The New Year should be pivotal for public education in North Carolina

The New Year should be pivotal for public education in North Carolina

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In 2020, the conversation about public education in North Carolina will undoubtedly be shaped by the WestEd report, which punctuated the end of 2019 with a big exclamation point. 

WestEd, an independent nonprofit research group, found that North Carolina must spend nearly $7 billion over the next eight years of meet its state constitutional obligation to provide its children with a “sound, basic education.” 

The group was directed by Superior Court Judge David Lee to research the state’s public education system and bring back recommendations to ensure all students receive a quality 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. 

The report will pose a significant challenge for Democratic and Republican lawmakers who were so divided in 2019 that they couldn’t come together to provide teachers with a pay raise. 

Expect more party-line division in 2020. 

Lawmakers provided a sample of what’s likely to come just days before shutting down for the Christmas holiday. 

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

Meanwhile, Democrats are waiting to see if Judge Lee will order the legislation to put money into the WestEd recommendations. 

 “We can’t provide an education of the caliber the report calls for on a shoe-string budget,” State Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange County. 

Here are the recommendations WestEd made:  

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

A new state superintendent 

Educators across the state will watch closely the 2020 state superintendent’s race that will mark the end of Mark Johnson’s tenure as the controversial leader of North Carolina’s public schools. 

Johnson, who became the state’s first Republican superintendent in 25 years, is not seeking reelection. He has filed to run for lieutenant governor. 

Republican Dan Forest, the current lieutenant governor, is challenging Democratic governor Roy Cooper.   

Johnson became wildly unpopular among some educators from the start of his tenure after he found himself embroiled in a messy power struggle with the State Board of Education.     

Five Democrats have stepped forward to return the superintendent’s seat to Democratic control. They are: 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. 

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

Regardless of party, the winner will have an opportunity to mend fences with North Carolina educators, many of whom have felt abandoned by Johnson. 

Here’s is what Charlotte educator Justin Parmenter had to say about Johnson late last month: 

One reason Mark Johnson has been so unpopular with educators is because of his lack of experience (Two years with Teach for America before fleeing for law school doesn’t make you an educator) and his resulting inability to empathize with teachers. Many times his words and positions have showed contempt toward public school employees. We don’t respond well to being led that way.”

Meanwhile, Johnson has argued that he has worked to fix a broken system that has not served the children of North Carolina well. 

Teachers, teachers, teachers

Could North Carolina see a third consecutive teacher walkout in 2020? 

It’s tough to rule out given the way 2019 ended with Democrat and Republican lawmakers unable to reach a compromise on a teacher pay raise.  

In fact, North Carolina teachers received very little of what they demanded in May when thousands of educators took to the streets of downtown Raleigh to protest what they contended is inadequate state funding for K-12 education. 

The state’s Republican leadership refused to budge on expansion of Medicaid to improve the health of students and their families, which was another major ask for teachers in May. 

It was also a central reason Gov. Cooper vetoed the $24 billion budget Republicans sent forward.  

Cooper vetoed a proposed 3.9% pay increase approved by lawmakers for teachers along with a 2% increase for non-instructional staff, arguing the increases simply aren’t enough. 

The Democrat favored a compromise that would mean 8.5% raise for teachers over two years. The current Republican proposal would amount to a 2.0% raise in 2019-20 and 1.8% in 2020-2021. 

Despite not receiving a raise in 2019, the N.C. Association Educators supported Cooper’s veto. 

“North Carolina educators rejected the Republican budget as anemic and insulting in June, and we reject essentially the same today,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said in November. “We stand behind Governor Cooper’s veto of this bill and demand the leaders in the General Assembly stop wasting time on failed veto overrides and unpopular corporate tax cuts and start spending time doing the hard work of governing.” 

The caustic Republican response to Cooper’s veto demonstrated the breadth of the divide between Democrats and Republicans on teacher pay and other K-12 education issues.  

“Teachers are told to be good, loyal Democrats and their union and their Governor will take care of them. But they need to ask themselves: ‘What has Roy Cooper ever done for me?’ He’s vetoed every single teacher pay raise that’s come across his desk, and he chose today to give teachers nothing for the next two years,” said Senate leader Phil Berger.