North Carolina’s teacher bonus scheme isn’t working. Let’s put that money into something we know does.

Next month a select group of North Carolina teachers will earn sizable bonuses–potentially more than $9000–for student performance on standardized tests.  The bonus scheme was conceived by Senator Phil Berger and implemented by state lawmakers in the 2016 budget.  Teachers first received the payments in January of 2017.  

That first year, only third grade reading teachers and some high school teachers were eligible to receive the additional money.  Legislators have since expanded the program to include reading for grades 3-5 and math in grades 4-8 in addition to high school AP, IB, and CTE courses.  This year a total of almost $39 million will be spent on the annually recurring teacher bonuses.  

Since we now have three years of data to compare, let’s look at the impact the bonuses are having on student learning in the subject that was first targeted:

After a very slight uptick the first year bonuses were paid out, third grade reading proficiency dropped almost two full percentage points in 2017-18.  Those results are consistent with research on the impact of financial incentives in education which finds that, not only do bonuses fail to increase student achievement, in some cases they even decrease it.  Introducing a spirit of competition among educators that you are already underpaying isolates teachers and damages the relationships that are critical to maintaining a positive school culture where collaboration and learning can flourish.  When the thousands of dollars in extra pay means those teachers may be able to pay off medical bills or quit their second job and have more time with their family it’s difficult to blame them.

Another fundamental flaw with the idea of offering teachers significant bonus money for standardized test scores is that this approach assumes that teachers aren’t already trying their best, that they are sitting on some excellent techniques which they will only pull out when they’re coaxed in the right way.  That’s not true of the teachers I know. We do our best to teach every single day despite low wages because we are committed to this job, and because we understand how crucial our efforts are to the futures of the students we serve.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that there are a whole host of other influences besides teaching quality that go into standardized test results.  But that is a topic for another blog post.

If state legislators are really interested in helping teachers to grow professionally, they need to restore funding for professional development which was cut from the budget during the height of the recession a decade ago and has never been restored.  Unlike monetary bonuses, effective professional development leads to higher student achievement.  When teachers are given the opportunity to collaborate, share best practices, implement new strategies, and receive ongoing support over time, they actually get better at teaching.  Unfortunately, those opportunities are few and far between.

North Carolina’s teacher bonuses are an unimaginative scheme hatched by state legislators who don’t have a clear understanding of what works in schools.  Rather than continuing to waste millions of taxpayer dollars and harm teacher morale, let’s focus on paying a decent base salary, go back to the drafting table, and find a path forward for teacher development that can really help students grow.  And this time invite some actual teachers to join that conversation.

New study finds that stress caused by high-stakes testing disproportionately impacts students of poverty

New research has established a physiological link between levels of stress prompted by high-stakes standardized testing and performance on those tests.  Researchers at Northwestern University, Texas A & M, and the Naval Postgraduate School found that the more economically disadvantaged students were, the more likely it was for their test results to be negatively impacted by test-induced stress.  The results call into serious question the wisdom of using standardized test scores as a primary measure for school achievement and as a critical driver of education policy.

Researchers measured levels of cortisol–a stress hormone found in saliva–to arrive at their findings.  They found that, during standardized testing, levels of cortisol increased an average of 15% over non-testing weeks.  Comparing results on the exam with other academic measures, they were able to document that those with the largest changes in cortisol levels scored much lower than expected on the exams.  Students living in the highest-poverty and highest-crime neighborhoods demonstrated the largest swings in cortisol. Researchers surmise that those changes in cortisol levels disrupt concentration and lead to disengagement with the testing environment.

This study has important implications for education policy everywhere, but particularly in North Carolina.  Our state relies heavily on standardized testing results to determine so many things: sizable teacher bonuses, placement in advanced courses (which can alter a student’s life trajectory), school report card grades and more.  Despite overwhelming community opposition, the NC State Board of Education is currently considering the addition of Wayne County’s 90% economically disadvantaged Carver Heights Elementary to the Innovative School District, a program which takes control of schools with chronically low standardized test scores away from the state and gives it to charters and other private organizations.  The school has earned an ‘F’ school report card grade for the last three years based on high-stakes testing results.

