The myth of school choice in North Carolina

*this article appeared in the Washington Post

It’s a common refrain among charter school and voucher advocates:  “We need to provide families with choice.” And on its face, it sounds pretty good–we all expect choice when we go to the store for peanut butter, don’t we?  But what happens when all my peanut butter options are equally unpalatable, except for the ones that are priced beyond my means? Does the fact that I have a choice really make much of a difference at that point?

Since the cap on charter schools was lifted by North Carolina’s state legislature in 2012, the number of charter schools in the state has nearly doubled.  This year we will have 185 charter schools in operation, serving more than 100,000 students across the state (overseen by a staff of 8 people).  That’s a lot of peanut butter, with very little quality control.

While charter schools in some states have been used successfully to improve academic performance for low income students, in North Carolina they’ve been used predominantly as a vehicle for affluent white folks to opt out of traditional public schools.  Trends of racial and economic segregation that were already worrisome in public schools before the cap was lifted have deepened in our charter schools. Now more than two thirds of our charter schools are either 80%+ white or 80%+ students of color.  Charter schools are not required to provide transportation or free/reduced-price meals, effectively preventing families that need help in those areas from having access to the best schools.

Academic achievement in our hypersegregated charter schools has played out along socioeconomic lines, just as it generally does in traditional public schools.  Charter schools that serve primarily low-income families have struggled, with percentages of charter schools rating D or F according to NC’s school report card system exceeding those of their traditional public school counterparts.  On the other end of the spectrum, charter schools rated A or B are more common than traditional public schools that earn those grades. They’re also populated mostly by wealthy white students.

A 2014 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill found that students of color in segregated schools tended to make smaller gains in reading than students of color in more integrated schools.  Research also shows that white students don’t experience a decline in those integrated settings. Segregated schools are more likely to have inexperienced teachers, higher teacher turnover and student mobility, and lower quality facilities.  Students at more integrated schools see improved academic outcomes, increased educational attainment, and increased likelihood of living and working in diverse settings.  

Despite the clear benefits, it’s very rare in North Carolina for charter schools to be intentional about seeking out an integrated population of students.  In fact, until 2015, state law didn’t allow charters to use socioeconomic status in their admission lotteries. Even now that they have permission to do so, only three charter schools in the state actively use SES for their lottery: Charlotte Lab School, Community School of Davidson, and Central Park School in Durham.

I don’t believe that charter schools are inherently bad, and I recognize the fact that there are charter schools doing good work in North Carolina–even some that serve low income students and do so well.  However, on a systems level, the effectiveness of our charter schools depends on the policies that govern them. If our state legislators are really serious about providing families with good choices, they must enact policies that move us in the direction of racial and economic integration.  Until that happens, let’s stop pretending that ‘choice’ benefits all students equally.

Red4EdNC issues Declaration in Defense of North Carolina’s Public Schoolchildren

 

Today Red4EdNC issues its Declaration in Defense of North Carolina’s Public Schoolchildren.  This is our first step toward the formation of a Teacher Congress which will be comprised of educators from all across the state and will work towards education policy reforms that benefit students in North Carolina.

North Carolina educators who would like to make history and virtually sign the Declaration may do so by clicking here.  Please share this opportunity with other NC teachers who are ready for substantial change.

Declaration in Defense of North Carolina’s Public Schoolchildren
July 4th, 2018
Drafted by Teachers on the Red4EdNC Advisory Board and Board of Directors

 

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for the people of a state to confront a legislative supermajority that has consistently demonstrated over the course of seven years a hostility to the premise, the constitutional promise, and the provision of a high-quality public education for all, a decent respect to the citizens of that state requires a comprehensive list of the injustices that supermajority has inflicted upon its children and its teacher corps, as well as coherent vision for restoring that state to its former prominence as a leader in public education. We take as our standard, North Carolina’s proud motto: “Esse quam videri — To be rather than to seem.”

