Updated to include Republican response.
In a symbolic message to the Republican-led General Assembly, the Democratic-led Wake County school board unanimously abstained Tuesday on approving state-mandated improvement plans for schools now considered to be low-performing by the state.
Abstentions are considered a yes vote under school board policy so the 0-0 vote means that the plans did pass and will now be forwarded to the state. But school board members in the state’s largest school system said they wanted to send a message about their view of the changes adopted this year that altered how North Carolina identifies schools as low-performing.
“I will be abstaining from voting on this action tonight to show my extreme displeasure with the whole process that we have had forced on us by laws that were put into the budget and never even appeared in any committees to be discussed,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said.
Schools used to be considered as low-performing if a majority of students didn’t pass state exams and didn’t meet academic growth expectations. But the General Assembly inserted a new definition into the budget adopted in September, resulting in more public schools being labeled as low-performing.
Schools are now considered low-performing if they receive a D or F school performance grade and didn’t exceed academic growth expectations. There are 20 schools in Wake and 581 statewide who meet the new definition. Many are filled with low-income and minority students.
After being declared low-performing, schools are required to notify their parents and to develop improvement plans listing strategies that will be used to raise achievement. Schools that are consistently low-performing could see their principals and staff replaced.
Supporters of the change say it streamlines the process of identifying low-performing schools, but critics say it labels schools using the flawed measurement system of the school letter performance grades. Eighty percent of the school letter grades are based on passing rates on state exams and 20 percent on growth on those tests.
Benton complained that this “very invalid measurement” is now having very real consequences because parents and the community are beginning to take them seriously.
“We’re doing real damage to people,” Benton said. “We’re damaging students. We’re damaging teachers. We’re damaging principals. We’re damaging schools. We’re damaging communities.
“We’re stigmatizing them. We’re penalizing them and there’s absolutely nothing in this law that offered additional resources to help these people.”
School board member Susan Evans said they don’t need the legislature to tell school systems how to label schools as low-performing or high-performing. She said Wake is working to improve student outcomes every day.
“We are focused on continuous improvement and the purpose of these low-performing labels just does nothing but stigmatize our schools and schools across the state who are dealing with challenges often times brought on by various environmental factors,” Evans said. “And there’s nothing positive to be gained by this. Where is the focus on how we will bring resources to improve the situation?”
Evans, a Democrat, is running next year against N.C. Senator Tamara Barringer, a Republican.
“Since her days singing with William Barber and the Moral Monday zealots, Susan Evans has always been more interested in protesting and staging partisan stunts than doing what's best for our students,” Ray Martin, political director of the N.C. Senate Republican Caucus, said in a statement Wednesday. “The latest – refusing to do her job and vote for needed improvements to Wake’s schools – is especially petulant and pathetic. She’ll be held accountable in 2016.”
Bill Fletcher, the school board’s lone registered Republican, said that these low-performing schools may see 40 percent turnover among their students each year.
“When you understand what goes on underneath an imperfect testing system and the realities of the mobility of our students, then it just exacerbates the fact to say that the students who happen to be in your building on August 29th of 2014 results in this letter grade because 40 percent of those kids are not there now,” Fletcher said.
With one board member after another abstaining, school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner asked board attorney Jonathan Blumberg what the legal implications were for an abstention.
Blumberg answered that he can “understand the powerful symbolic message board members are sending by abstaining.” But Blumberg proceeded to read from board policy 1323, which says that every board member must vote unless excused by the majority vote of the remaining members. In addition, failure to vote by a member who is physically present and not excused from voting on the motion shall be recorded as an affirmative vote.
After getting Blumberg’s confirmation that abstaining would be the same as a yes vote, all seven board members present voted to abstain on the motion to approve the plans.
“So the result will be the plans go into place,” Kushner said. “We will be in compliance. The motion will pass with a message.”