We’ve got to stop using one flawed measure that disadvantages students of poverty to drive so much of our policy.  Any good classroom teacher will tell you that broad and varied measures lead to the most accurate picture of student ability.  It’s high time we started using that approach at the state and federal levels as well.



Cultivating Kindness in an Unkind World

a version of this piece was published in Education Week

This fall, gun violence created waves of panic and helplessness in my school district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, when a freshman at Butler High School shot and killed a classmate in the hallway over a personal conflict.  With more than 80 incidents of gunfire on American school grounds already this year, it had seemed like only a matter of time.  How did we get to the point where such tragic events are now accepted as inevitable? How can we shift the interpersonal dynamics in our schools and in our society to make incidents like this less common?  

Psychologists have been administering a test called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory for more than 30 years.  Over that period, they’ve seen a consistent rise in levels of narcissism and a corresponding drop in feelings of empathy.  Individuals with higher narcissism scores are more likely to lash out in anger, while those with lower empathy scores are less likely to help others in need.

Look what has happened to school shooting numbers during those decades:

I’d already been thinking a lot about the decline in positive interactions in our society and how we might more effectively teach character in our schools. But this local act of gun violence added a new sense of urgency to my goal of building community and cultivating kindness between students.  Twenty plus years of experience teaching prescribed character education lessons have shown me that an adult simply talking about character or modelling positive behavior does not often lead to the changes we want to see in our children. There had to be a more impactful approach.

A few years ago, researchers at the University of Wisconsin set out to answer the question ‘Can compassion be learned?’  They wanted to see whether practicing the mindset of caring would lead to more caring behavior, and the results of their study were very promising.  After practicing compassion towards friends, strangers, and even people they’d had conflict with, participants showed increased activity in the region of the brain associated with empathy and understanding.  Just like learning to write the letters of the alphabet or using the quadratic formula, it was regular opportunities to practice the skill that made it more likely they would successfully use the skill on their own.

With that in mind, I created an assignment to give my 7th grade Language Arts students the opportunity to practice compassion towards each other.  I called it Undercover Agents of Kindness.

To increase interaction between students who did not normally talk to each other, I had students draw a random classmate’s name from a bowl.  After they drew names, I was shocked to hear some of them had no idea who the other person was–even after being in class together for two months and in many cases attending the same school for years.  Students had two weeks to perform an unexpected act of kindness for the other person and complete a written ‘mission report’ detailing what they did and how it went.  

Soon I began to see encouraging sticky notes on lockers in the hallway.  Batches of homemade cupcakes and bags of leftover Halloween candy made their way onto desks in my classroom, as did origami, inspirational quotes, and hand-drawn portraits.  I heard compliments exchanged about all kinds of things. Students I’d never seen together started offering to carry each other’s books and musical instruments to the next class.  As the mission reports started trickling in, I read accounts of children studying together, inviting others to sit together at lunch, helping others put football equipment on at practice.

However, it was my students’ reflections on the kindness activity that revealed its impact most.  Again and again they acknowledged that it was difficult and felt awkward to approach someone they didn’t know well and do something for them.  But almost every time they added that they were proud of themselves for doing it anyway and felt the power in brightening someone else’s day.

As part of our reflection on the assignment, I solicited student advice on what I could do to improve ‘Agents of Kindness.’  My students offered many helpful suggestions, including drawing names from the whole grade level instead of just individual classes, offering example acts of kindness for those who get stuck, and allowing a little more time so they don’t feel rushed.  The majority of them said they’d like to repeat the activity, although some admitted that it shouldn’t require a school assignment for them to be kind to each other.

I plan to make Undercover Agents of Kindness a monthly occurrence, and I would love to see other teachers borrow the idea, improve it, and share their results with the educator community as well.  

Sometimes our world seems dark and scary and we feel powerless to change it.  Together my students and I are learning that there are steps we can take to make things better. We can find ways to break down barriers, build stronger communities, and normalize compassionate behavior.  We can be intentional about creating opportunities to practice kindness and make it more likely people will treat each other with compassion on their own.  We can be the change we want to see in the world.

