NC lawmakers file bill that would create virtual Pre-K for children of poverty

*note: this article appeared in The Washington Post

It’s the latest shockingly bad idea out of North Carolina.

This week state legislators filed a bill which would create a 3 year pilot program to deliver Pre-K education at home via computer to what it terms “at risk” children.

The program, called UpStart, costs a mere $500,000 per year.  It would be available to families living below the federal poverty line and children of active duty military personnel and would provide both internet access at home to families that can’t afford it and technical support to help them operate the software.  

According to HB 485, the goals of the pilot program are as follows:

(i) evaluate the effectiveness of giving preschool-age children access, at home, to interactive individualized instruction delivered by computers and the Internet to prepare them academically for success in school; and
(ii) test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the State.

I can’t believe I am actually writing these words, but the idea of having 4-year-olds going to preschool by looking at a computer in their home is horrendous.

Many of the advantages of a quality preschool education require children to actually be in the presence of other people.  Those advantages include, among many other things, learning how to communicate effectively with peers, how to work together to solve problems, how to share and wait for your turn, how to be independent, and how to be respectful toward peers and adults.  Those lessons form a critical foundation which helps prepare children for the transition to kindergarten.

Another issue with this bill, as NC Justice Center policy analyst Kris Nordstrom points out, is that it fails to appropriate any funds for an evaluation to determine whether the virtual preschool is working.  If we really want to ‘evaluate the effectiveness’ of preparing students for success in school by putting them in front of a screen at their house, we need to provide funds to do so.

HB 485 is yet another attempt to mask a serious legislative shortcoming by tossing a few dollars and a terrible idea at it.  If we are serious about wanting to prepare children for success in school, then we need to put up the money for universal Pre-K.

North Carolina educators prepare to march to restore benefits stripped by state legislators

On May 1, public education advocates will march through the streets of Raleigh to the state legislature to demand five things.  While student support services, compensation, and Medicaid might be more sexy, there’s another goal on our agenda which is also crucial, as it aims to make it easier to attract good teachers to North Carolina.  

After the last state budget was passed in the summer of 2017, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger was quick to congratulate his Senate and House colleagues for what he referred to as an ongoing effort to “improve education outcomes.” But provisions buried deep in that budget actually made it even more difficult for our state to address its teacher shortage, by discouraging teachers from entering the profession.

The budget changed eligibility of retired state employees for health benefits to include only those who “earned contributory retirement service … prior to January 1, 2021.” Teachers hired after that date who devote their lives to serving the children of North Carolina will be forced to purchase their own health insurance after they retire. That’s a really scary prospect considering the exorbitant costs and uncertainty surrounding health care in the United States.  

This pending change comes at a time when North Carolina is already mired in an education crisis and facing a teacher shortage. As teacher salaries have continued to lag far beyond the national average, career protections have been stripped, pay for advanced degrees has been revoked, and insurance premiums have steadily risen, the number of students choosing to enroll in UNC teacher preparation programs has predictably declined.  Just as troubling is our state’s 49th-and-dropping teacher pay competitiveness ranking, which compares teacher compensation with the wages of other industries requiring a college degree.  With so few perks remaining, it’s no wonder we’re struggling to attract people to the teaching profession.

Across North Carolina, thousands of teaching vacancies have resulted in many students seeing an endless procession of substitute teachers. While these substitutes deserve a lot of credit for the incredibly difficult work they do, they are not equipped to provide the education outcomes we want for our children.  

A study by the Rand Corporation found that, among school-related factors, having a high-quality teacher in place has the largest impact on student achievement – two to three times as much impact as factors such as services, facilities and school leadership. The Center for Public Education echoes Rand’s findings and adds that, in order to ensure that every child is taught by excellent teachers, states must step up efforts to recruit and retain top candidates. That’s exactly the opposite of what’s happening in North Carolina.

If our legislators are serious about improving education outcomes, their policies need to make this a more attractive state to teach in. Stripping retirement health benefits merely gives prospective teachers one more reason to turn their back on North Carolina’s schools.  On May 1, supporters of public education in NC will be putting legislators on notice that we expect them to reinstate those benefits and to do so this session.

NC school employees will converge on Raleigh May 1 to press for much-needed change

This weekend, hundreds of educators from all over North Carolina met in Raleigh for the 49th annual convention of the North Carolina Association of Educators.  We celebrated victories in the past year, including the unprecedented May 16 Rally for Respect. The May 16 rally was instrumental in making public education the number one issue in the November general election.  That election ended the supermajority responsible for many catastrophic education policies since 2011 and restored a little balance to our state government.

NC teachers pack the House chamber, May 16, 2018

Now it’s time to begin the hard work of rebuilding, and we need all hands on deck once again.

