It’s past time North Carolina increased funding for student support services

*this piece was published by Greensboro News and Record

When NC Child’s 2019 Health Report Card came out earlier this year, it contained some sobering data:  The number of North Carolina youth committing suicide has nearly doubled over the previous decade.  While thoughts of suicide and actual attempts are more common among children with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, other risk factors include bullying, persistent stress, trauma, and social isolation.  African American students were more than twice as likely as white students to attempt it, and gender and sexual orientation also play a major role, with 43% of LGBTQ students seriously considering suicide.

So where do our young people turn when they need help?  That depends largely on how much money they have. Research shows that living in a low-income household is linked to elevated levels of mental health problems that can continue throughout the lifespan, but children of poverty–who make up 33% of all people living in poverty despite being only 23% of the population–are least likely to be connected with high-quality mental health care.  Lack of access is a huge barrier for people who need help the most.

Our public education system is in a great position to fill the gaps and provide support that our children so desperately need.  After all, we see them every day. Unfortunately, insufficient funding for school counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers has left them so understaffed that they are constantly stuck in reactive mode, unable to utilize their training in the preventative services that can most effectively address our students’ social and mental needs.

Recommended ratios for school counselors and social workers are 1:250. This year NC students are supported by counselors at an average ratio of 1:367 and by social workers at just 1:1427. The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. Statewide, our ratio is 1:2083. Ratios for nurses are more complicated, as the National Association of School Nurses maintains that ideal staffing levels depend on the needs of each individual school population.  However, we are not yet where we need to be on nurses either.

There are signs that lawmakers are beginning to realize that our schools need to do more along these lines.  After the Parkland, FL massacre, the NC House convened a select committee on school safety which looked at the ratios mentioned above.  Representative Craig Horn, who sat on that committee and also chairs the House Education Committee said in a subsequent interview that he foresaw a  “significant increase in funding for mental health services.”  

Michelle Hughes, Executive Director of NC Child, says there are “enormous opportunities for public schools to more effectively address the mental health needs of our students,” but that health and mental health professionals in our schools are so understaffed that funding will need to be increased incrementally over the next few years in order to get up to nationally recommended ratios.  

Our students today are under more pressure than ever, and their ability to endure should not depend on their socioeconomic status. We need to provide adequate resources for our public schools’ support services so that staff can use their training in preventative strategies. We need to put professionals in a position to build trusting relationships with children and nurture the coping skills students so clearly need.

As state legislators begin the process of crafting the 2019-21 budget, the community will be watching to see whether they are ready to make a real commitment to our students’ social and emotional well being.

NC Virtual Pre-K program moves forward despite experts’ grave concerns

A bill which would bring online preschool to children of poverty in North Carolina took one step closer to becoming law this week.

If approved, a three year pilot program would deliver the software via computer to families living below the federal poverty line and test the feasibility of scaling the project to bring online preschool to “all preschool-age children in the State.”

On Tuesday, the House K-12 Education Committee heard from the bill’s sponsor, Representative Craig Horn, and Howard Stephenson, a retired Utah Senator who lobbies for Waterford Institute, the Salt Lake City-based organization that developed the Upstart software.

Speaking to the committee, Horn claimed the program is not intended as a substitute for high quality Pre-K:  “We are targeting our most underserved children, four year olds that for whatever reason don’t have access to a Pre-K or just can’t get to one.  Transportation issues, health issues, socio-economic issues, issues that we can’t even imagine.”

Stephenson displayed research of the program’s impact to the House members and spoke hyperbolically of gains made by four year olds who spend just 20 minutes a day sitting in front of a screen working on the Upstart, saying “There has never been, in the history of Pre-K programs, anything that has produced this kind of initial first year start.”

The abbreviated version of the study Stephenson showed neglected to mention that the results were for children whose demographics are vastly different from those Horn proposes targeting:

91% Caucasian

96% English speaking

83% of the parents had at least some college

88% married

30% had household income of 50K or more

80% had household income of 25K or more

76% needed no additional technology or services

14% required computers

6%  required computer and internet

                        (full study text)

Senator Stephenson also declined to tell North Carolina lawmakers about the fact that last fall more than 100 early childhood education experts, educators, and child advocacy organizations signed a statement calling for an end to online preschool programs.  These experts expressed concern about the proliferation of virtual Pre-K and cited Upstart specifically:

As educators and advocates, we are alarmed at the adoption of online preschool across the United States. The state of Utah, citing the need to serve families in remote areas without spending much money, sponsored the first state-funded online program of this kind, called UPSTART, and thousands of families have enrolled. Alarmingly, UPSTART has expanded pilot programs to at least seven other states.

