If you want to cut through the election-year spin about what the folks currently in charge in Raleigh have done to public education in the state in the last few years, a publication released this week by the Public School Forum of North Carolina is a good place to start.
It is the group’s Top Ten Education Issues for 2016, a thoughtful and common sense list of what the Forum hopes the General Assembly and other state policymakers will do this year for public schools.
The recommendations themselves are straightforward and include making more investments—like raising teacher pay to the national average—more accountability for charter schools and schools that receive vouchers, expanding early childhood programs, reforming the stigmatizing A-F school grading system, and addressing the role that race plays in our public education system.
There’s nothing radical here, just a return to the days when public schools were a priority of state leaders, not something funded after taxes were slashed on corporations and the wealthy.
The whole publication is worth your time as the supporting case made for each recommendation includes a clear summary of the decline of public education under the current leadership in the state.
North Carolina spends $855 less per student now than it did in 2008 when you adjust for inflation and has reduced education spending more than all but five other states in the last seven years.
Teacher pay ranks 42nd in the country, up from 47th, but still far below the national average that salaries reached in 2000 after several years of significant raises. Seventy percent of teachers received no raise at all this year, only a one-time $750 bonus.
Not surprisingly, the lagging pay along with a series of other attacks on the teaching profession—ending supplements for advanced degrees, dismantling professional development programs, abolishing career status, eliminating the Teaching Fellows Program—has resulted in a five-year high in teacher turnover and a dramatic decline in enrollment in schools of education in the state.
And it’s not just teachers who are underpaid. North Carolina ranks 50th in how much we pay our principals, the folks that legislative leaders always say play the most important role in making sure schools are successful.
Almost half the state’s charter schools have less than 25 percent of their students who qualify for free or reduced lunch while only 7 percent of traditional public schools do. The record of the rapidly expanding charter sector is mixed when it comes to student achievement and the Forum calls for gold-standard research to tell us more.
In many districts, public schools are resegregating and racial gaps are glaring in academic achievement and school discipline as African-American students are 4.3 times as likely to be suspended as white students,
The report also lays out the disturbing facts about the state’s A-F system of grading schools where 97 percent of schools that receive a grade of D or F have more than 50 percent of their students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
That’s not surprising when you consider that 80 percent of the grade is based on test scores and only 20 percent on growth.
That means that low-income schools will continue to receive a stigmatizing D or F every year even if their students are making significant improvements. The Forum wants to change the formula and give more support to low-performing schools, not just a grade. It is the least lawmakers should do.
There is no grading of the private and religious schools that receive taxpayer money under the state’s voucher scheme. Funding for vouchers has increased by 129 percent in three years even though there is no data about how the program is working or what the schools are actually teaching students with public money.
Funding for early childhood programs like Smart Start and NC PreK that help at-risk kids do better in school is well-below pre-recession levels even as the state puts more emphasis on making sure kids learn to read by the end of the 3rd grade.
As troubling as these facts are, they are not new and sadly not surprising either, given the attacks on traditional public education in the last few years.
But assembling the data in one place along with recommendations to address the issues they raise is a welcome addition to the education debate in this election year, and something every candidate and every voter ought to read.