Take heart, NC teachers. You are more than your EVAAS score!

Last night an email from the SAS corporation hit the inboxes of teachers all across North Carolina.  I found it suspicious and forwarded it to spam.

EVAAS is a tool that SAS claims shows how effective educators are by measuring precisely what value each teacher adds to their students’ learning.  Each year teachers board an emotional roller coaster as they prepare to find out whether they are great teachers, average teachers, or terrible teachers–provided they can figure out their logins.  

NC taxpayers spend millions of dollars for this tool, and SAS founder and CEO James Goodnight is the richest person in North Carolina, worth nearly $10 billion.  However, over the past few years, more and more research has shown that value added ratings like EVAAS are highly unstable and are unable to account for the many factors that influence our students and their progress. Lawsuits have sprung up from Texas to Tennessee, charging, among other things, that use of this data to evaluate teachers and make staffing decisions violates teachers’ due process rights, since SAS refuses to reveal the algorithms it uses to calculate scores.

By coincidence, the same day I got the email from SAS, I also got this email from the mother of one of my 7th grade students:

Photos attached provided evidence that the student was indeed reading at the dinner table.

The student in question had never thought of himself as a reader.  That has changed this year–not because of any masterful teaching on my part, but just because he had the right book in front of him at the right time.

Here’s my point:  We need to remember that EVAAS can’t measure the most important ways teachers are adding value to our students’ lives.  Every day we are turning students into lifelong independent readers. We are counseling them through everything from skinned knees to school shootings.  We are mediating their conflicts. We are coaching them in sports. We are finding creative ways to inspire and motivate them. We are teaching them kindness and empathy.  We are doing so much more than helping them pass a standardized test at the end of the year.

So if you figure out your EVAAS login today, NC teachers, take heart.  You are so much more than your EVAAS score!


Help make the North Carolina General Assembly great again–VOTE!!

The general election is tomorrow, and both voters and nonvoters will decide whether the Republican party’s supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly continues for another two years.

Thanks to extreme gerrymandering in our traditionally purple state, North Carolina Republicans currently hold 74 seats to 46 Democrat seats in the House and 35 seats to 15 Democrat seats in the Senate.  As a result, they can pass any bill they want and override Governor Cooper’s veto. This lack of balance has led to a far-right agenda since 2010 which includes the de-prioritizing of public education, unprecedented and illegal racial gerrymandering, a consistent lack of transparency and healthy debate, and so many power grabs they barely constitute news any more.  It’s been ugly, but that could be about to change.

In order to break the supermajority, restore the Governor’s veto, and bring back some semblance of balance and normalcy to our democracy, Democrats need to add either four seats the House or six seats in the Senate.  That’s completely within their means, but it depends 100% on who votes.

Preliminary indications from early voting are largely positive for Democrats.  Ironically, that could be a problem.

Travel back in time two years to the run-up to the presidential election of 2016.  Prognosticators were declaring Hillary Clinton the first female president of the United States and chiding Donald Trump for the inflammatory campaign rhetoric that had supposedly cost him any real chance at winning the presidency.  

Now remember sitting in front of your television on election night, watching states turn red one by one on the map.  Ohio. Florida. Pennsylvania.  Wisconsin. Michigan. Recall the nauseating sense of horror you felt as the reality of a Trump presidency settled in.  Reflect on the last two years of that presidency and what it has meant for our country and the world. The horrible cabinet appointments.  The Muslim ban. Charlottesville. The transgender military ban. Constant demonization of the press and resulting violence by his supporters.  Migrant family separation. Weekly embarrassment on the international stage. The list goes on and on.

I have bad news for anyone who sat out the 2016 election:  You are just as responsible for the Donald Trump presidency as those who voted for him.

This summer, Pew Research released a very thorough survey of the 2016 electorate.   The survey looked closely at demographics of registered voters who did not participate in the presidential election.  Results show clearly that nonvoters were made up more heavily of folks who, had they voted, would have been likely to lean away from Donald Trump (young people and nonwhite voters, for example).