On May 1, we’re calling for all employees of North Carolina schools to take a personal day and join us in Raleigh as we converge on the General Assembly to press for the following 5 changes:

  1. Provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals to meet national standards
  2. Provide $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, 5% raise for all ESPs (non-certified staff), teachers, admin, and a 5% cost of living adjustment for retirees
  3. Expand Medicaid to improve the health of our students and families
  4. Reinstate state retiree health benefits eliminated by the General Assembly in 2017
  5. Restore advanced degree compensation stripped by the General Assembly in 2013

There will be opposition to the May 1 All Out rally, including people who say folks that take a personal day to fight for their students are selfish.  There will be those who use fear to try to prevent North Carolina educators from uniting to demonstrate our resolve.

Let me remind you that North Carolina’s Professional Teaching Standards encourage you to be active in your advocacy, to work to improve teaching conditions and change policies that negatively impact our profession.  It’s an area where we all need to be rated ‘distinguished’:

Teachers strive to improve the teaching profession.  They contribute to the establishment of positive working conditions in their school, district, and across the state.  They actively participate in and advocate for decision-making structures in education and government that take advantage of the expertise of teachers. Teachers promote professional growth for all educators and collaborate with their colleagues to improve the profession.

  • Strive to improve the profession
  • Contribute to the establishment of good working conditions
  • Participate in decision-making structures
  • Promote professional growth

So go ahead and put in your personal day for May 1 and ready your marching shoes.  Encourage your colleagues to do the same. Let’s stand up and fight for the public schools our children deserve.

Private white flight academy turns charter, set to deprive some of NC’s neediest students

*note: This article was republished by the Washington Post

Last month the North Carolina State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve the conversion of Halifax County’s private Hobgood Academy to a public charter.  Halifax County ranks 90th out of 100 NC counties in terms of per capita income, and more than 28 percent of its residents live below the poverty line–nearly double the national average.  Hobgood’s student population is 87% white, while only 4% of those attending Halifax County Schools are white.

If you read the charter application Hobgood submitted to state officials, you might be inclined to think that the very purpose for the school’s existence is to lift children out of poverty by offering them a better education.  The application notes the ‘low performing’ status of the public schools in the area and the ‘vicious cycle of poverty’ that contributes to that low performance. It lays out the applicants’ supposed view that ‘the potential exists to turn the tide of poverty in this community through excellence in education’ and refers to Hobgood as ‘the perfect place to impact the most vulnerable of our children.’

The real reason Hobgood is converting to a charter school is something entirely different.  In the application’s section about enrollment trends, applicants admit to a ‘significant decline in enrollment,’ acknowledging that the private school’s $5000 annual tuition could be a barrier for some families.  A Google Site called Let’s Charter Hobgood, set up to organize Hobgood parents to push for the charter conversion, shows the motivation has nothing to do with extending opportunity to people who don’t currently have it.  Rather, it’s for parents of students who already attend the school to be able to keep going there without paying tuition. In addition, responses to recent questions that are posted on the parent site include the statement “No current law forces any diversity whether it be by age, sex, race, creed.”  The question isn’t posted, so you’ll have to infer what it was.

Hobgood’s conversion to a charter means the school could see a windfall of more than $2 million from the state.  Of course, that money is coming out of someone else’s pocket.  Remember those impoverished students Hobgood’s charter application claimed to be so concerned about?  They’ll be paying much of that tab via pass-through transfer funding from Halifax County Schools.

Halifax County’s entire education budget, including community college, is $11.2 million.  In the Department of Public Instruction’s most recent facility needs survey, the district reported $13.3 million in capital needs, including more than $8 million in needed renovations to existing school buildings.  Financially, Halifax County school district is most definitely not in a position to be bailing out private schools.

The history of racial segregation in Halifax County is crucial to understanding what is currently playing out.  Rodney Pierce teaches 8th grade Social Studies and Civics & Economics in Halifax County. An avid local historian, he was recently named the 2019 North Carolina Council for Social Studies Teacher of the Year.  Shortly after Hobgood Academy’s charter was approved, Mr. Pierce posted a comprehensive Twitter thread in response to a News & Observer article about the move.  The thread offers a lot of relevant background information around the founding of Hobgood Academy fifty years ago, and it appears below:

Hobgood Academy was founded in 1969 and opened in September 1970. IMO, this was a direct response to the U.S. Justice Department’s rejection of the Halifax County Schools District’s plan of desegregation in March 1969 that did not comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The county’s White residents resisted integration in public education so much so that the late Rep. Thorne Gregory, who was from Scotland Neck, actually filed a bill in January of 1969 to establish a separate school district for his hometown.

