Five things NC lawmakers can do for public education in 2019

*Note: this article was published in the Raleigh News & Observer

One of those states is North Carolina.  In May, 20,000 teachers filled the streets in Raleigh to express their dissatisfaction with the unravelling of public education under the GOP supermajority.  We vowed to topple that supermajority at the polls and put our state back on the right track when it comes to support for our schools.  In November we did just that, ending Republican supermajority control of both chambers of the legislature, electing many new, pro-education candidates and giving Governor Cooper the ability to sustain his veto.  

Last month the Wall Street Journal released a bombshell report:  teachers are quitting their jobs at the fastest rate ever recorded.  Across the country, the growing number of unfilled teaching positions means schools must increasingly hire people with no education training or rely on substitute teachers.  The exodus comes as unprecedented teacher protests in several states have forced school closures and focused national attention on the desperate condition of our public education system.

Education advocates hope we’ll now see more of the transparency and dialogue that have been conspicuously absent from governance in North Carolina since 2011.  GOP leadership regularly buried major education initiatives deep in budget bills, preventing the thoughtful debate and stakeholder input that are so essential to good policy.  The current decline of our education system is a direct result of that misguided approach.

Rebuilding education in our state will be a massive undertaking.  Under the supermajority, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations have deprived the state of billions of dollars in revenue, per-student funding lags 25% below the national average, and teacher pay is mired in 37th place.  It may be difficult for our new-look General Assembly to know where to start, but here are five things state legislators need to do this year:

Restore teaching assistants:  We’ve lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants due to budget cuts, crippling teachers’ ability to differentiate instruction and manage behavior.  Adding those positions back would improve student learning outcomes in a big way.

Provide trauma-informed training: Our students’ adverse life experiences take a tremendous toll on them both mentally and physically.  In Buncombe County, trauma-informed approaches have provided much-needed social and emotional support and resulted in improvement in test scores and attendance as well as reductions in discipline referrals and suspensions.  It’s time to take that movement statewide.

Overhaul school report cards:  Currently, NC school report card grades are based on an 80/20 achievement/growth formula which measures socioeconomic status more accurately than student learning.  If we insist on assigning a single letter to measure school quality, we should feature growth more prominently than achievement and stop unfairly stigmatizing high-poverty schools as failures.

Reinstate the charter cap: Since the legislature lifted the 100 school cap in 2011, the number of charters operating in NC has nearly doubled.  These schools are deepening economic and racial segregation and often failing to provide better alternatives to students who need them most.  Their unchecked growth is unhealthy for our education system.

Pay teachers well:  After teacher compensation dropped to national embarrassment level, legislators have provided moderate pay increases over the past few years.  North Carolina educators still earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average and plateau after only 15 years of service.  Paying teachers fairly must be a major priority in 2019.

Under the leadership of ‘Education Governor’ Jim Hunt, North Carolina was a national beacon in education.  When the General Assembly reconvenes on January 9, one of its newest members will be Hunt’s daughter, District 103 Representative Rachel Hunt.  Along with her new colleagues, Representative Hunt is eager to begin restoring the state to its position as a leader in education so that beacon can shine again.  North Carolina’s public school teachers are ready.

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