Under Democratic and Republican control over the past two decades, North Carolina has been steadily producing more degree earners. But the state is stuck in the country’s bottom 10 when it comes to paying its teachers and funding its students.
Education, as always, is a central issue in the North Carolina gubernatorial campaign. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, talk a lot about how the state does or doesn’t support its public school classrooms.
As part of an assessment of how the state is doing on several fronts ahead of the Nov. 8 election, The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer looked at five key metrics on education and how North Carolina compares with neighbors Virginia and Georgia, as well as the national average. The papers analyzed data about degree attainment, teacher pay, college entrance exams and spending on students.
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In 2015, 29.4 percent of North Carolinians 25 and over held a four-year college degree, and 86.6 percent had a high school diploma. Both measures have risen steadily in the past two decades, though North Carolina tracks behind the U.S. average and Virginia. It has moved slightly ahead of Georgia in high school graduates.
While teacher salaries have risen in the past couple of years, North Carolina ranked 42nd in the country in 2014-15, according to the National Education Association. It also trails Virginia, Georgia and the country as a whole on per-pupil spending for K-12 schools; in 2014-15, it was 43rd. The NEA has projected that this year, North Carolina will rank 41st in teacher salaries and 44th in per-student spending.
The NEA rankings of teacher pay do not account for differences in cost of living among the states, notes Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. When the Council for Community and Economic Research’s cost of living index for 2015 is applied, he says, North Carolina rises to 33rd, still trailing Georgia (7th) and Virginia (24th).
In the past few years, the Republican-led legislature has ushered in significant changes in education, including reductions in K-3 teacher assistants and increases in charter schools and vouchers to help students attend private schools. It also toughened rules to make sure students are reading by the third grade, and required a new letter-grade rating system for schools. The pay raises were approved, including more competitive pay for teachers early in their careers. Veteran teachers received smaller raises.
McCrory has touted the recent raises, saying average teacher pay and benefits now exceed $50,000 for the first time. Meanwhile, Cooper ran a TV ad showing a North Carolina teacher moving to another state for a higher paycheck, saying, “Someone needs to fix this.”
Debate over spending
Education makes up a big chunk of state spending and always has.
But in inflation-adjusted dollars, public school spending has not returned to pre-recession levels. A report this month by the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research and policy institute in Washington, said North Carolina was one of eight states that had cut per-student funding by 10 percent or more since the recession. It’s one of five states that also cut income taxes during that period.
“In the last few budgets it’s clear that tax cuts have been prioritized over education spending,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum, a group that advocates for higher spending.
“The [pay] increases are welcome, but we’re nowhere near where we were before the recession,” Poston added. “There’s a lot of ground to be made up.”
Trip Stallings, director of policy research at N.C. State University’s Friday Institute, said it may not be realistic to assume a return to previous funding levels.
“It’s really challenging to compare where we are now versus where we’ve been, because our circumstances are so different,” he said. “How fair is it to compare what we’re doing now, with the resources we have, to what we were able to do in 2000? It’s hard to do. A lot of the outcomes that we care about have trended steadily upward for many years.”
Indeed, student performance on state tests improved this year, driven by higher scores in elementary school science and math. Ninety-two fewer schools were classified as low-performing, though there were 469 D-rated schools and 102 F-rated schools.
For students, progress remains stubbornly uneven, with results heavily related to zip code, race and socio-economic status. Poor student achievement is closely correlated with poverty; most schools that got an F on the state’s test score rating this year had populations where at least 80 percent of students were economically disadvantaged. More prosperous counties also tend to attract the best teachers through salary supplements, exacerbating the achievement gap.
Gains from innovation
Still, some poorer counties are finding a way to make gains.
Last week, educators gathered in Research Triangle Park to celebrate a state high school graduation rate of 85.9 percent – a dramatic jump over 68.3 percent in 2006. Principals from 62 schools received awards for posting a 100 percent graduation rate this year. They were mostly smaller early-college high schools that blend high school and college courses.
Jones County was honored as having the sixth highest graduation rate among North Carolina’s school districts. Jones Senior High, the only high school in the county, awarded diplomas to 74 students this year, for a four-year graduation rate of 93.2 percent.
The accomplishment was notable. In Jones County, two hours southeast of Raleigh, about three-quarters of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In 2008-09, the district had a graduation rate of just 54.8 percent, said Michael Bracy, the superintendent.
At Jones Senior High, teachers serve as mentors and advisers, meeting every other Friday with a group of about a dozen students. There, they talk about study skills, college entrance exams, how to apply to college. Each student has an adviser who follows his or her progress for four years, intervening when necessary.