We hold that the following truth is evident, moral, and pragmatic — that North Carolina students are guaranteed a sound basic education by the North Carolina Constitution, in Article IX, which states: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” We further hold that the citizens of North Carolina have an economic stake to see that the children of the state are well-educated lest we fail to develop a workforce capable of sufficiently providing for themselves and fail to create new generations of citizens who can contribute to and advance our state, nation, and world.

North Carolina has a long history of vigorous, bipartisan support for public education. However, beginning in the spring of 2011, the leadership of the majority party, especially in the upper chamber, departed from this tradition and moved to underfund and stigmatize K-12 public education, crippling these long-cherished institutions while simultaneously bolstering unproven, experimental and frequently profit-driven replacements, many of which have had the effect of resegregating North Carolina’s children.  

We have attended town halls, and we have addressed members of the General Assembly in their offices in Raleigh and in their home districts. We have marched in the streets by the tens of thousands. We have provided comprehensive and empirically irrefutable data to representatives and senators which demonstrate not only the willful underfunding of our schools but the resulting devastating impacts on our state’s classrooms.  Despite those actions, state lawmakers continue to enact policies which harm our teachers and students.

We hold that the following facts are incontrovertible when it comes to the actions taken and policies adopted by the General Assembly since 2011:

  • They have taken significant steps to de-professionalize the teaching profession in North Carolina, including the revocation of career status, the termination of compensation for advanced degrees, and elimination of retiree health care benefits beginning with teachers hired in 2021.
  • They have cut over 7,400 teacher assistants relative to 2008 levels,  resulting in less supportive and responsive classroom environments, especially given the K-3 testing burden.
  • They have increased the volume of standardized testing–especially among our elementary students where least developmentally appropriate–and fostered a culture of fear and anxiety related to assessments that adversely impacts students and teachers alike.
  • They have enacted a “school report card” system where measures correlate more to wealth and poverty than to instructional quality.
  • They have financed the creation of an evaluation regimen based on secret algorithms (Education Value-Added Assessment System) that precludes equitable and informed treatment for both teachers and students.
  • They have directed millions of dollars to unaccountable charter schools, many of them with dismal records of academic performance but clear records of profit-seeking. This action has resulted in the resegregation of North Carolina’s children on the basis of race and class.
  • They have lifted the cap on charter schools and allowed municipalities to finance them with local property taxes, actions which have resulted in and will continue to worsen racial and economic segregation in our state.
  • They have slashed textbook funding to the point where many of our students are forced to do without.
  • They have consistently placed major education policy initiatives in budget bills rather than moving them through a deliberative committee process, eliminating the debate and public input so essential to the creation of effective policy.
  • They have eliminated the Teaching Fellows program, a teacher development program with an excellent track record of creating high-quality teachers at a relatively low cost, and replaced it with an emaciated version.
  • They have drastically cut corporate tax rates, crippling the General Assembly’s capacity to adequately fund the traditional classroom —  $3.5 billion has been lost in annual revenue and that figure will increase to $4.4 billion beginning in 2019–despite business leaders’ stated desire for increased funding for public schools.
  • They have consistently enacted salary schedules which leave North Carolina far behind the national average in teacher compensation.  Salaries of veteran teachers have stagnated to the point where many of our most experienced teachers have left the profession before full and duly earned retirement pension and health benefits may be collected, resulting in a ‘greening’ of our teaching corps which adversely impacts students.
  • They have created salary schedules in North Carolina that compensate principals at a level worse than the other 49 states as of the spring of 2018.
  • They have provided 3.5% fewer teachers per student than in 2008, increasing class sizes to a degree that teachers struggle to provide students with an orderly environment for learning, and individualized instruction.
  • They have created policies that, in their totality, have increased achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color dramatically since 2008.

