The year in education: Five stories that shaped public ed in 2017

The year in education: Five stories that shaped public ed in 2017

- in Education, Top Story

#1 – Class-size chaos

North Carolina public schools—long roiled by sharp funding cuts, a blossoming school choice movement and an often touchy relationship with GOP lawmakers—faced a new kind of challenge in 2017.

How do you speed smaller classes in the vital early grades without sacrificing later grades, local school budgets and arts teachers? The year’s wonkiest story may have been its most important, and 2018 figures to offer more tumult when it comes to North Carolina’s class size crisis.

Brought on by a legislative order to trim class sizes in K-3, school districts will seek respite or significant funding boosts from lawmakers in the New Year, lest local K-12 leaders be forced to lay off thousands of teachers across North Carolina to make room for more core subject teachers.

#2 – Meet the new boss

North Carolina’s new public school boss, elected in a stunning upset last November, had his share of bumps in his first year at the helm. Embroiled in a bitter power struggle with the State Board of Education, criticized by his predecessors and often quiet as school administrators weathered yet another round of legislative cuts, Superintendent Mark Johnson was a flashpoint for controversy in 2017.

The state Supreme Court should resolve the power struggle in 2018, but questions about Johnson’s experience and independence from the GOP-controlled legislature are likely to persist next year.

#3 – The takeover

Hostile takeover or overdue intervention? Depending on your point of view, North Carolina’s newest prescription for struggling schools kicked into overdrive in 2017, sort of. The state’s charter takeover program—dubbed the “Innovative School District” or the “Achievement School District”—rode out a rocky planning year.

Local districts hit back when state officials rolled out a list of possible schools for takeover. Leaders talked lawsuits, school closures and even outright defiance of the takeover plan, which could allow for-profit charter management companies to seize control of several low-performing, public schools in the coming years.

At most, the district will launch with one school in 2018, but the implications for Republican lawmakers’ pet project are clear. Legislators view lagging schools as fair game for privatization, and the Innovative School District may be just a single step into a larger world.

#4 – Elephant in the room?

North Carolina’s promised “deep dive” in public school finance materialized in late 2017, and questions about the direction of the General Assembly’s GOP-controlled school funding task force were myriad. How can North Carolina’s pivotal task force deconstruct K-12 funding without first considering whether funding for the state’s 1.5 million or so public school students is ample?

Advocates say it’s a worrying sign for the legislative panel, tasked with dismantling and reassembling a complicated finance system beset by detractors in recent years. The group’s work could take a couple years, but the consequences could be severe if lawmakers get it wrong.

“If this is not done carefully, it has the potential to be the mother of all unintended consequences,” Public School Forum President Keith Poston told Policy Watch this year. Don’t look away.

#5 – Who’s to blame?

You’d be forgiven if you couldn’t keep track of North Carolina’s courtroom headaches in 2017. Partisan gerrymandering, control of public schools and legislative moves to curtail new Gov. Roy Cooper’s power played out in the courts this year.

But who’s responsible when local and state school leaders are accused of failing poor, primarily minority students in Halifax County? A pending Supreme Court appeal of this essential case may set a legal precedent that will drive the still broiling debate over longstanding funding inequalities between North Carolina’s wealthy and impoverished counties.