Should North Carolina lawmakers explicitly address the recommendations contained in a detailed new report urging billions more in spending on public education?
That’s a question that seems sure to arise in the coming weeks and months, in light of that report’s conclusion that the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide all North Carolina schoolchildren with the opportunity to receive a “sound, basic education.” The report was prepared by the nonprofit research firm WestEd for the state Superior Court judge overseeing the landmark Leandro lawsuit.
It arose this week in the aftermath of a Tuesday meeting of the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee, which includes top lawmakers in both the state House and Senate. The committee met to discuss potential changes and improvements to the state’s Educator Preparation Programs (EPPs), which are designed to prepare undergraduate and graduate students to become licensed teachers.
There are more than 50 such programs in North Carolina. Most are located on the campuses of private and state-funded colleges and universities. North Carolina depends on them to supply K-12 schools with highly qualified, well-prepared teachers, one key element of the WestEd report.
The elephant in the room?
However, there were some in attendance this week who thought the committee should have been more direct in addressing the much-discussed report and its reception by Judge David Lee. Both seemed to chastise lawmakers for insufficient public school funding.
“We can’t keep putting it on the back burner,” said Rep. Marvin Lucas, a Democrat from Cumberland County who is a member of the committee. “We can’t keep ignoring that circumstance and expect for it to go away.”
Lucas, a former Cumberland County principal, said the committee’s co-chairs deserve the benefit of the doubt in setting the agenda. But he said that it’s imperative the oversight committee takes up the report soon. “It’s going to have to be if it’s going to make any difference in the educational lives of children.”
Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst for the progressive N.C. Justice Center’s Education Law Project, was more pointed in his assessment (Disclosure: Policy Watch is a project of the Justice Center):
At the #NCGA Ed Oversight meeting where they will NOT be talking about the WestEd report since the only time these people pretend to care about the education of Black and brown students is when their political contributors stand to reap profits of children’s backs #nced #ncpol.”
State Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who co-chairs the committee, took issue with Nordstrom’s characterization.
“I was very clear that what we were talking about was putting quality teachers in classrooms,” Horn said, noting WestEd’s recommendation about placing quality teachers in classrooms.
He also expressed concern that lawmakers could run afoul of constitutional separation of powers by inserting themselves into the case without being invited, and he took issue with claims that he’s avoided discussing the findings and recommendation in the WestEd report.
“I have consistently and publicly said I like what’s in the WestEd report,” Horn said. “I have never avoided the issues identified in the report.”
Horn added that the General Assembly is not officially a party to the lawsuit. “At this point, the litigants have not invited the General Assembly into the case,” he said.
The Leandro lawsuit was filed in 1994 by parents, student and school districts in low-wealth rural counties who argued the counties couldn’t raise enough tax revenue to provide children with a quality education.
WestEd estimates it will cost as much as $8 billion over the next eight years to implement its recommendations. That money would come from taxpayer funds meted out by the General Assembly.
In addition to recommending a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, West Ed also recommends the state ensure every school has a quality principal and provide adequate resources.
Lee has given attorneys in the Leandro case 60 days to submit a plan that spells out how the parties intend to meet short-term goals recommended in the WestEd report.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which advocates for teachers, echoed some of Nordstrom’s and Lucas’ concerns.
“It’s disappointing, but not surprising, that the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee did not directly address the latest findings from the Leandro court when it met this week,” Jewell said. “But we all know the clock is ticking on the court order, and the committee won’t be able to ignore the needs of North Carolina’s children for much longer.”
New EPP developments
At Tuesday’s meeting, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) officials provided the Oversight Committee with updates on the state’s EPPs.
Among other things, they reported that a new “dashboard” is scheduled to come online in April that will include accountability measures for identifying effective and ineffective programs.
The dashboard, which was previously housed at UNC, will provide such information as how many students applied to EPPs, how many were admitted, passing rates on licensure exams and other such data points. The information will also be disaggregated by race/ethnicity and sex.
Another change discussed Tuesday was the state’s switch from “lateral entry” to a residency model to bring nontraditional teaching candidates into the profession.
The residency model allows eligible candidates to begin teaching while completing North Carolina licensure requirements. To be eligible, a person must hold a bachelor’s degree and have earned a 2.7 cumulative GPA among other requirements. The residency license must be renewed every year.
Under the lateral entry mode, eligible candidates had up to three years to complete an EPP. The state stopped granting lateral entry licenses in June of 2019.
So far, there are 895 teachers working under residency licenses. The state still has 4,678 teachers with lateral entry licenses that were granted before June 2019.
“The residency program is still in its infancy,” said Tom Tomberlin, director of educator recruitment for DPI. “With [only] 900 teachers in the [residency program] pipeline, you can see why EPPs have to take a very measured approach to rolling out residency licenses. They simply don’t have the students to fill spaces at this point.”
The WestEd report and a report by the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education agree the state needs to increase the number of in-state trained and credentialed teachers to 5,000 annually to return the state to its former levels of teacher preparation.