In direct contrast to these harmful actions, the NC Teacher Congress offers the following restorative vision:

  • An increase in per-pupil funding, adjusted for inflation, to pre-recession levels.
  • Salary restoration, adjusted for inflation, to 2008 levels, and a move toward compensation which encourages our most experienced teachers to stay in the profession.
  • Cessation of tax practices which favor individuals over the collective good.
  • Elected representatives must  return to a focus on removing poverty-related barriers to student success. We must adopt policies which promote racial and economic integration rather than policies which have the effect of segregating along racial and economic lines.
  • All North Carolina children deserve the opportunity to learn from great teachers in clean, adequately-supplied classrooms. They all deserve to enter each school day healthy, free of hunger, and focused on learning, as a result of a supportive home life, or because adequate supports are in place to address afflictive childhood experiences and trauma.  
  • Assessment regimens should be developmentally appropriate, informed by best practices in terms of span and focus, and should authentically assess mastery. Assessment should inform future instruction rather than determine bonus pay for teachers and principals.
  • Major education policies should be crafted and debated openly in committee settings and on the floor of representative legislative bodies.
  • Policymakers must develop processes that allow consistent input from educators, agency personnel, and subject experts.

We, therefore, the assembled teachers of North Carolina’s public schools, representing almost all 115 Local Education Agencies in North Carolina’s 100 counties, appeal to the voters and the lawmakers of North Carolina to reverse the harmful course outlined above and restore our state to its former position as a national leader in public education.

To accomplish this end, we hereby call for a representative body of North Carolina Teachers to form with all deliberate speed.  Once assembled, this North Carolina Teacher Congress will determine a course of action that will return us to the conditions to which we are accustomed – those that, when it comes to educational opportunity in our state, embrace the state motto: “Esse quam videri: To be rather than to seem.”

We are mutually pledged to each other, to the citizens of North Carolina, and most importantly, to the children in our classrooms and the future of our state.

Rejected school bond is a prime example of NC Senator Berger’s self-serving priorities

*note:  a version of this article first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer

When the General Assembly’s short session began last month, proponents of public education were eagerly waiting for lawmakers to take up a proposed $1.9 billion school bond for inclusion on November’s general election ballot.  The bond was the result of a broad grassroots effort which mobilized after the NC Department of Public Instruction’s 2015-16 Statewide Facility Needs Survey identified $8.1 billion in capital needs.  It also followed the subsequent passage of a class size mandate which will soon require many additional classrooms across the state but provides no funding for those classrooms.

State legislators openly acknowledge the desperate condition of North Carolina’s schools.  As Representative Craig Horn told me, “We have many school buildings that simply cannot support or even allow for modern teaching techniques or the application of much-needed technology.  They are cramped, in need of basic repairs to walls, roofs and floors. Sanitation and even infestation is a constant challenge. These conditions severely impact both student and teacher.”

Despite rank and file support in both parties and in both chambers, the Public School Building Bond Act of 2017 was rejected by a powerful Senate gatekeeper with a corner office on Jones Street.  Phil Berger’s move to block the public from determining whether it’s in our children’s best interest to relieve overcrowding and renovate crumbling schoolhouses is just the latest example of our state distancing itself from its constitutional duty to ‘guard and maintain’ public education and requiring counties to carry more of the burden for funding it.  

Though the school bond has been derailed, a constitutional amendment to cap NC income tax at 5.5% which is supported by the Koch Brothers’ advocacy group looks likely to added to the November ballot.  If the measure passes, any efforts to increase school funding in the future will rely chiefly on sales tax increases, which disproportionately impact low-income taxpayers.

Other constitutional amendments proposed by GOP lawmakers appear to be a bald-faced attempt to drive conservative voters to the polls and stave off a looming threat to the Republican supermajority due in part to the absolute clown show in the Oval Office.  (Berger himself faces a challenge by former 3rd grade teacher and current UNC-Greensboro professor Jen Mangrum, whose most recent internal poll found that 49% of voters in Senate District 30 thought it was time to elect someone new, vs. 37% who felt Berger should be re-elected.)

One measure would require photo ID of NC voters, despite last year’s State Board of Elections finding that only one out of nearly five million votes cast in the 2016 general election would have been prevented by such a law.  Another would “forever preserve” the rights of North Carolina residents to hunt and fish, but actually would change nothing in the law.  On the other hand, public education propositions bring Democratic voters to the polls, and that’s very likely one reason the bond was ultimately denied.

