Durham News: Opinion

Bert L’Homme: Education issues to watch in the short session

Superintendent Bert L’Homme
Superintendent Bert L’Homme

The “short session” of the N.C. General Assembly is underway, which means that teachers, families – and also this superintendent – will be at the edges of our seats wondering what its impact will be on K-12 education.

Our public schools are primarily state-funded and governed by state laws, supplemented by county funding and local school board policies. What happens in Raleigh therefore has a profound impact on Durham students and taxpayers. As state funding declined after 2008, Durham stepped up to try to mitigate the damage. There are limits to local funding and authority, however.

The short session is primarily a continuation of last year’s session, modifying the budget and addressing legislation left unfinished. Where there are opportunities to strengthen public education, however, our school board and administration urge our elected representatives to do so. Here are some of the priorities that we have identified.

Repeal School Performance Grades: The current method of “grading” our schools with an A-F does a disservice to the progress that our students and teachers make in any given year: if students enter a school substantially behind, then the school is likely to receive a “D” or “F” regardless of how much they improve. We need to commit to substantially improving our schools without unfairly labeling the students and teachers within them.

Increase teacher and staff compensation: The legislature must adopt a budget that dramatically increases compensation for beginning and veteran teachers and principals while rewarding advanced degrees and professional development. Durham Public Schools, just like our neighboring districts, is in a constant race to attract teachers to replace those leaving the field in part because the state does not pay them like the professionals they are. This should be new funding, rather than at the expense of other critical educational needs.

Expand funding for high-quality early childhood education: Perhaps the single best practice that could counter entrenched poverty and set all children on the path to lasting success is a strong pre-school education. Working single parents or two-earner households frequently struggle to prepare their children for kindergarten and beyond. Durham Public Schools, the Durham County Board of Commissioners, and the Durham City Council unanimously support universal pre-K, and are establishing a task force to move it forward locally – but this is an initiative that deserves state support.

Restore calendar flexibility: For years, the General Assembly has placed limits on school calendar dates that wreak havoc with scheduling state-mandated testing, teacher professional development, and inclement weather make-up days. Our school board needs the freedom to adopt a calendar that best meets academic and family needs here at home, not one that is driven by the tourist industry.

Reject creating an Achievement School District in North Carolina: Local districts know which schools need significant improvement and work diligently to accomplish that, through staffing changes, turnaround models and programs such as TALAS here in North Carolina. On the other hand, Achievement School Districts, which take a few schools out of local school board control and put them under a charter school operator, have been shown to be ineffective in turning around low-performing schools.

It’s hard to say whether any of these proposals will gain much traction in the legislature, but in Durham, we won’t stop working to close achievement gaps, strengthen all of our schools, and ensure that every child succeeds.

Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of Durham Public Schools.