There may have been a lot of different reasons why people didn’t vote in 2016, but one of them was no doubt a sense of media-fueled overconfidence leading to the belief that Clinton already had the presidency in the bag and there was no need to get out and vote.

Fast forward to 2018 in North Carolina.  For months, Democrats and their supporters have been talking about an impending blue wave sweeping our state.  Turnout in early voting is up substantially over the 2014 midterm election, including among voters ages 18-29.  But at the same time, there’s still a danger that the overconfidence that kept voters away from the polls two years ago could strike again on election day and preserve the GOP supermajority that has turned North Carolina into a national caricature.

Please do not take the results of this year’s election for granted.  If you did not vote early, look up your polling place’s address by visiting this convenient link.  Make your plan for when you’re going to vote tomorrow between 6:30 AM and 7:30 PM.  Vote before work. Pack a sandwich and go on your lunch break. Stop by on your way home in the evening (anyone who is in line at 7:30 will be permitted to vote).  But, whatever you do, please, please, please, do not sit this one out.

Help us make the General Assembly great–or at least not a total disaster–again.


(Hat tip to my friend John deVille for the custom hat!)

Fatal shooting at Charlotte school brings underfunded support services back into focus

note:  a shorter version of this post appeared in the Charlotte Observer

To be honest, it felt like just a matter of time until it happened.  Our nation’s school shooting epidemic finally reached Charlotte this week, as 16 year-old Butler High freshman Bobby McKeithen was shot and killed by a classmate after a fight in a school hallway spiraled out of control.

Families, friends and educators are left to grieve and wonder what they could have done differently.  That question is impossible to answer with any kind of certainty. But one thing is clear: our students need better conflict resolution skills and ways of coping with their emotions.  In public schools, our school counselors, psychologists, and social workers form the front lines for helping students develop those skills that will provide them with the foundation they need to be socially and emotionally healthy and allow us to maintain safe and productive environments for all.

This past February, the Parkland, Florida school massacre ended the lives of seventeen students and staff members.  In the wake of that horrific tragedy, North Carolina legislators created the House Select Committee on School Safety to explore what measures could be taken in our schools to keep our students safe.  Unsurprisingly, they found that current student support services staffing ratios are far below what the industry sets as standards.  For example, the nationally recommended ratio of students to school psychologists is 1:700, but our state average is 1:1857.  

To its credit, the House committee recommended that North Carolina public schools increase their number of support staff to meet national standards.  It’s a great but also expensive recommendation requiring legislators who deeply value public education and want to do right by all children.  Former North Carolina General Assembly Fiscal Analyst and current Justice Center Senior Policy Analyst Kristopher Nordstrom puts the price tag for increasing instructional support staff ratios to recommended levels at $640 million.  Unfortunately, this summer our General Assembly budgeted only $10 million for increasing mental health support personnel and made schools apply for grants in order to get those funds.  That’s not a typo, our state lawmakers gave us 1.6% of what they acknowledged we need.  The funds are non-recurring, meaning there is no guarantee those positions will be funded for more than one school year.

It’s not the first time our General Assembly has balked at paying for desperately-needed social-emotional student supports.  In 2017, my own state representative John Autry noted Republicans were adding another $20 million to the private school voucher program despite the fact that existing voucher funds hadn’t been fully spent.  Autry proposed an amendment which would have taken that $20 million and used it to hire additional public school personnel such as school counselors, nurses, and psychologists.  That amendment was tabled by House leadership so they wouldn’t have to go on the record as voting against it.

Here in Mecklenburg County we’ve been fortunate to have the support of our local government to help fill the gaps for what the state refuses to do, but it’s still not nearly enough.  Last school year our support services ratios in CMS schools were far worse than the state averages (our ratio of school psychologists was 1:2112, for example). Our school district asked for and received $4.4 million in additional funding from the county which will provide 10 psychologists, 33 school counselors, and 17 social workers.  Those additional staff members will make a difference, but it’s a drop in the bucket in a district that serves nearly 150,000 children.