North Carolina residents deserve to be represented by those who put the needs of our children ahead of their own accumulation of wealth and power.  This month, a poll by the conservative Civitas Institute found that nearly three quarters of North Carolinians feel that public schools do not receive sufficient funding from the state.  The rejected school bond is a missed opportunity for lawmakers to serve those constituents by simply allowing them to decide whether their own tax dollars should be used to provide the facilities needed for a twenty first century education.  These appalling priorities must galvanize voters to elect officials who are pro-public education in November.


The images below document some of the conditions facing North Carolina school children in their buildings.

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Roach-infested water fountain, Eastern North Carolina school

 

 

Overcrowded, 600 square foot 11th and 12th grade classroom in New Hanover County.  35 students squeeze into it.

 

 

Humidity so high in this Guilford County trailer that mushrooms grow inside

 

 

Door to music room in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school, work in progress during the school year

 

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Termite-infested library books, Mecklenburg County elementary media center

 

 

Extreme classroom temperatures make for terrible learning conditions.  Durham, January 2 at left, Alamance-Burlington, May 3 at right

Mecklenburg County budget vote a chance for commissioners to demonstrate priorities

Note:  This article was first published in The Charlotte Observer

On May 16, more than 20,000 teachers filled the streets of Raleigh in an unprecedented mass demonstration of discontent, demanding state legislators increase support for public education in North Carolina.  Less than a week later, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio unveiled a budget proposal that included a $24 million increase for CMS schools, far short of the $40 million the district had requested.

The county manager’s recommended budget declines to expand AVID, a program which increases college preparedness among traditionally underrepresented students.  It also rejects a proposal to add more teachers of English learners–a population whose enrollment is projected to increase next school year.

But the item that has gotten the most buzz is Diorio’s recommendation that local teachers not be given their first salary increase by the county since 2012.  The increase in local supplement proposed by CMS would only represent about a 1% increase to overall pay and would come after several years when state pay raises have struggled to keep pace with inflation. When presenting her budget to the county commission, Diorio said her goal was to “emphasize education funding as a priority, as its impact on economic opportunity is significant.”  What happens next will reveal what our county’s priorities actually are.  

Two years ago, Mecklenburg County commissioners raised their own salaries, including allowances, by 43%.  This year’s proposed budget calls for a merit increase for county employees which could add up to 4.5% to that salary. It’s interesting to note that county commissioners already earn more for their part-time work than CMS teachers do in each of their first three years of full time teaching.   These priorities are not a recipe for attracting and retaining the excellent teachers our children deserve.

Also worrisome for our local teacher pipeline is the fact that, from 2013-14 to the current school year, initial teacher licensure rates at UNCC’s College of Education declined 28%.  Our local high school graduates do not see a promising future in the classroom, and that should concern us all.

If county commissioners vote to approve the proposed budget, it will continue a long trend of elected officials disregarding CMS’s expertise and choosing to underfund public education.  In the last decade, county funding of our school district has reduced the CMS request by an average of 23 million per year.  Over the same period of time, the systematic underestimation of sales tax and property tax has led to a fund balance which now stands at over a half billion dollars.  It’s time for our county to either reduce taxes or increase services.  Public education is one of the areas where we are in desperate need of such increased services.

Residents of Mecklenburg County should expect our leaders to budget accurately, tax no more than they have to, and provide the best services possible with available funds.  We should hold them to their responsibility to emphasize education as a priority, by helping provide teachers where needed, expanding programs that increase opportunity for those who need it most, and making our county a more attractive place for teachers to live and work.

My favorite protest sign at the May 16 rally read simply ‘Your future is in our classrooms.’  The future of Mecklenburg County is being created in our classrooms and in our schools, and how our leaders prioritize funding for education will help determine what that future holds.  Our county commissioners must demonstrate their priorities are right by voting on June 19 to fully fund CMS’s budget.

 

Don’t say my student failed. That’s a stunningly inaccurate picture of what happened.