The experts identified a whole host of problems related to online Pre-K:

Research shows that screen overuse puts young children at risk of behavior problems, sleep deprivation, delays in social emotional development, and obesity.  Extended time on screens diminishes time spent on essential early learning experiences such as lap-reading, creative play, and other social forms of learning. Relational learning requires healthy interactions with adults, and online experiences falsely marketed as “preschool” sabotage the development of these essential relationships. Diminishing the role of early educators both deprives kids of crucial relationships and threatens needed investment in actual high-quality preschools. Children without access to quality pre-K (often the targets of these online programs) already face a higher risk of academic difficulty than their peers, and online pre-K threatens to expand, not close, that gap.

After Stephenson’s sales pitch, Horn took the microphone again to beseech his fellow lawmakers to support the virtual Pre-K pilot for North Carolina.  He reminded them it was not intended as a replacement for actual Pre-K and assured them that we probably, uh, might continue to expand that too:

“Now I think it’s time for North Carolina to address the needs of our own kids, our own 4 year olds that are missing out.  Not just because we don’t have the funds for more Pre-K slots, cause these kids will miss out even if we had the funds for more Pre-K slots.  And we may, and I think we will, continue to expand access for Pre-K. But I’m not willing to leave these kids that are not on that list for any reason, I’m not willing to leave them behind.”

The bill was approved by the House committee and is now headed to Appropriations.

If our lawmakers are serious about wanting to improve the lives of North Carolina’s high-poverty four year olds, they need to expand access to high quality Pre-K and work on removing impediments to children attending those programs.  In the meantime, virtual Pre-K is nothing more than an ill-conceived Band-Aid solution to a problem that deserves our legislators’ genuine commitment.

NC school districts working hard to limit teacher leadership on May 1

As the numbers of people planning to head to Raleigh for the May 1 Day of Action swells, a broad strategy for preventing educators from mobilizing is emerging.

In numerous counties, superintendents and school boards are offering to ‘facilitate’ delegations of teachers going to Raleigh to advocate.  Union County Public Schools, for example, is congratulating itself as a ‘forward thinking’ school district for being on the front lines of fighting for good education policy and encouraging teacher leadership by allowing teachers from each school to be in Raleigh on May 1 (while ensuring schools stay open that day).

Don’t get it twisted.  

These districts are doing everything they can to keep teachers from leading. What they’re after in this case is the appearance of supporting teachers, but their premise is that the terms must always be dictated from the top down rather than through a powerful movement created by everyday teachers like you and me.  Their goal from the very beginning this year has been to do whatever it takes to keep schools open on May 1. Their goal has been to make sure that teachers do not have the power.

Let me be clear that the goal of May 1 is not to shut down schools.  The goal is to win on five specific policy needs that thousands of educators had a voice in choosing.  But the only hope we have of winning is to fill the streets of Raleigh with a powerful sea of red, to pack the legislature with folks using their teacher voices to be sure members of the General Assembly hear the echo when they’re writing this year’s budget.  That means turning out in massive, unlimited numbers.

We don’t win by riding to Raleigh in the principal’s minivan with three other teachers that he’s handpicked to have the privilege of attending.  We don’t win by co-signing a plan that deprives our fellow educators of the opportunity to get out there and fight for the schools our kids deserve.

There’s a lot of ugly rhetoric about Communists and far left agendas beginning to circulate around May 1.  Haters gonna hate. Do not forget the moral authority that you carry as someone who has dedicated your life to public education.  We are trying to win enough nurses and psychologists so our students can be healthy. We’re marching to ensure that our custodians don’t have to work 3 jobs to pay their rent.  Picture their faces as you put in the personal day which is your right under state law.  

And if your request is denied, screenshot that denial and get it out there for the world to see what ‘facilitating teacher advocacy’ really looks like.  Then put it in that personal day again. And again. And again.

We need your power and leadership in Raleigh on May 1.  

Latest move by Mark Johnson and state lawmakers would be really bad for schools

A bill filed by Lincoln County Representative Jason Saine in the NC House this week would bring the State Board of Education’s legislative director Cecilia Holden and general counsel Eric Snider under NC State Superintendent Mark Johnson’s supervision.