We have no way of knowing if counseling or peer mediation could have prevented the devastating events that took place at Butler this week.  But as we struggle to turn this loss of life into meaningful action, let’s focus on what concrete steps we can take to help students develop the social and emotional well being we know they all need to be successful in school.  Let’s break with the mentality that has us perpetually accepting as fact that public education is all about making do with less than we need and take bold steps on behalf of kids who need us now more than ever.


Failure of Read to Achieve is a clarion call for state legislators to listen to teachers

Last week NC State’s College of Education and Friday Institute for Educational Innovation released the most comprehensive study yet of the Read to Achieve initiative.  After analyzing the reading progress of elementary students who had participated in the program, researchers determined that the North Carolina General Assembly’s efforts to improve elementary literacy have not increased reading proficiency whatsoever.  A closer look at how this unsuccessful legislation was conceived as well as a silver lining identified in the report should help guide future education policy in North Carolina.

When Read to Achieve was passed in 2012, the legislation was intended to end social promotion and help 3rd graders avoid what Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger called the ‘economic death sentence’ awaiting students who are unable to read proficiently:  

The goal of the State is to ensure that every student read at or above grade level by the end of third grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that he or she can read, comprehend, integrate, and apply complex texts needed for secondary education and career success.

Berger’s intentions may have been laudable, but it was obvious from the beginning that Read to Achieve lacked the educator’s touch.  The initiative attempted to improve reading by increasing the volume of assessments in grades K-3 and ratcheting up the threats of retention, essentially punishing children for not being able to read well enough in early grades.  It’s not the approach an effective teacher would take.

According to former NC superintendent Dr. June Atkinson, when Read to Achieve was drafted, the Department of Public Instruction was very candid about the challenges it presented and the impact it would have.  DPI warned the General Assembly that the volume of portfolio assessments the legislation added to 3rd grade was too high and that the pace and funding of implementation didn’t provide enough professional development for teachers to effectively transition to the new system.  The General Assembly had also slashed Pre-K funding 25% from pre-recession levels at the time, and DPI informed legislators that quality early childhood education was an important component of building a foundation for literacy.  All of that feedback fell largely on deaf ears.

Five years and $150 million wasted taxpayer dollars later, NC State’s new study makes it clear that state legislators need to do a much better job of involving professional educators in the design of education reforms.  None of the core components of Read to Achieve, which include the threat of retention, additional reading instruction with increased number of assessments, and optional summer reading camps, have increased reading proficiency when it comes to End of Grade reading tests.

It’s important to note that, although Read to Achieve has clearly not accomplished its goals on the state level, the study did find individual schools and teachers which are making progress in helping elementary students improve their reading.  NC State’s researchers point out that the way Read to Achieve is being implemented varies greatly among North Carolina’s 115 school districts, and “many practitioners across the state believe their localized versions of RtA are having an impact on their students.”  They suggest we identify and scale up local successes, adding that “policy-makers and state and local RtA implementers may benefit from inclusion of a wider representation of North Carolina’s early childhood and literacy experts in planning for the next stages of RtA.”

Researchers also reiterated concerns first expressed by DPI way back when Read to Achieve was designed–that any interventions which address third grade only and ignore the crucial years that come before it will have limited success.  Increasing access to Pre-K and developing more effective literacy interventions for Kindergarten through 2nd grade are essential if we want to improve reading among our 3rd grade students.

Improving early childhood literacy is one of the most important goals we can have in our public schools and in our state.  But if efforts to address our students’ deficits in reading don’t include seats at the table for educators, they are much more likely to include serious and avoidable flaws.  Our state lawmakers must value educators as essential stakeholders and welcome the expertise we bring when they craft education policy. In partnership with the Department of Public Instruction, they must work with local school districts to identify success stories and help create processes for teachers to be able to share effective literacy practices across county lines.  When our state education policy is informed by the folks who are doing the actual day-to-day work, who know the children best and deeply understand the realities we face in the classroom, maybe then we’ll start to see the changes we all want.


Teachers can make North Carolina’s midterm elections a big win for education

NC House of Representatives gallery, May 16, 2018

It was five months ago today, but I can still hear your voices, still feel the goosebumps on my arms.  