*note:  this article originally appeared in the Washington Post 

Since the 2013-14 school year, North Carolina schools have been assigned letter grades to indicate how well they meet their students’ needs.  Those grades are calculated using a formula of 80% proficiency and 20% growth.  Proponents of this formula say the ability to pass the test is what matters most, regardless of student background.  Critics say it unfairly stigmatizes children of poverty and that how much a student grows during a school year is a more accurate measure of school quality.  Indeed, the NC Department of Public Instruction’s most recent analysis of Performance and Growth of North Carolina Public Schools clearly shows that school report card grades and levels of poverty are inversely proportional to each other.  As poverty goes up, school grades go down:

Lost in the discussion is the fact that policies like this impact real people.

I have a student who immigrated to Charlotte last year. He spoke no English when he started sixth grade. Each day I saw him striding down the halls alone, head down, fists jammed in his pockets.

When this school year began, the boy, now in my seventh grade English language arts class, would not answer when I spoke to him. He avoided interaction with his peers, and his participation in schoolwork was limited. His first formative reading test result showed we had lots of work to do.

Even though he rarely responded in the beginning, I talked to him every chance I got. I greeted him first thing in the morning, inquired about his weekend, had mostly-one-sided conversations with him about soccer, asked his opinion about things in class. My 20+ years in the classroom have taught me that the amount of progress we made would depend on the quality of the relationship I built with him.

Our English as a second language teacher worked tirelessly to modify the content of the class so that it was accessible to him. Together we developed assignments that connected with his personal interests so that he was motivated to do them. He began to feel that school was about him and to experience some success.

In class, I intentionally surrounded him with kind and supportive peers. I gave him reading partners who were patient but also persistent, and I explained to them why they’d been selected for this important work. They read with him every single day in a small group setting (three students) and helped to develop his confidence. At first he read barely above a whisper. As time went on, I began to detect some incremental increases in volume.

We read novels aloud in class, and at first he only had to read a paragraph or two. I remember the first time he read a whole page by himself. When he got to the end, his classmates burst into applause, and the ghost of a smile crossed his lips.

This student began to greet me when he entered the classroom and occasionally raise his hand and ask questions during class. He wrote his third quarter short story project in his native language, then painstakingly translated it into English. His last formative reading test result was still rough, but it showed definite improvement.

Last week, he took his first reading end-of-grade test. (Regardless of how long a child has been in the United States or how much English they know, they take the same test as our native speakers.) The morning of the test, he was the first one in the classroom, so we had a little time to talk.

I told him I knew the test would be harder for him than for any of the other 25 students in the room. I asked him if he remembered how things were at the beginning of the year and how far he’d come since then. I explained that I didn’t expect him to be perfect, just wanted the result to reflect how hard he had worked and how much he had grown. He didn’t say much, just nodded his head.

This boy spent nearly three hours on his test. At one point, he raised his hand and asked me what a word meant (I didn’t tell him, but I did take it as evidence that he was working hard and reading carefully).

When the results came back they were what I expected: He showed substantial growth since that first formative reading test, but he was still far from being on grade level like his native English-speaking peers.

The fact that he is still reading below grade level carries far more weight than the tremendous progress he made this year when it comes to how the state reports the supposed effectiveness of our school. Viewed through this lens, his failing grade offers a stunningly inaccurate picture of what really happened.

Last spring, members of the North Carolina House of Representatives sponsored a bill that would adjust the School Performance Grade formula to 50/50, giving more weight to how much students grow throughout the course of a school year. The bill passed the House by a vote of 116-2. It has been languishing in the Senate Rules Committee (sometimes called “the place bills go to die”) ever since.

No single letter grade can accurately measure all the progress that takes place under a school’s roof. But if we insist on trying to simplify results in this manner, the least we can do is move the metric in the direction of greater accuracy by placing a higher premium on the growth each student shows. The current system does a huge disservice to this student, to me, and to the other teachers who worked hard to support him. It does precisely the same disservice to thousands of other students and teachers all over North Carolina every year. It’s time for our legislators to address it.

