How Republicans have reshaped education in North Carolina

In 2011, Republicans said they wanted to change the status quo when they took control of North Carolina’s state legislature for the first time in more than 100 years.

Seven years later, the changes have been especially apparent in K-12 education for the more than 1.7 million children enrolled in public, private and home schools. There are more charter schools, families are getting taxpayer money to help them attend private schools, public schools are evaluated differently and the way teachers are paid and hired has changed.

Conservatives praise what they consider long-overdue education reforms in the state.

“The Republicans have definitely made some fundamental changes to North Carolina’s public education system,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the conservative John Locke Foundation. “That’s what they were elected to do. That was the expectation, that they’d make changes that were consistent with what they felt would be best for public schools.”

But supporters of traditional public schools say the changes have dealt one blow after another to public education.

“To me as a parent, it’s been the gradual dismantling of the public education system,” said Julie von Haefen, president of the Wake County PTA Council. “If you look at each little thing, it doesn’t look bad. But when you put it all together, it’s demoralizing the teachers.”

The changes are happening as Republicans and Democrats argue about whether enough money is being spent on education. Republicans point to how the $9 billion provided annually by the state for K-12 education is the highest amount ever, while Democrats say it’s less than what was spent per pupil before the Great Recession of the late 2000s when adjusted for inflation.

Republicans across the country have argued that traditional public schools aren’t meeting the needs for all children. They say schools need to be reformed and families should be given more freedom to choose the education options that work best for them.

That ideology has set the GOP at odds with Democrats, who have traditionally enjoyed the support of teacher groups and public education advocates.

Here are some of the changes in North Carolina in recent years:

School choice

Before 2011, families who wanted to attend a charter school had the odds stacked against them. Waiting lists at charter schools were long, and the state was close to reaching its 100-school limit set by lawmakers.

If students wanted to go to a K-12 private school, their parents had to pay tuition or get financial aid.

But Republicans lifted the cap on charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. Enrollment has more than doubled since 2011 to reach 100,000 students this year in the state’s 173 charter schools.

Lawmakers also authorized the creation of the state’s first two online charter schools. Leaders of the two virtual charter schools say they provide more options for families, but critics point to how both schools are considered low-performing by the state.

Darrell Allison, center, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, leads families and supporters in a group cheer in July 2015 after the the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that vouchers to attend private schools are constitutional. Chris Seward

Republican lawmakers also put into law a trio of programs allowing taxpayer funds to be used to help pay for students to attend private schools. More than 7,000 lower-income students are receiving vouchers of up to $4,200 a year in the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and more than 1,100 students with special needs are getting $8,000 grants.

A new program starting in the 2018-19 school year will provide debit cards worth $9,000 to cover education expenses for families of students with disabilities who will be attending private schools. Only 300 students are expected the first year, but lawmakers are looking to expand the program.

“There’s plenty of room for conversation about changes, but we’re taking human and financial resources out of public schools to give tax breaks to the wealthy and to pay for unaccountable voucher programs,” said Lee Quinn, a teacher at Broughton High School in Raleigh.

But Mike Coan said the expanded choice programs are putting education decisions in the hands of parents. Coan is using the state funding to send his two children to Friendship Christian School in Raleigh.

“I don’t see how this is taking money from the public schools,” Coan said. “The money is just following the student.”

The N.C. Supreme Court declared the voucher programs constitutional in 2015. Critics concede that Democrats are not likely to dismantle the programs now even if they take control of the General Assembly.

Teacher employment and pay

Before 2011, North Carolina teachers who successfully completed a four-year probationary period received career status, commonly called tenure, that gave them additional legal rights before they could be fired. If they went on to get master’s degrees and doctorates, they were rewarded with higher annual salaries.

Republicans raised the starting base salary for new teachers to $35,000 and gave raises to other teachers. The recent increases helped improve the state’s ranking on average teacher pay to 35th in the nation in a report last year from the National Education Association. The state had fallen to 45th in 2011 after the recession froze pay increases.

Amid calls from lawmakers that the old teacher pay system was archaic, teachers now also get merit pay bonuses based on how their students perform on exams. Lawmakers went even further last year by overhauling the way principals are paid to focus more on test scores and not factor in years of experience.

Scott Ferguson, center, an English teacher at Apex High School, rallies with fellow teachers and supporters against high turnover and low pay of teachers on the sidewalk in front of Apex High School on May 21, 2014. Ethan Hyman

But the additions came with changes: GOP lawmakers eliminated tenure and extra pay for advanced degrees for educators who hadn’t yet earned either perk. They said the old system protected bad teachers, a claim hotly disputed by educators.

In an effort to control costs, new teachers and other state employees who are hired after Jan. 1, 2021, will no longer be eligible for state health insurance when they retire.

“School administrators and teachers are still doing good work, but we’re fighting against a state leadership that is hostile to our public education system,” said Quinn, the Broughton teacher. “We all know that and a lot of teachers are becoming more attuned to how state politics that are hostile to public education affect our daily lives.”

But Stoops of the Locke Foundation said mass teacher layoffs or departures as a result of the changes, which some critics predicted, haven’t taken place. He also said just because the ideas coming from Republican lawmakers are different doesn’t mean they’re evil.

“Their motive wasn’t to undermine the public education system,” Stoops said. “Their motive was to improve the education of children. While there’s a lot of disagreement about their reforms, their motivation here is a sincere one and is not based on an ulterior one.”

Grading schools

The way North Carolina’s public schools are evaluated shifted in 2015 when the first set of school performance letter grades was issued.