As Johnson already has a legislative director and general counsel (Kevin Wilkinson and Jonathan Sink), it’s very possible that Holden and Snider would then be relieved of duty.

Let’s unpack the implications of this move for North Carolina’s school system.  

The State Board’s legislative director serves as the primary point of contact between the board and state and federal policymakers.  The loss of Cecilia Holden would deprive our State Board of Education of a valuable source of information which is essential to shaping the work it does on behalf of 1.5 million students and nearly 100,000 teachers every day.  

Recently, Holden was instrumental in laying the groundwork for collaboration between the State Board’s J.B. Buxton and Senator Berger’s office in working to improve Read to Achieve legislation.  On the other side of the coin, the school supply bill which was proposed last week by Senator Wells included zero input from the State Board. That legislation was dismissed by our last two Teachers of the Year as being a terrible idea for schools. Amid the resulting fallout, Mark Johnson was left scrambling to reassure teachers that he was working with the General Assembly on increasing funding for supplies.

The work of a legislative director in connection with the State Board can be that crucial link in the chain to ensure policies that are in the best interests of our teachers and students.  The State Board’s general counsel also plays a vital role in allowing the board to effectively carry out its management oversight, through legal services that impact school personnel directly such as contract review and responding to litigation.

The loss of the independent check and balance of the board’s legislative director and general counsel would allow Mark Johnson to work even more in isolation with the General Assembly than he already does.  That would come as a serious blow to our public school system at a time when constructive working relationships between the various bodies that serve North Carolinians are more needed than ever.

NC educators gearing up to win big for our schools on May 1

House Chamber packed with teachers, May 16, 2018

*this piece appeared in the Washington Post

Last May 16 saw unprecedented action by thousands of North Carolina educators.  Energized by the boldness of our colleagues in states like West Virginia and Arizona, we marched through the streets of Raleigh to the state legislature to let lawmakers know that we’d had enough of their indefensible lack of support for public education.  We flooded the legislative building with a sea of red, filling the galleys of both Senate and House chambers and chanting ‘Remember, remember, we vote in November!’ so loudly that the Speaker of the House had to momentarily halt business because nobody on the floor could hear what he was saying.

But we’re not done yet.  

In November we held true to our word and worked tirelessly to keep education at the forefront of the general election.  Through our advocacy, dozens of pro-public education candidates were elected all over the state. We broke the 8 year Republican supermajority that was responsible for much of the appalling education policy we marched against, and we restored Governor Cooper’s veto.  We demonstrated our collective power and won big for our schools and for our children.

Earlier this year, we surveyed thousands of educators and public school supporters to find out what they saw as the biggest obstacles facing public education in North Carolina.  At the convention of the North Carolina Association of Educators last month, delegates were polled to determine, of the challenges identified, which were the five most pressing. Our delegates then voted overwhelmingly to hold a Day of Action on Wednesday, May 1.  That day we’ll be descending on Raleigh again to send a clear message to lawmakers about what our public schools need from them.

These are our five demands:

1. Provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals to meet national standards

Youth suicide in North Carolina has doubled over the last decade, and many of our students do not have access to mental health care.  Our schools are in a position to help, yet staffing ratios for student support services in the state remain far below recommended levels (for example, the suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. Statewide, our ratio is 1:2083).  

2. Provide $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, 5% raise for all ESPs (non-certified staff), teachers, admin, and a 5% cost of living adjustment for retirees

The past few years have seen some progress on educator salaries, but North Carolina remains far behind the national average and ranks 49th in wage competitiveness.  Our veteran teachers and non-certified employees such as custodians and teacher assistants have been largely left out in the cold on recent raises, as have retirees.  It’s way past time for a significant commitment to all school employees.

3. Expand Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families

Good health forms the foundation of success in the classroom, yet lots of children do not have access to quality health care.  Research shows that expanding Medicaid for their parents results in a ‘welcome mat effect’ with increased enrollment of children.  Closing the health coverage gap in North Carolina would remove an important barrier to learning for many of our most needy students.

4. Reinstate state retiree health benefits eliminated by the General Assembly in 2017

State lawmakers eliminated retiree health benefits in the 2017 budget.  All state employees hired after January 1, 2021 will be forced to purchase their own health insurance when they retire.  This change cripples recruitment and retention of educators at a time when our teacher pipeline is already in crisis, and it must be reversed.

