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.

The NC tax cap amendment will cost you–unless you’re super rich

At first glance it might sound great.  Limit my taxes? Sure!!

That’s the reaction the North Carolina Republican Party is counting on for uninformed voters to pass the constitutional amendment to cap the maximum state income tax.  

The truth is, unless you are super rich, this amendment is far more likely to cost you money than to save you money.  

The amendment language on the ballot appears as follows:

Rather than benefiting the vast majority of North Carolinians, the tax cap amendment is a gift to wealthy GOP donors.  According to North Carolina’s Budget and Tax Center, those in the top 1% of income are the primary beneficiaries of such a policy, receiving “more than half of the total next tax cut from a 7 percent maximum income tax rate when compared to what would be possible with a graduated rate structure with brackets on higher incomes.”  

Do North Carolina’s millionaires really need the help?  Take a look at how income has skyrocketed for the top 1% in North Carolina since the GOP takeover of the General Assembly:

With income tax capped by the Constitution, North Carolina’s policymakers will be forced to look elsewhere for revenue if they don’t want to reduce services.  That means raising sales and property tax, which hits working class people much harder than it does the wealthy.

Another huge problem with this amendment is it will permanently hamstring future legislatures from making sizable investments in areas like public education.  Even if we’re able to build a General Assembly that is inclined to make substantial improvements in our schools after years of underfunding, there will be little they can do with revenue that is permanently limited by our Constitution.

The bottom line is that this is an amendment that will benefit only the 1%.  The other 99% should be voting against it and telling everyone they know to do the same.