Every public school gets a grade of A through F based on how students perform on state exams. Eighty percent of the grade is based on how many students passed and 20 percent is based on student growth on the tests.

Supporters say the letter grades provide more information for parents on how their child’s school is performing. Stoops said most parents didn’t know what the old system meant when it used terms like “school of distinction,” school of progress” and “priority school” based on a school’s test scores.

“The school grading system is a much more transparent and easy-to-understand system than what was in place before when parents had a hard time understanding what it meant in terms of student performance,” Stoops said.

But many educators have criticized the grading system as flawed, saying it stigmatizes some schools. They say the grades only show that high-poverty schools account for most of the schools with D and F marks while affluent schools make up most of the schools receiving As.

“It’s demoralizing and makes it really hard to recruit and retain teachers there,” Quinn said of the schools with poor letter grades. “I’ve got friends who will post for a core subject position but they’re not getting anyone.”

Efforts to revise the grading system have been passed by the House but have gone nowhere in the Senate.

Read To Achieve

One of the signature education programs for Republican lawmakers has been Read To Achieve, which began in 2013 and calls for getting students proficient in reading by the end of the third grade.

The program includes screening children beginning in kindergarten to determine who needs extra literacy help, summer reading camps for students in first, second and third grades and an end to social promotion of third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level. Lawmakers later added a bonus program for the top 25 percent of third-grade teachers based on their students’ reading growth on state exams.

The focus on early childhood literacy helped spur Republican lawmakers to increase funding for pre-kindergarten programs. One piece of legislation recently approved by lawmakers is designed to eliminate the state’s waiting list for pre-K in the next four years.

But the push to get students to read early has come at a time when state funding for teacher assistants has been reduced. Some lawmakers have questioned the need for teacher assistants, while supporters say they provide benefits such as allowing more children to get one-on-one and small-group help.

IMG_WSACHIEVE01-NE-03131_4_1_EL43DLAL_L105902374 (1)
Jeff Maynard, center, teaches a reading lesson to his third-grade class at Brier Creek Elementary School in Raleigh on March 13, 2014. The students worked in “reading camps” to prepare for end-of-grade tests to comply with with Read To Achieve. Chris Seward

Reading scores for North Carolina fourth-graders improved by four points in 2015 on the National Assessment for Educational Progress exams. But critics who’ve questioned how Read To Achieve was implemented say the test gains were likely the result of excluding third-grade students who weren’t promoted after the end of the 2013-14 school year.

The 2017 results for the national exams won’t be released until this spring.

On state reading exams, the 2017 passing rates for third grade and fourth grade were both more than a percentage point lower than they were in 2015.

Stoops said it will take more time before the impact of the early childhood efforts can be determined, but he’s optimistic it will lead to improvements in student performance.

Smaller class sizes

For nearly 18 months, the issue of how school districts would deal with state legislative requirements to lower K-3 class sizes has dominated much of the concerns of school officials and parents.

As part of the 2016 state budget, Republicans required school districts to lower K-3 class sizes from an average of 21 students per class to roughly 17 students per class. Legislators said the smaller class sizes would help boost student learning, particularly with the efforts to get children proficient in reading by an early age.

But school districts across the state complained they didn’t have the thousands of additional classrooms that were needed to accommodate the smaller class sizes. School officials warned they might have to lay off thousands of art, music and physical education teachers to come up with the money to hire the new K-3 teachers.

Under a deal announced last week, school districts won’t have to reduce class sizes for the 2018-19 school year. The reductions will be phased in over the next four years. Lawmakers have also agreed to provide $61 million a year for school districts to pay for arts and PE teachers.

Hundreds of parents, educators and students held signs, chanted, and listened speakers during a “class size chaos” rally in downtown Raleigh on Jan. 6, 2017. Julia Wall

School officials and some legislators are worried that no additional state money is being provided to build the new classrooms that will be needed when the changes go into effect. Some state lawmakers want to put a $1.9 billion statewide school construction bond referendum on the November ballot.

More changes to come?

Even more changes could be coming to the state’s education landscape.

A legislative committee is looking at how public schools are funded and could recommend major changes in how the state’s K-12 education budget is doled out. A 2016 staff legislative report recommended overhauling the funding system, saying it was illogical, overly complex, not transparent and favored wealthy counties.

Another legislative committee is studying how to break up North Carolina school districts, potentially paving the way for splitting up large systems like Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Some critics think that Wake, which is the 15th largest district in the nation, is too big, but critics say breaking up the district would lead to school resegregation.

The state Supreme Court will decide a lawsuit challenging the legislature’s attempts to transfer control of public schools from the State Board of Education to state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson, the first Republican elected to that position in more than 100 years. Legislators wanted to undo much of a 1995 law that moved control of the state Department of Public Instruction from the superintendent to the state board.

The Innovative School District, a new state program that allows low-performing elementary schools to be turned over to groups such as charter-school operators, is planning to open this fall with one school.

This wave of ideological-based changes will continue to be opposed by those who want to ensure the success of public schools, according to Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the liberal N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. In December, Nordstrom released a report called “The Unraveling,” in which he accused Republican lawmakers of adopting poorly crafted education policies that he said are failing the state’s children.

“It’s clear that these policies don’t have widespread support and these policies are harming students,” Nordstrom said.

But Stoops says that if these reforms are allowed to flourish, they will pay off for the state.

“They have not by any means been perfect or a smooth transition for some of the reforms that the Republicans have advanced,” he said. “But overall we’ve seen a lot of positive changes in North Carolina that will set the state up for continued success in the future.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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