Commentary, Education

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.

Education

STATEMENT: Court-ordered Leandro report charts bold, long-awaited course for NC to fulfill obligation to provide constitutionally-adequate education to all children who attend public schools

Statement from NC Justice Center Executive Director Rick Glazier and Matt Ellinwood, Director of the Education & Law Project

RALEIGH (December 10, 2019) – No doubt exists that over the last decade, North Carolina has been in wholesale retreat from fulfilling its fundamental obligation under our State Constitution ensuring every child has a meaningful opportunity to receive a sound basic education, backed by adequate funding and resources in every public school.

Today marks the beginning of the end of that neglect. The release of the court-ordered report by WestEd, the independent research organization appointed in the landmark Leandro v. State case, gives North Carolina lawmakers, educators, parents and students a clear and comprehensive roadmap for finally providing our children the education they deserve and to which they are constitutionally entitled.

The WestEd report – a collaborative, exhaustive study by some of the nation’s leading experts – affirms what students, parents, teachers and advocates have said for years: North Carolina has consistently failed to give every child in this state access to the education they need and deserve. While the report notes the important progress achieved through the early 2000s, it also documents the devastating impact of the State’s myriad of misguided decisions over the past decade to severely cut crucial investments in our public schools and to then stigmatize those schools as “failing.”

As a result of these actions, our state is farther 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 in Leandro declared our public school system unconstitutional more than 20 years ago. 

North Carolinians understand our state benefits immeasurably when our schools are well-resourced, thriving, and capable of preparing all students for globally-competitive careers and higher education, and that the whole state suffers when children are left behind. They also understand the urgent need for a public school system that unlocks the potential of all children to become flourishing adults, ready to contribute to a healthier, happier, and more prosperous North Carolina.

For this reason, the importance of today’s filing for our children and the vitality of our state’s civic and economic future cannot be overstated. The report offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a fundamental course correction in the delivery of public education in our state. It spells out the concrete steps the state must take to ensure every school is led by a strong principal; provides a well-rounded curriculum delivered by trained teachers in every classroom; and has sufficient support staff and interventions to meet the  academic, social and health needs of all children, especially those who come to school every day at risk from poverty, disability, homelessness or other disadvantages.

We know that some will resist this long-overdue call to invest in the critical resources and supports our children desperately need. 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. We are confident when they do our fellow residents will join the North Carolina Justice Center in demanding lawmakers perform their constitutional duty and act quickly to remedy the harm documented and to provide all children with the education to which they are constitutionally-entitled.

The time for change has come. The recommendations in the Leandro WestEd report are clear, evidence-based, and readily achievable, and it is crucial that our state elected officials prioritize these reforms in the upcoming 2020 legislative session. Our children deserve no less.

Education

State Superintendent Mark Johnson takes offense at DIT ruling upholding stay in Istation controversy

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Superintendent Mark Johnson is pushing back against a state Department of Information Technology (DIT) ruling that upholds a stay blocking the award of the state’s K-3 reading diagnostic contract to Istation.

Amplify, an Istation competitor that previously held the contract, appealed the $8.3 million award, claiming irregularities in the procurement process.

The change from Amplify’s mClass reading assessment tool for K-3 students to Istation has fueled criticism of Johnson for months and put him at odds with DIT.

On Monday, Johnson directed his criticism at Jonathan Shaw, the chief counsel for DIT, who issued a split decision Monday, upholding Amplify’s request for a stay but denying its request to stop Istation from training teachers for free on the new reading diagnostic tool while the legal issues are being hammered out.

“Shaw has already injured the work of DPI and DIT employees with the incompetence with which he has conducted this review process,” Johnson said. “Now, he is adding insult to injury with blatant mistakes that he is using to justify more bad decisions.”

In upholding the stay, Shaw ruled that the “evidence and arguments of record” are sufficient to indicate that NCDPI failed to comply with state law and information technology procurement rules and “jeopardized the integrity and fairness of the procurement process.”

Johnson disagreed.

He accused Shaw of making “clear factual errors.”

“[Jonathan] Shaw and DIT have not in any way, shape, or form followed the legal standard of review for ordering a stay,” Johnson said in a statement issued late Monday. “The stay put in place in August was inappropriate based on the simple fact alone that they never even gave DPI or other parties the chance to respond.”

Johnson cited two specific errors he claims Shaw made but said there are more that are “too numerous” to cover.

One alleged error involved whether DPI informed vendors of the evaluation criteria that would be used to make the contract award.

Despite Shaw’s claim, Johnson said both Amplify and Istation were provided the evaluation criteria in a letter that DPI drafted under the guidance of DIT staffers.

“The vendor’s proposals based on those criteria went through a fair evaluation process guided by DIT staff,” Johnson said.

Johnson also took issue with Shaw’s claim that DPI only put DPI employees on the negotiation evaluation committee who had previously voted for Istation. He said half of the members of the final committee had never voted on the two previous Requests for Proposals.