I talked with the student about his end-of-grade test score. I told him how proud I was of all the progress he made since August. I said if he continued to work hard and push himself outside his comfort zone the results would just keep getting better and better. He didn’t say a whole lot, just looked at me and smiled a little.

His test score, and North Carolina’s school performance grades, may say this year was a dismal failure for him and me, but we both know it was a resounding success.

Mecklenburg County must prioritize public education, fully fund CMS budget

 

 

*photo credit Autumn Alston

note:  Comments delivered at the June 4 Mecklenburg County Commissioners budget hearing.  Video is here.

On May 16, more than 20,000 teachers, including many of the people you see in this room, filled the streets of Raleigh to ask state legislators for two things: respect and support for public education.

The very next day, our county commission met with CMS’s board and administration to talk about CMS’s proposed budget, and both of those things appeared to be in short supply.  During that meeting I heard accusations of irresponsibility and excess leveled at our school district. So I wanted to come here tonight just to let you know that what we’re asking for are real, legitimate needs.

We need additional support services staff, and I appreciate the county manager’s recommendation that the positions we’ve asked for there be funded.  What we’ve requested still leaves us far short of recommended levels, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The other CMS needs I want to talk about are among those left out of the proposed 2019 county budget.

We need to add 20 teachers of English learners just to keep up with a projected increase in enrollment of students who are not fluent in English and give those students the best opportunity at success.

We need to expand AVID, a program which works to close the opportunity gap by preparing students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education for success in college and beyond.  

Finally, let’s talk about why increasing the local supplement is a need.  The local supplement for teachers hasn’t been increased in 6 years. Over that same period, state pay raises have struggled to keep up with inflation and health insurance costs have steadily risen.

Last week I spoke with a third year teacher at McClintock Middle.  In addition to his full time teaching job, he works at Panthers and Hornets games, delivers groceries, grades tests for Pearson, and manages a trampoline park.  He works 65 hours a week to make ends meet and be able to continue teaching and serving the children of Mecklenburg County. And his case is not that unusual.

As a 3rd year teacher, his full time teaching salary is less than that of a county commissioner.

The increase in local supplement proposed by CMS would represent about a 1% increase to overall pay.  I’d argue that’s not excessive, it’s a need.

Two years ago, the county commissioner salary including allowances went up 43%.  This year’s proposed budget calls for a merit increase which would add up to 4.5% more to that salary.  Let me reiterate, CMS is asking for 1% for teachers.

I understand the state bears a lot of responsibility in North Carolina for funding public education, and they’re not doing a great job.  We’re working on that, and we’ll continue working on that between now and November. And we will show up in November.  

But here in Mecklenburg County we also need to feel the respect and support of a county commission that is fully behind our school system.  I urge you to show that respect and support on June 19 by voting to fully fund the needs that CMS has laid out in its proposed budget.

Thank you

 

Donors Choose pork in NC budget bill flops

When this year’s NC budget bill was posted on Monday night, public education advocates immediately noticed some outrageous educational pork.  The budget included $200,000 in taxpayer money for classroom supplies.  The catch was the funds would only be available to teachers at schools in Senator Jeff Tarte’s District 41, one of the wealthier districts in Mecklenburg County:

The supplies were to be distributed through Donors Choose, a nonprofit organization that “connects teachers in high-need communities with donors who want to help.”  North Carolina teachers know this organization quite well, as General Assembly budget cuts (including -55% to classroom supplies and materials since 2009-10) have forced many of them to rely on public donations to provide for classroom needs.

The budget move galled teachers because it unfairly prioritized schools based on geographic location rather than need.  It also ruffled feathers because it was such an obvious attempt to gain votes in Tarte’s bid to win reelection in one of the most competitive Senate districts in the state.

On Tuesday, teachers took to social media to let Donors Choose know they were not happy:

On Wednesday, Donors Choose informed the public via Twitter that the organization had decided the budget provision was not consistent with its philosophy and that it would not participate in Senator Tarte’s pork barrel spending:

Unfortunately for Senator Tarte, this year’s budget bill was fast tracked by House and Senate GOP leaders in such a way as to avoid debate.  That means the Donors Choose budget provision most likely cannot be amended.

