detailed in a public letter.”

Meanwhile, Istation President and COO Ossa Fisher issued a statement late Wednesday saying the firm has not been asked to stop its work implementing Istation in North Carolina schools.

“Istation will continue the work we started in North Carolina this summer training teachers and helping students develop critical grade level reading skills for a successful school year,” Fisher said.

She said Istation was “legally and appropriately” awarded the contract by the DPI and remains confident the contract will be upheld in the legal process.

Many teachers have been critical of the switch from mClass to Istation.

They have also questioned the process by which the contract was awarded, contending Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

But Johnson claims the process was tainted. He contends, among other things, that some committee members breached confidentiality on the procurement process and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify.

N.C. Families For School Testing Reform and the N.C. Association of Educators have asked Attorney General Josh Stein, State Auditor Beth Wood to take a look at the process used to award the contract.

Education, News, race, What's Race Got To Do With It?

E(race)ing Inequities | How race impacts everything from teacher experience, to student discipline, to access to gifted programs

With a new school year just around the corner, lawmakers, educators and parents should make time to read the thought-provoking new report “E(race)ing Inequities: The State of Racial Equity in North Carolina Public Schools” by the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED).

Policy Watch sat down last week to discuss the findings with James E. Ford, who is the executive director of CREED as well as a State Board of Education member and former NC Teacher of the Year.

In our extended interview, Ford explains why it’s time for another candid talk about race, and why North Carolina must adopt racial equity as a stated goal for our public school system.

If you don’t have time to read the full report. Here are seven takeaways from Ford and co-author Nicholas Triplett that merit further discussion:

 

  • Student groups of color had a higher likelihood of being taught by a novice [teacher] as compared to their White counterparts when controlling for gender, free/reduced lunch status, language status, and special education status.
  • Student groups of color were also far less likely to be in classes with a teacher of the same race/ethnicity.
  • Students of color were strongly over-represented within the districts/LEAs with the highest teacher turnover and vacancy rates.
  • Given the powerful influence that teachers have on virtually all measures of educational success, our results provide evidence that students of color in North Carolina have less access to the highly qualified, experienced, stable, and diverse teachers that are likely to provide them with the best chance of school success.
  • Not only are American Indian, Black, and Multiracial students over-represented generally in the incidence of both in-school and out-of-school suspensions, they appear to be the disproportionate recipients of suspensions involving subjective offenses and receive harsher forms of discipline (OSS vs. ISS) at higher rates. Furthermore, Black students receive longer suspensions on average than any other student group.
  • To give a sense of the magnitude of the racial discipline gap in the state, if Black students had been given out-of-school suspension (OSS) at the state average rate, almost 30,000 fewer Black students would have experienced OSS during the 2016-2017 school year.
  • The under-exposure of student groups of color in gifted and talented programs has the potential to diminish their long-term educational attainment, postsecondary participation, and professional achievements.

Learn more about the history of race and education in North Carolina in CREED‘s  “Deep Rooted” companion report.