“If somebody’s absent, or somebody’s falling behind in the classroom, they kind of check up on them,” said Michael White, the principal, who lists his mobile phone number on the school website. “We can see it’s paying off.”
The school also has raised the bar on academic expectations. Last year, half of the students took a college course, and 85 percent of them passed. The local community college has a satellite campus three miles from the school.
“The number one priority they’ve had is building strong relationships with students,” Bracy said of the high school. “It’s teamwork. I’ve never seen a group of adults who just rallied behind the students. Whether it’s a home visit, or calling, they do whatever it takes to get kids in school and keep them there.”
College cost challenges
But even if students finish high school, they don’t necessarily find a path to college. White said some of his graduates won admission to college but didn’t get there – tripped up by expenses such as dorm deposits or application fees.
North Carolina has long supported public higher education with its tax dollars, but pressure is building on parents and students to bear more of the cost. Although tuition here is still lower than in many other states, North Carolina has seen one of the biggest increases over the past five years. Even when accounting for inflation, in-state students at UNC-system schools saw a nearly 20 percent spike in tuition and fees during the period.
This year, the legislature passed, and McCrory signed, a law establishing the “N.C. Promise” plan, which sets tuition at $1,000 a year for North Carolina residents at three UNC campuses – Elizabeth City State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina. The cheaper option may improve affordability for some.
But Stallings wonders whether the state is starting to price out students at the university level. “It’s not a cheap date anymore,” he said, noting that the state’s 58 low-cost community colleges may become a first choice for more students.
McCrory has taken credit for the N.C. Promise plan, as well as a law that requires a fixed four-year tuition for UNC system students, and limits on fee increases. Cooper has decried budget cuts to public higher education since the recession, and has proposed free community college tuition and student loan refinancing.
Getting ready for college
First, though, students have to prove that they’re prepared for college, and too few are able to do that, according to 2016 ACT scores. Since 2013, when North Carolina began requiring high school juniors to take the college entry test, scores have improved slightly. But this year, only 18 percent of the state’s test takers met the ACT’s four benchmarks for college readiness; 46 percent met none of them.
Schools districts are trying new techniques to lift expectations and performance.
At Carroll Middle School in Raleigh, teachers have embraced “challenge based learning,” which asks students to dig in to real world problems, figure out what questions to ask, do research and pose solutions. The school, through a Verizon program, also provides a tablet computer to each youngster.
In Mary Samuels’ sixth-grade science class, students in small groups researched biomes on a recent morning using their tablets. Their assignment for the next week is to create a 21st century settlement that can sustain itself over time, so questions about habitat are key. In social studies class, they’ll research ancient civilizations to understand which ones thrived and which ones failed.
Jaliscia DeVega is writing answers to her questions on a padlet – a grid on her tablet – along with her classmate, Da’vonte Burgess. “I love science,” she said. “Last year on the [end of grade test] I got a four. I loved it, but I didn’t know I was good at it.” Burgess seems sure of his future: “I’m going to be a zoologist – the study of animals!”
The students are taking more ownership in their learning, and that has them more invested in the process, said Carroll’s principal, Elizabeth MacWilliams. Last year, the school had an almost 10-point increase in its overall composite test scores – more than any middle school in Wake County, MacWilliams said.
“We know that the tablets and the devices are absolutely impacting the kids’ interest in the learning process and driving and deepening the four C’s – collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity,” she said.
The keys are outside
More local initiatives like Carroll’s challenge-based learning and Jones’ adviser program can begin to turn around schools or districts.
But countless years of study have shown that the achievement gap is mostly influenced by factors outside of school, said Stallings of the Friday Institute. “I hate to sound like a pessimist on this, but the real solution to closing that gap is not going to be within a school,” he said.
It’s more about creating sustainable jobs in places like Halifax, Northampton and Bertie counties, building up communities to make them more stable, he said, and that’s a long-term proposition.
“It really is going to take somebody who has the political will and political courage and political savvy to create the 25-year plan for North Carolina,” he said, but added: “We don’t do elections on 25-year cycles.”
Poston, of the Public School Forum, said North Carolina doesn’t belong in the bottom 10 states on any education measure.
“Education used to be very nonpartisan. Republicans and Democrats clamored over each other trying to be seen as the most pro-education candidate,” he said. “Now it seems to be a little more partisan, a little harder to find common ground. We’d like to see us get back to that. As a native North Carolinian, to me education was always our brand, what people thought of for North Carolina. It doesn’t seem to be the case right now.”