Kudos to the teachers who reached out to Donors Choose to let them know about the shenanigans in North Carolina.  Thanks due as well to Donors Choose for recognizing the inequity in distributing classroom supplies in this politically underhanded manner.  

Budget provides $200k for Charlotte Mecklenburg school supplies, but only in Senator Jeff Tarte’s district

Earlier this month, more than 20,000 North Carolina teachers marched through the streets of Raleigh, demanding state legislators increase support for public education.  One of the things those teachers were asking for was more funding for classroom supplies. After all, budget cuts by the General Assembly have reduced allocations for supplies and materials 55% since peak levels in 2009-10.  Many teachers work part time jobs to be able to purchase items needed to provide their students with a top notch educational experience, often spending thousands of dollars of their personal funds each school year.

At least one state senator appears to have been listening.  Sort of.

When this year’s budget bill went online last night, it included $200,000 for classroom supplies as a grant-in-aid to Donors Choose, an organization that teachers routinely use to solicit public donations to purchase needed classroom materials.  But, interestingly enough, this money will only be available to educators who work at schools located in Senate District 41.  


As it turns out, Senator Jeff Tarte, currently in a very competitive race for reelection against Democratic challenger Natasha Marcus, recently asked CMS Government Relations Coordinator Charles Jeter for a list of schools in his newly drawn district.

While there are some high poverty schools in Tarte’s district, many of the 35 schools that will share this $200,000 lie in some of the wealthiest areas of Mecklenburg County, including Ballantyne and Davidson.  Those schools in many cases have high-powered PTSAs with well-oiled annual fund-raising operations that budget specifically for teacher supply needs. They are able to make up the shortfall for what the state fails to provide.  

It’s also worth noting that Donors Choose charges fairly hefty overhead fees.  I recently got a set of 80 novels funded on Donors Choose.  As you can see, nearly 20% of the project cost went to processing fees, mysterious ‘materials,’ and a large ‘suggested donation’ (It is possible for donors to opt out of the suggested donation but the process is somewhat counter intuitive).  It’s fair to ask whether this is a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.

Apart from handwringing, there doesn’t seem to be much that can be done about this inequitable distribution of resources.  This year’s budget adjustments were fast-tracked in such a manner as to deliberately avoid debate and amendments, so it appears Tarte’s egregious pork barrel spending is a done deal.

Make no mistake, schools need more supplies.  But our legislators need to provide those resources starting where they are needed most, not just dole them out in their own districts in return for votes.  They need to support public education simply because it’s the right thing to do. 

 

Proposed Mecklenburg County budget falls short on public education

On May 16, thousands of North Carolina teachers–including more than 2000 from Mecklenburg County alone–marched through the streets of Raleigh, calling on state legislators to increase funding for public education.  Less than a week later, Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio unveiled her proposed budget for FY 2019.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools had requested an increase in funding of just under $40 million for school year 2018-19.  The County Manager recommended the county commission cut that number to $24 million.

There are some positives in the proposed county budget.  For example, it increases funding for support services personnel, adding 33 school counselors, 10 psychologists, and 17 social workers.  These new hires will help improve local staffing ratios that lag far behind recommended levels and provide better support for CMS students’ social and emotional health.

Unfortunately, as it stands, the FY 2019 budget declines to fund important CMS program expansion efforts.  The county will not fund expansion of AVID, a program which works to close the opportunity gap by preparing students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education for success in college and beyond.  

The budget also does not fund 20 additional teachers of English language learners (students who are unable to speak or read fluently in English and whose primary home language is something other than English) despite the fact that their enrollment is projected to increase next year.  The lack of funding means that class sizes will grow for our students who need language development the most.

When presenting the budget to the Board of County Commissioners, County Manager Diorio commented that her goal was to create economic opportunity.  Expanding AVID and providing a better level of service to English language learners would help make that economic opportunity available to a broader cross section of our community.