On May 16, after standing in line for more than two hours outside the North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh, I finally made my way inside and slipped into the House gallery.  The gallery was packed with teachers, all dutifully following the ‘be quiet’ directions like only educators can. But the real display of power was just on the other side of the glass, in the rotunda separating the House and Senate galleries.  Teachers there had the volume set on 10, waving signs and chanting ‘Remember, remember!  We vote in November!!’ over and over.  At times the Speaker of the House Tim Moore had to pause at the microphone and wait for the noise to subside because nobody on the House floor could hear him.  We truly felt the power of our numbers that day.

The next day we all went back to school, and the General Assembly’s Republican supermajority went back to business as usual.  They passed the entire budget in a conference report, an unprecedented move designed to eliminate debate about education-related topics like higher teacher pay.  They made sure a $1.9 billion school bond which would have repaired our crumbling schools and relieved student overcrowding all over the state was not allowed on the general election ballot.  Instead of focusing on public education, they put their energy into adding six unnecessary and dangerous constitutional amendments to this fall’s ballot in a brazen, last ditch effort to keep their stranglehold on power by driving conservative voters to the polls.  

In other words, as painful as it is to admit, May 16 had no direct impact whatsoever on the actions of our current state legislators.  None. Their priorities remain to give massive tax cuts to the wealthy, to privatize education, and to starve traditional public schools of resources.  No number of teachers waving signs and yelling is going to change those priorities. As Senator Jeff Jackson put it, you can’t make both tax cuts and public education number one at the same time.  You have to choose. And the GOP supermajority’s choice couldn’t be more clear.

So what’s left is to change the legislators.

If you’re unhappy with our current General Assembly’s approach to education, then you need to do your part to end the supermajority that is behind this mess.  Thanks to extreme gerrymandering in our traditionally purple state, North Carolina Republicans currently hold 74 seats to 46 Democrat seats in the House, and they hold 35 seats to 15 Democrat seats in the Senate.  As a result, they can pass any bill they want and override Governor Cooper’s veto. This lack of balance has led to a far-right agenda which includes the de-prioritizing of public education over the past 8 years.  It’s turned us into a national laughingstock, with out-of-town relatives constantly asking us, “What the hell’s going on in North Carolina?”

In order to break the supermajority, restore the Governor’s veto, and bring back transparency and debate to our democracy, we need to add either four Democrats to the House or six Democrats to the Senate.  That’s completely within our means, but it depends 100% on who votes.

The teacher vote has the potential to impact the General Assembly’s future approach to education in a big way.  There are more than 94,000 teachers in North Carolina.  We’re a diverse crew, and there are some political differences among us, but the vast majority of us agree that public education must be a bigger priority and that schools should be provided with the resources they need to get the job done.  With historical NC midterm voter turnout hovering in the mid 40% range, teachers voting for pro-public education candidates have the opportunity to make a real difference in election outcomes this year.  If we show up at the polls.

Early voting starts tomorrow all over the state, and voting is more convenient than ever (find the location near you by using the handy tool found here).  Please, please, please, put it on your calendar right now if you haven’t already, and make sure every single teacher you know understands the urgency of voting in this midterm election.

We don’t have to continue to helplessly accept policy and processes that are bad for North Carolina’s school children.  We can vote in legislators who believe that public education should be the number one priority for our state. On November 7 we can wake up to a new dawn and begin working to restore North Carolina to its former position as a leader in education.  

But it all starts with holding true to that promise you chanted back on May 16:  “Remember, remember, we vote in November!!

Charter-related campaign donations preceded Brawley’s municipal charter bill

One of the most controversial pieces of legislation to come out of the North Carolina General Assembly this year was four-term Mecklenburg County Representative Bill Brawley’s Municipal Charter Bill, HB 514.  The bill cleared the way for the mostly-white towns of Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius, and Huntersville to use city money to create their own charter schools and admit their own residents while turning away others from more diverse neighboring parts of the county.  In addition to drawing funds from CMS, the municipalities will be able to use their much higher wealth to provide resources at levels which are not possible for students in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.

There is no question that setting up municipal charter schools will increase economic and racial segregation for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, already the most racially and economically segregated school district in North Carolina.  Whether or not that was the intent of the bill is another matter.  

