Weekly Briefing

The tourism industry strikes again

Last minute amendment further undermines public education

There is a great deal of controversy and legitimate debate these days over what needs to be done to improve public education in North Carolina. Indeed, as one blog commenter insightfully noted recently, it’s at least debatable whether public education itself is the problem:

“The crucial factor is poverty. Studies show that American students from well-funded schools who come from middle-class families outscore students in nearly all other countries on international tests. Our average scores are less than spectacular because theUShas the highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (over 21%; in contrast, high-scoringFinlandhas less than 4%).

Poverty means inadequate nutrition, inadequate health care, exposure to environmental toxins, and little access to books, all of which are strongly associated with lower school performance. If all of our children had the same advantages middle class children have, our test scores would be at the top of the world.”

Still, assuming we take it as a given that improving our schools – especially for the children falling behind – is a good idea, here’s one suggestion that seems certain to be decidedly unhelpful: Not trying as hard.

In other words, it just stands to reason that if we want to improve public schools and the outcomes they produce, then reducing our public commitment and lowering the demands we make of schools seems like a pretty dumb idea.

Tell that to the North Carolina General Assembly

Not trying as hard = poorer outcomes: You would think that such a simple and common sense equation would have long ago penetrated the consciousness of our state political leaders. Sadly, a look at the policy results produced by the General Assembly in recent years make it clear that a lot of lawmakers did not receive the memo.

First, there was the embarrassing and ultimately successful push by the state tourism lobby a few years back to mandate longer summers and prevent school systems from starting their school years earlier than August 25. Despite broad-based opposition from educators and administrators to the change, lawmakers cravenly succumbed and changed state law related to the single most important function of government – educating our children – to placate the tourism industry.

Now comes word that restricting the start of the school year was not enough for the tourism lobby. As we have learned in recent news reports, tourism lobbyists struck again during the waning hours of the 2012 legislative session when they prevailed upon friendly conservative lawmakers to insert a subtle change into a last minute “technical corrections” bill that dramatically changes the school attendance requirement for a million and a half school kids in the state.

Previously, North Carolina schoolchildren were required to attend school for a minimum of 180 days and 1,025 instructional hours over a period of nine calendar months. Now there was a great deal of flexibility provided to local districts as to how these hours and days were apportioned,  but the bottom line requirements were both firm. (Note that while the law had increased the calendar requirement to 185 days last year, essentially all districts were granted waivers that allowed them to use the traditional number of 180).

Under the last minute change, however, the “and” in the current requirement was changed to an “or.” Thus, the new law requires attendance of 185 school days or 1,025 hours of instruction.

This is a big deal. Here’s why:

Under the old law, the 185 day requirement (180 under the waivers) was the more rigorous standard. Given the length of a typical school day, most districts surpassed the 1,025 hours requirement well before the end of the school year.

Think about it: If a typical school day contains six hours of instruction, a district can meet the 1,025 hour requirement in 171 days – i.e. a school year that’s several days shorter than the previous requirement. A district that lengthens the school day to 6.5 hours could fulfill its requirement in 158 days. A seven hour day reduces the year to 146 days.

Got that? As part of a last minute deal driven by the tourism industry, North Carolina just effectively shortened its school year by as much as three weeks or more.

What this means

The implications of this change stand to be very large. Especially in light of the huge budget cuts imposed by the General Assembly in recent years (North Carolina K-12 schools will have $190 million fewer dollars for the coming year and at least 12,000 more students) one would have to be a fool to think that cash-strapped school districts won’t be moving to take advantage of this change.

As a practical matter, North Carolina K-12 students who were attending school for 180 days and, perhaps, 1,075 hours of instruction will now be going to school a lot less.

This change runs directly contrary to the recommendations of numerous education experts who have, for years now, been calling for American schools to lengthen their school years – both to compete on the world stage and in order to reduce he brain drain that frequently afflicts American students during long summer breaks. President Obama called for precisely such a change back in 2010.

And while there are certainly differing (and legitimately so) opinions on the school year issue, it strains the imagination to think that the solution to what ails American schools and students is for them to attend school two or three weeks less each year.

Going forward

Of course, regardless of how one feels about the substance of the issue, the truly noxious part of this major policy shift was the way it happened. Rather than holding open public debate in which experts, parents, and the public-at-large could follow along and participate, the conservative leadership of the General Assembly fell back on what has increasingly become its default method of governance: a secret, late night, backroom deal with a well-connected, big money special interest group.

Just as in so many other areas this year – whether it was a last minute tax break for the film industry in order to encourage a Wilmington lawmaker to shed her concerns about fracking, the absence of Appropriations Committee meetings to consider this year’s budget bill or the repeated practice of shutting down debate on controversial matters – legislative leaders pursued a remarkably cynical brand of hardball politics in effecting a fundamental shift in state public policy.

It’s an approach that stands in stark contrast to their promises of transparency and honesty upon assuming office in 2011 and one that does not bode well for our schoolchildren or the state they will inherit in the years to come.

 

Image: Beach umbrellas displayed under the Creative Commons license, photo by gailf548

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