Another shortcoming of the budget is that it continues the freeze on the local salary supplement that began in 2012 rather than honoring CMS’s request to increase it by 7%.  The cost of living is higher in Mecklenburg County than it is in Wake County, but Wake’s supplement averages $1500 more.  More teachers leave Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools than leave Wake County Public Schools.  Unless our county is willing to make fair compensation a higher priority, that trend is likely to continue.  

One of my favorite signs from the May 16 rally in Raleigh said simply “Your future is in our classrooms.”  The future of Mecklenburg County is being created in our classrooms and in our schools. How our leaders prioritize funding for education will help determine what that future holds.  

There is a public hearing on the proposed budget on Monday, June 4 at 6 PM in the Government Center.  (600 E. 4th St, free parking available in the garage across the street) Teachers and friends of public education, if you believe our county commission needs to fully fund CMS’s budget request, please RSVP here and be prepared to show up at 5 pm in your Red4Ed.  If you’re interested in speaking, you can sign up here.

CMS schools desperately need more support staff

Picture a young lady named Ava in one of our local high schools. She is overwhelmed by her parents’ separation and difficulty at school.  Ava begins to experience suicidal thoughts, then to inflict harm on herself. Her mother notices her wounds and takes her to the hospital.  She learns that her daughter has never talked to school support personnel because she found it too difficult to get an appointment. How have we gotten to this point?

Recently I was fortunate enough to talk with a group of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers about their work serving the children of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  These folks are true heroes in our community, working long, difficult hours to ensure that our students’ social and emotional health is supported so they can be successful in school.

I was impressed by their passion and dedication but also troubled by what I heard.  Most said they spent all day putting out fires, unable to see children unless there was a crisis.  They spoke of training they’d had in preventative strategies which was being wasted as they found themselves constantly in reactive mode.  They explained how lack of funding for support services resulted in enormous caseloads, decreasing the quality of their work.

The primary reason our support staff are stuck in reactive mode is that insufficient funding has left them woefully understaffed.  Industry standards recommend ratios of 1:250 for school counselors and social workers. This year CMS students are supported by counselors at a ratio of 1:381 and by social workers at just 1:2957. The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:500-700. Our current ratio is 1:2112.  

Our student support services play an essential role in ensuring that our schools are safe, orderly, and focused on learning.   When they are able to deliver the range of services they are trained to deliver, all of our students benefit.

Research says:

  • Interventions that improve students’ social, emotional, and decision-making skills also lead to stronger academic outcomes.
  • Interventions that nurture engagement in school reduce dropout rates.
  • Prevention and early intervention programs that serve at-risk students result in reduced special education referrals, suspensions, and grade retentions.
  • Effective early childhood interventions decrease public expenditures for welfare assistance and criminal justice.
  • Suicide rates have risen steadily for the last twenty years.  Preventative models can provide students with coping skills to deal with pressure in a healthy way.

Whether or not we’re able to meet our students’ needs hinges on the willingness of our elected officials to prioritize the  funding of education. After the Parkland, FL massacre, NC legislators convened a select committee on school safety. Unsurprisingly, they found that their own deep budget cuts had resulted in staffing ratios that did not adequately provide for students’ social and emotional needs.  When the short session begins in May we’ll see whether legislators are willing to act on the committee’s recommendation to increase the number of support services personnel.

While we wait for progress at the state level, there’s also work to be done in Mecklenburg County.  In this year’s budget, CMS Superintendent Wilcox is asking county commissioners for $4.4 million to hire 33 school counselors, 17 social workers, and 10 psychologists.  The new hires would leave our schools well short of the recommended ratios but would represent a step in the right direction.  The BOCC has to make tough decisions about how to allocate resources, but nothing is more important than making sure our county’s future taxpayers, workers, and citizens are socially and emotionally healthy.

Students today endure more pressure than ever, and their futures depend on our support.  We need to enable our support services to use their training in preventative strategies. We need to put them in a position to build trusting relationships with children and nurture the coping skills our students so desperately need.  Prioritizing the social and emotional well-being of our students will help us transform our schools into the safe and supportive learning environments that benefit us all.