Shaw also determined:

  • There’s sufficient information to indicate that NCDPI failed to fully consider the minimum required factors listed in state law and instead, relieved on other evaluation factors in making the contract award.
  • There’s sufficient information to indicate NCDPI evaluated different negotiation criteria than what was presented to vendors in a March 21 negotiation letter.
  • There’s sufficient information to indicate NCDPI not only changed the evaluation criteria but altered the ranking of the importance of remaining criteria in a way that benefited Istation.
  • There’s sufficient information to indicate that NCDPI did not notify the parties of changes to solicitations documents in violation of state procurement rules.

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

But many teachers have been critical of the switch from mClass to Istation. They have questioned the procurement process and contend Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

The reading diagnostic tool is a companion to the state’s signature education program, “Read to Achieve,” which was launched in 2013 to ensure every student reads at or above grade level by the end of third grade.

The results haven’t been great even as North Carolina has spent $150 million on the initiative. More than half of the state’s children in K-3 are still not reading at grade level.

Istation told local media outlets that more than 180,000 North Carolina students in grades K-3 have been assessed using its reading diagnostic tool this month.

 

DIT December 2019 Order (PDF)

DIT December 2019 Order (Text)

 

Higher Ed, News

UNC Board of Governors to meet in “special session by conference call” following Silent Sam settlement

The UNC Board of Governors will meet on Friday Dec. 13  “special session by conference call,” the UNC System announced Tuesday.

The meeting comes in the wake of the controversial settlement in which the UNC System will give the Sons of Confederate Veterans the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam — along with $2.5 million.

Student and faculty groups at UNC-Chapel Hill and some members of the full board of governors oppose the deal.

Friday’s “special session” will include a closed session during which the board will hear a report from UNC System Interim President Bill Roper and UNC System General Counsel Tom Shanahan.

“Due to its conflicting with commencement activities, this meeting has been on the calendar but as ‘optional, only if necessary,” said UNC System spokesman Jason Tyson.

The chairman designated the meeting a special session last month, Tyson said.

Committee meetings on Thursday, before the full board conference call, will include the Budget and Finance, University Governance and Personnel and Tenure committees.

The University Governance committee will hold a closed session that includes a legal affairs report from Shanahan and the approval of the closed session minutes from the board’s meetings of Nov. 14 and Nov. 27. The closed session on the 27th was the meeting in which the Silent Sam settlement was approved by that committee. A full vote of the board was never taken.

The board is also expected to vote on making Interim UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz the next full chancellor at the school. The Personnel and Tenure committee will discuss an “executive personnel matter” in closed session Thursday.

Education

Pitt County charter school in danger of being closed due to poor performance

A small Pitt County charter school dogged by declining attendance, academic failure and financial woes is in danger of being closed.

On Monday, the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) recommended that the State Board of Education (SBE) not renew the charter of Ignite Innovation Academy, which opened in 2016 targeting low-income minority students.

The SBE is expected to decide whether the school remains open early next year. Ignite is one of 18 schools with charters up for renewal. It’s the only one not recommended for renewal by state officials.

Board members cited three consecutive years in which Ignite received a state letter grade of “F” and three straight years of not meeting academic growth expectations as primary reasons for not recommending a three-year renewal for Ignite.

“I just don’t see that this school is going to make it,” said Steven Walker, vice chairman of the CSAB.

Walker noted that grade-level-proficiency among Ignite’s economically disadvantaged students trailed Pitt County’s economically disadvantaged students by 31 percentage points on 2018-2019 state exams.

Only 11.7 percent of Ignite’s economically disadvantaged students were grade-level proficient compared to 42.7 percent of the county’s economically disadvantaged students.

“I think it was a decent idea when we approved this application,” Walker said. “The execution hasn’t been great and that’s to put it nicely.”

A staff report shows that school’s enrollment dropped from a high of 251 students in 2018 to 171 this school year.

And the 2019 audited financial records showed three financial weakness, including a low unassigned fun balance of $6,323, liabilities exceeding current assets by $5,107 and expenditures exceeding revenue by $30,319.

Alex Quigley, chairman of the CSAB, said the trouble at Ignite is one reason why new schools are no longer given 10-year charters.

“It allows us to give the school an opportunity to do something innovative and if it doesn’t work, we can close it,” Quigley said.

Charter critics complain that the schools seldom outperform traditional public schools. They also contend charters siphon students and resources from traditional public schools, contribute to re-segregation and are not held accountable when they fail.

Walker pushed back against the argument that charters aren’t held accountable.

“This is ultimate accountability,” Walker said of not renewing a charter. “If you do not perform, you do not continue to [run] a school.”

Walker said charters operate with fewer regulations but are held to higher standards of accountability than traditional public schools.

Quigley said traditional public schools never have to go before the SBE to explain poor test scores and lobby to remain open.

“When there is real accountability and you might lose your schools, it’s quite motivating,” Quigley said, noting major turnarounds at several traditional public schools that had been tagged for the state’s Innovation School District created by state officials to help low-perforing schools improve student outcomes.