North Carolina and other Southern states need to quickly do more to improve K-12 education as the number of “disadvantaged students” increases in the region’s public schools, according to a new report.
“Accelerating the Pace: The Future of Education in the American South,” a report released Tuesday, found that student achievement has increased significantly overall in the South in the past several decades. But the report found that Southern states must deal with historic inequities in education – student performance varies widely by race and income – that hold back many parts of the region.
To improve education, the report found that states need to get the South’s finest to become teachers, give students the support they need, strengthen students’ ability to go to college or get a job after high school and match resources with students’ needs.
“We can’t ignore the fact that the South and North Carolina lag behind the rest of the nation in school funding,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan advocate for better schools. “It shows up in many ways.”
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The report from the Columbia Group, a network of seven Southern nonprofit organizations that includes the Public School Forum, also includes polling data of registered voters. The first annual Education Poll of the South found strong support from voters to improve the state of K-12 education in the region.
The poll found that 85 percent of voters say states should take action to correct differences in the quality of education within the state, and 84 percent say their states should adjust school funding to ensure greater fairness between wealthy and poor communities. The percentages were even higher to both questions for voters from North Carolina.
“In North Carolina, this is a critical time to talk about school funding as the General Assembly begins its work on possibly overhauling school funding,” Poston said.
The report provides common ground across the political spectrum on issues such as improving teacher recruitment efforts and looking at how schools are funded and how money is spent, according to Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation.
“This is a report that those on the left and the right will be receptive to,” he said.
Last year, members of the Columbia Group came together to commission the poll and to make a new call for improving education in the South.
The report found that improving education will require addressing how some achievement gaps have worsened in the South. For instance, the gaps widened for North Carolina students from low-income families in national fourth- and eighth-grade tests. Some gaps also widened among the state’s black and Hispanic students.
“North Carolina has certainly been a leader in the last 20 to 30 years, but there are states making bigger gains right now,” Poston said. “Tennessee has been making some achievement gains in recent years, but all of us are seeing issues where gaps with lower-income students are widening.”
One way to help close the gaps, according to the report, is to help children get off to a good start. But the report noted that only 22 percent of North Carolina 4-year-olds were enrolled in state pre-kindergarten programs in 2016. North Carolina also ranked 33rd nationally in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual KIDS Count report, which covers different indicators of children’s health.
Addressing the achievement gaps, the report found, also will require Southern states to deal with an increasingly diverse student population. The report called on states to look at school discipline practices in light of how black students are suspended at much higher rates than other groups.
There’s a “real crisis” in terms of how North Carolina schools are much more likely to suspend or expel black students than white students for the same offenses, according to Poston.
“When it’s something cut and dried like bringing a weapon, or having drugs, or fighting, there’s almost no difference in terms of punishment between black and white students,” Poston said. “But where there’s subjectivity entered into the process (such as for insubordination), black students are treated much more harshly.”
The report says states need to find enough resources to serve each child. While more money alone isn’t the answer, the report says “limited resources clearly hamper some students’ educational opportunities.”
In North Carolina, the report says the state’s school funding system “worked well for years, but demographics of the state’s children have changed dramatically, and larger counties are growing in population rapidly while rural areas are losing population.”
Poston said the level of funding affects which teachers are retained, what classes are offered and the quality of the spaces where children go to school.
The report mirrors some of the concerns that the Public School Forum recently cited in its list of the top 10 education issues for 2018.
Poston said the report and the poll should show state lawmakers that public support for public schools crosses party lines.
“I hope that legislators and other policymakers would see this report as proof that investing in education is good politics,” he said.
Stoops of the Locke Foundation said he wished the report had included information about how any reform efforts will be challenged by the need to pay for unfunded pension liabilities and rising health insurance costs.
Stoops said he also wished the report had talked about how charter schools can help with efforts to raise student achievement. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow.
“There really is a role for the charter schools in moving education in the South forward,” Stoops said.
The report and complete poll results can be found online at www.acceleratingthepace.org.