Blacks made up only 18 percent of the town’s population at the time and the bill would allow the town’s mayor and commissioners to set up a five member school board and establish a supplemental school tax of 50 cents for each $100 property valuation.  Additionally, there were 8,000 Black students and 2,300 White pupils in HCS, a ratio of nearly 4:1.

Thorne’s bill passed the House in February 1969 and the Senate in March, with some impassioned pleas from late Senator Julian Allsbrook of Roanoke Rapids.  The Justice Department filed suit against the district in June 1969 and the case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs in June 1972 (U.S. v. Scotland Neck City Board of Education).  

Given the proximity of the town of Hobgood to the city of Scotland Neck, and the history of White residents of Scotland Neck attempting to establish their own separate public school district, I don’t think it’s a reach to think that some of those families who resisted integration banded together to start a private academy for their children. The school’s website says families from five counties worked together to start the school.

Now at the same time, Thorne’s bill allowed Warren County and Halifax counties to attempt to start new districts in Warrenton, Scotland Neck and the Littleton-Lake Gaston area.  The irony of turning to the same public school system you resisted decades ago to save the institution you started to resist integration – through Opportunity Scholarships, vouchers and now a charter system.

As stated in the article, it was the third time that Hobgood has applied to become a charter school. According to an NAACP amicus brief filed in 2014, Hobgood’s enrollment was 95 percent White. Today, it is 88 percent White, largely due to the Opportunity Scholarship program.

According to the article, “Hobgood Academy could receive more than $2 million a year in state funds, up from the $69,300 a year it now gets from the voucher school program. Eighteen of Hobgood’s 98 students receive vouchers.  Whites make up only 4 percent of students in Halifax County Schools. The Hobgood community is 49 percent African American and 46 percent White.

I neglected to mention that the desegregation plan of Halifax County Schools in March 1969 also did not comply with the 14th Amendment.

Additionally, [Halifax County Representative Michael Wray] wrote a letter in 2017 supporting Hobgood’s charter application, saying “As the economy has declined, the number of families able to pay tuition has fallen.” What about the families who never could afford to pay that tuition until recently?

In view of Hobgood’s sordid segregationist history, it’s worth asking which students will want to apply to attend Hobgood Charter Academy now that the $5000 tuition is no more.  What’s certain is that children who remain in Halifax County Schools will continue to suffer from an ever dwindling pool of resources as a result of our state’s broken charter school policy.

NC Charter Teacher of the Year calls for major charter reform

In case you missed it, this week EducationNC published an opinion piece by Doug Price.  Price teaches at Voyager Academy in Durham and was recently named the 2019 North Carolina Burroughs Wellcome Fund Charter School Teacher of the Year.  He has worked extensively with Hope Street Group, Kenan Fellows, and the NC Public School Forum, and he is currently working on a PhD in Educational Leadership.

Charter school policy in North Carolina has been a hot topic since 2011, when the newly elected Republican supermajority moved quickly to eliminate the cap limiting the number that could operate in the state.  Since then, unfettered charter growth has led to a number of problems impacting both children who attend charter schools and those who don’t.

In the EdNC article, Doug calls for the following major changes to charter school policy in North Carolina:

  1. Reinstate the charter cap
  2. Stop associating charter schools with vouchers and online charter schools
  3. Challenge the claim that wide-open competition leads to better outcomes.  Data shows that’s not the case.
  4. Return to the intent of the original charter legislation–which called for innovative approaches to education–and create pathways for collaboration so those practices can help students in traditional public schools.

It’s refreshing to hear this perspective from someone who not only works in a charter school, but is as respected and knowledgeable about education policy as Doug Price.  Here’s hoping the legislators who are responsible for crafting those policies are listening.

NC Representative again introduces legislation to arm teachers

Cabarrus County Representative and proud NRA member Larry Pittman has once again introduced legislation to arm teachers.  Filed this week, the School Defense Act would authorize full and part-time school employees to carry firearms in our schools.

Pittman’s last effort to put guns in the hands of teachers came in the wake of last year’s Parkland massacre, where 17 lost their lives and an armed security officer declined to enter the school building and engage the shooter.  

At the time, Pittman urged fellow lawmakers to support his legislation, saying

We need to allow teachers, other school personnel and other citizens, who are willing, to be screened and to receive tactical training and bring their weapons to school, in cooperation with local law enforcement who would need to be informed as to who is doing this. We should give them a fighting chance. Otherwise, when they die, and children die whom they could have defended, their blood will be on our hands. I cannot accept that. I hope you will think this through and find that you cannot accept it, either.

A recent national survey of educators found that more than 95% did not believe that teachers should carry a gun in the classroom.