5. Restore advanced degree compensation stripped by the General Assembly in 2013

The revocation of master’s pay has led, unsurprisingly, to a sizeable decline in those seeking graduate degrees in education at UNC schools.  Recent research out of NC State and UNC-Chapel Hill finds positive impact on student attendance, achievement, and evaluation results for teachers who hold a master’s degree in their subject area.  

NC’s state legislators are in long session this year and will soon be crafting the 2019-21 budget.  Supporters of public education are in an excellent position to help shape the priorities reflected in that budget, provided we can bring sufficient pressure.  To do that we need to turn out in massive numbers on May 1.

If you’re ready to help us fight for the changes our schools desperately need, please take this survey to help All Out May 1 organizers measure statewide interest and level of commitment.  

What we saw last May is that we are powerful when we rise together.  This year we’re more focused. This year we’re more organized. And this year we can be even more powerful.  

Teachers, put in that personal day, and we’ll see you in Raleigh.

NC Superintendent’s School Supply Program is a disingenuous shell game

Yesterday State Superintendent Mark Johnson dropped a tantalizing teaser.  

On Wednesday, April 3, he’d join chairs of both the House and Senate Education Committees as well as PENC Executive Director Bill Medlin and 2017 NC Teacher of the Year Lisa Godwin in the General Assembly Press Conference Room for a ‘major education announcement.’  

Speculation ran rampant.  Would Johnson announce the return of the 7,500 teaching assistants lost to budget cuts over the last decade?  Unveil the merger of House and Senate school construction bond proposals into a $4 billion superbond?  Accede to all 5 demands of the All Out for May 1st organizers and render the upcoming march on the General Assembly unnecessary?

The first ominous sign was the absence of Lisa Godwin.  Godwin actually announced on social media the night before that she had decided not to participate in the event because of concerns about the direction of the initiative, saying “After much consideration and prayer, I have decided not to be a part of the announcement.”

When Johnson stepped to the microphone he was flanked only by Republican legislators and the executive director of a small, conservative teacher organization called Professional Educators of North Carolina.  No actual teachers were a part of the photo op, and the reason quickly became apparent.

Johnson and Senator Wells announced the creation of the NC School Supply Program, which would take back the majority of the nearly $50 million normally allocated to school districts for school supplies and instead funnel it into an app called ClassWallet which teachers can access directly.  

That’s right, there was no plan to provide a new infusion of funds for a supply allocation that is so shallow that the Governor has to hold annual supply drives to solicit donations of notebooks and pencils from the public.  No proposal to give more money to teachers who are constantly turning to Donors Choose in order to be able to put books in their students’ hands.  Instead, legislators will simply be taking the money from one pot and putting it into another.

When asked about Lisa Godwin’s absence, Superintendent Johnson said he didn’t know why she was missing and that he thought she supported the initiative.  It seems very unlikely that either of those things is true. Godwin actually commented on the issue in an interview.  She said she initially thought the program meant additional funding for classroom supplies before discovering it was simply a reallocation of existing funds.  She added, “When I reflected on that … that’s gonna hurt districts, because districts are already underfunded.”  

To explain the need for the proposed legislation, Wells claimed misspending of money by school districts was the real reason teachers had to keep going into their own pockets for classroom supplies, saying, “Bureaucrats used the money to pay for other things on their to-do list and left teachers to pay for their own classroom supplies.”

The reason that teachers have to beg the public for money or come out of their own pockets to purchase classroom supplies has nothing to do with districts mishandling money. It has everything to do with the General Assembly’s 55% reduction in funding for that budget allotment over the last decade.

It’s a pattern that has become all too common in the General Assembly: attempt to divert public attention from problems created by their own lack of funding by claiming others are negligent, then offer a bad solution that doesn’t include more resources.

This time the bad solution is ClassWallet, a tool which teachers in other states have complained has a very limited selection, charges prices far higher than their schools can get buying bulk, and is not available until well into the school year.  It’s likely that a simple conversation with a teacher or two could have revealed some of the flaws with this approach, but Johnson admitted that he hadn’t actually spoken with any teachers about it.

As a wise state senator said to me not long ago, you can’t be number one in both tax cuts and public education.  You have to choose. Right now we have state legislators who want to be number one in tax cuts but would like to maintain the appearance of steadfast support for public education, and we have a state superintendent who is all too ready to sign off on bad ideas and pretend teachers are on board with them.  Our students and teachers deserve better than this disingenuous shell game.