Representative Brawley has publicly said the legislation was simply him carrying out the will of his constituents.  However, privately he hasn’t always sounded so much like a dutiful public servant.  Last spring, at a meeting including Brawley and CMS district and board officials, Brawley reportedly offered to drop HB 514 if CMS fired legislative liaison (and former fellow Republican state representative) Charles Jeter.  Brawley’s offer got surprisingly little media attention, especially considering it appears to be a clear violation of North Carolina law governing legislative ethics.

CMS, of course, didn’t fire Charles Jeter.  Brawley didn’t pull the bill, and HB 514 sailed through North Carolina’s GOP supermajority-controlled General Assembly and became law.  

A deep dive into the North Carolina State Board of Elections Campaign Finance database reveals another possible motivating factor behind the controversial legislation. 

Charter schools are big business in North Carolina.  Since the state cap on charter schools was lifted in 2012, the number of charter schools in the state has nearly doubled, to 185.  A Portland, Oregon multimillionaire named John Bryan and his charter school network TeamCFA run 13 of those schools.  

Campaign finance disclosure documents show that, in 2016, John Bryan donated $7100 to Brawley’s campaign, and Bryan has donated $142,000 to the North Carolina Republican Party since 2014.  But Brawley isn’t only carrying out the will of pro-charter constituents 3000 miles away in Oregon.  Closer to home, North Carolina Citizens for Freedom in Education IE PAC donated $17,084 to Brawley’s campaign in 2016.  That organization shares a Raleigh address with Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a nonprofit established to advocate for public school privatization and charter expansion.  The same year the lion’s share of those donations were made, an Education Task Force was created in Matthews in the heart of Brawley’s district and began meeting to explore setting up charter schools.  In March of 2017, Representative Brawley then filed the first version of HB 514, permitting the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill to operate their own charters.

All of this may be business as usual in Raleigh, but that doesn’t make it right.  It’s not right for our legislators to offer legislative favors in return for the firing of a state employee.  It’s not right for officials who are elected to represent the best interests of all their constituents to sell out to special interests and executives from Oregon.  It’s not right for them to enact public policy that clearly marginalizes and disadvantages students of color in a city that already ranks dead last in the nation in terms of economic mobility.  We all deserve better representation than this.

Hey NC voters–don’t forget Senator Berger sank the school bond!

Northwoods Park Middle, Onslow County (AP)

As campaign season hits the home stretch, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger is trying desperately to polish a turd.  He’s claiming that he’s showed his commitment to North Carolina’s teachers and students through textbook spending (whoops–down 45% from peak levels in 2009-10) and per-pupil expenditures (umm, 25% below the national average, currently ranks 39th in the nation).  

But as school districts in eastern North Carolina begin to assess catastrophic building damage following Hurricane Florence and teachers all over the state try to focus students in classrooms with no air conditioning, there’s one turd that voters really need to remember.

When the General Assembly’s short session began last summer, 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.”

The Public School Building Bond Act of 2017 had bipartisan rank and file support in both the Senate and the House, and it enjoyed sponsorship by Senate Education committee chair Michael Lee and House Education committee chair Craig Horn.  Yet despite the overwhelming need and bipartisan support, Phil Berger determined the public should not have the opportunity to decide whether it’s in our children’s best interest to relieve overcrowding and renovate crumbling schoolhouses.  Berger told sponsors of the Senate bill that the legislation would not be moving forward, and the General Assembly instead focused on drafting constitutional amendments which would drive conservative voter turnout–a last ditch effort to hold onto the GOP supermajority.

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.  In June, 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 was a major 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.   

There is so much at stake in the 2018 election.  We need to vote for candidates who believe that public education is the cornerstone of building the society that we want in North Carolina.  But as we look for candidates who meet that description, it’s equally important that we carefully review the work of our current leaders and decide whether or not we want to take away their power.  As the most powerful politician in North Carolina, Senator Phil Berger has demonstrated time and again that his priorities are to give tax cuts to the wealthy, encourage privatization of education, and starve traditional public schools of the resources we need.  Remember that when you vote next month.