Public education battles of 2019 figure to remain front and center in 2020

Public education battles of 2019 figure to remain front and center in 2020

- in Education, Top Story

The year ended with a bang on the K-12 education front in North Carolina.

WestEd, an independent nonprofit research group, released a long-awaited report intended to help North Carolina meet its constitutional obligation to provide its school children with a “sound, basic education.”

The report grew out of the 25-year-old Leandro case in which five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue to provide students with a quality education.

WestEd contends North Carolina will have to spend nearly $7 billion over eight years to begin to meet is constitutional obligation to the state’s children.

The WestEd report was, perhaps, the state’s biggest education story in 2019 and will likely be the topic of much debate and consternation in 2020.

But so far, while many of the state’s Democratic leaders have applauded the report and have begun to discuss its budgetary implications, there have been few comments about it from leaders of the Republican-led General Assembly, at least publicly.

Republican senators did issue a press release contending the state is already “executing many of the WestEd policy recommendations” and is “on track to exceed its funding recommendation.”

State Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange County, offered a different take. “The big question is whether the judge orders the legislature to put money into the plan” he said. “We can’t provide an education of the caliber the report calls for on a shoe-string budget.”

Meyer was referring to Superior Court Judge David Lee direction to WestEd that it conduct extensive research into the state’s public education system and bring back recommendations to ensure all students receive a quality education.

The WestEd group issued specific recommendations to the state to ensure all children receive a quality education.

Those steps include:

  • Place a quality teaches in every classroom.
  • Place a quality principal in every school.
  • Providing at-risk students with the opportunity to attend high-quality early childhood program.
  • Directing more resources, opportunities and initiatives to economically disadvantaged students.
  • Revising student testing and the school accountability system.
  • Building an effective regional and statewide support system to help improve low-performing and high-poverty schools.
  • Convening an expert panel to help the court monitor state policies, plans, programs and progress.
  • Revising the state funding model to provide adequate, efficient and equitable resources.

Click here to see more Policy Watch coverage of the issue.

Other top K-12 stories from 2019 included:

Teacher rally

For the second year, thousands of North Carolina educators held a march and rally in downtown Raleigh to demand lawmakers increase spending on public education. More specifically, educators demanded funding for school psychologists, social workers, nurses and librarians; restoration of extra pay for advanced degrees; an increase in the minimum wages to $15 an hour for school workers and a five percent cost of living raise for school employees and retirees; and expansion of Medicaid to improve student and family health.

Very few of the demands were met by the Republican-led legislature. Six month into the 2020 fiscal year, educators were still awaiting a pay raise held hostage by a major disagreement between Gov. Roy Cooper and the GOP over Medicaid expansion and the amount of raises to give teachers.

State Superintendent’s race

The race for state superintendent could be one of the most watched state races in 2020.

Mark Johnson, the current superintendent, who in 2016 became the first Republican to hold the office in a century, is running for lieutenant Governor in 2020.

His tenure has been marred by a power struggle with the State Board of Education, controversy over the awarding of a K-3 reading assessment contract to a new private vendor – Istation – and the purchase and distribution of iPads some critics contend was inappropriate.

A former high school teacher and school board members from Winston-Salem, Johnson has often been targeted for criticism by North Carolina educators who question his credential to be superintendent and support for teachers.

Two Republicans are seeking to replace Johnson: State Rep. Craig Horn from Union County and Catherine Truitt, chancellor of Western Governors University, who lives in Raleigh.

Five Democrats are vying for the seat: Charlotte educator and activist Constance Lav Johnson, Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at the College of Education at NC State University, James Barrett, a former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member, Jen Mangrum, a clinical associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Greensboro who ran for a seat in the legislature last year against Senate leader Phil Berger, and Keith Sutton, who was recently named chairman of the Wake County school board

The “Read to Achieve” law

The state’s signature education reform initiative was in the news often in 2019, and often for the wrong reasons.

The reading scores of North Carolina’s youngest students haven’t improved despite the expenditure of more than $150 million on the program created by the state’s Republican leadership.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress report showed reading scores for the state’s fourth graders dropped between 2017 and 2019 and that the scores are lower than they were in 2011 before “Read to Achieve” was enacted.

And North Carolina’s most recent data show only 52 percent of first graders reading at grade level and 56 percent of second graders. The state’s third graders are losing ground. Only 55.9 percent are reading at grade level – a significant decrease from the 60.2 percent who were doing so in the 2013-14 school year.

Charter Schools

Policy Watch took several deep dives into the state’s controversial charter school program in 2019, finding that many traditional public school districts such as Granville and Durham counties feel squeezed by an influx of charter schools in the state.

The number of charter schools in North Carolina has grown to nearly 200 since the Republican-led General Assembly lifted the state’s 100-school cap in 2011.

In a Policy Watch story exploring the impact of charters on smaller, rural school districts, Tom Houlihan, chairman of the Granville County Public Schools Board of Education, remarked that charters have “completely wiped out the middle class in our school districts and I don’t just mean whites.”

Policy Watch also found that some new schools such as Essie Mae Kiser Foxx in Rowan County struggled to stay open due to its relationship with a management firm that did not live up to its promises. The school was requested and granted permission to sever ties with it after one year.

In the New Year, Policy Watch will continue to keep an eye on the state’s growing charter school movement and the impact it has on the state’s system of public education.