[Editor’s note: Veteran North Carolina education policy expert Kris Nordstrom has authored a new and vitally important report about the path that state elected officials have taken during recent years in crafting state education policy. In “The Unraveling—Poorly-crafted Education Policies Are Failing North Carolina’s Children,” Nordstrom paints a damning picture of the decisions emanating from Raleigh – especially since the General Assembly came under the control of conservative majorities in 2011. See below for a summary and click here to review the entire report.]
North Carolina was once viewed as the shining light for progressive education policy in the South. State leaders—often with the support of the business community—were able to develop bipartisan support for public schools, and implement popular, effective programs. North Carolina was among the first states to explicitly monitor the performance of student subgroups in an effort to address racial achievement gaps. The state made great strides to professionalizing the teaching force, bringing the state’s average teacher salary nearly up to the national average even as the state was forced to hire many novice teachers to keep pace with enrollment increases. In addition, North Carolina focused on developing and retaining its teaching force by investing in teacher scholarship programs and mentoring programs for beginning teachers.
North Carolina innovated at all ends of the education spectrum. The state was one of the first in the nation to create a statewide pre-kindergarten program with rigorous quality standards. At the secondary level, North Carolina was at the forefront of dual credit programs for high school students, and the Learn & Earn model (now known as Cooperative Innovative High Schools) became a national model, allowing students to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in five years. Students graduating from North Carolina public schools could enroll in the state’s admired, low-cost community college system or its strong university system, most notably UNC Chapel Hill. For much of the 1990s through early 2000s, policymakers in other states often looked to North Carolina’s public schools as an example of sound, thoughtful policy aiming to broadly uplift student performance.
Unfortunately, over the past seven years, North Carolina has lost its reputation for educational excellence. Since the Republican takeover of the General Assembly following the 2010 election, the state has become more infamous for bitter partisanship and divisiveness, as reflected in education policies. Lawmakers have passed a number of controversial, partisan measures, rapidly expanding school choice, cutting school resources, and eliminating job protections for teachers.
Less discussed, however, has been degradation in the quality of North Carolina’s education policies. General Assembly leadership has focused on replicating a number of education initiatives from other states, most lacking any research-based evidence of delivering successful results to students. The General Assembly has compounded the problems though by consistently delivering exceptionally poorly-crafted versions of these initiatives.
Sadly, these controversial, poorly-executed efforts have failed to deliver positive results for North Carolina’s students. Performance in our schools has suffered, particularly for the state’s low-income and minority children.
So how did we get here? How is it affecting our students?
Lack of transparency leads to poor legislation
The past seven years of education policy have been dominated by a series of not just bad policies, but bad policies that are incredibly poorly crafted. This report provides a review of the major education initiatives of this seven-year period. In every case, the major initiatives are both:
- Based on very questionable evidence; and
- Crafted haphazardly, ignoring best practices or lessons learned from other states.
These problems almost certainly stem from the General Assembly’s approach to policymaking. Over the past seven years, almost all major education initiatives were moved through the legislature in a way to avoid debate and outside input. At the same time, the General Assembly has abandoned its oversight responsibilities and avoided public input from education stakeholders. The net result has been stagnant student performance, and increased achievement gaps for minority and low-income students.
One commonality of nearly all of the initiatives highlighted in this report is that they were folded into omnibus budget bills, rather than moved through a deliberative committee process. Including major initiatives in the budget, rather than as standalone bills, is problematic for three reasons:
- Standalone bills are required to be debated in at least one committee prior to being heard on the floor. Committee hearings allow public debate and bill modifications from General Assembly members with subject-area knowledge, and can permit public input from stakeholders and other outside experts.
- Standalone bills require majority of support to become law. While the budget bill also requires majority support to become law, there is great pressure on members to vote for a budget bill, particularly one crafted by their own party. Budget bills are filled with hundreds of policy provisions. As a result, members might vote for controversial programs that are incorporated into the budget that they would not support if presented as a standalone vote.
- Budget bills are very large, and members are often provided limited time to review the lengthy documents. For example, the 2017 budget bill was made public just before midnight on June 19 and presented on the Senate floor for debate and vote by 4 PM on June 20. As a result, members are unable to adequately review programs and craft amendments that could improve program delivery.
Compounding matters, the General Assembly has effectively dismantled the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee (Ed Oversight), while joint meetings of the House and Senate Education Appropriation subcommittees (Ed Appropriations) are becoming increasingly rare. In the past, these two committees were integral to the creation and oversight of new initiatives.
From its formation in 1990 through 2015, Ed Oversight regularly met during the legislative interim to recommend ways to improve education in the state. However, the committee met just once in the 2015-16 interim, and not at all during the 2016-17 interim.
Similarly, Ed Appropriations—which is responsible for crafting the state budget for public schools, the community college system, and state universities—is meeting less often. Historically, Ed Appropriations meetings during long sessions have been the venue through which General Assembly members undertake detailed, line-item reviews of each state agency’s budget.
2017 marked the first time in known history that Ed Appropriations meetings featured zero in-depth presentations of K-12 funding issues. The General Assembly’s education leaders stood out for their lack of effort. Every other budget subcommittee received detailed presentations covering all, or nearly all, agency budgets.
North Carolina’s teachers, Department of Public Instruction employees, and the academic community are an incredibly valuable resource that should be drawn upon to strengthen our state educational policy. Instead, these voices have increasingly been ignored. As shown below, the net result has been a series of poorly-crafted policies that are harming North Carolina’s children.