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