Forecasting what will be the top education issues in any given year is a tricky business. One year ago, we were drafting the Public School Forum’s 2017 Top Ten Education Issues and debating whether to include the K-3 class-size mandate. As we were going to press, the General Assembly was coming back for a special session and it seemed all but certain they would address this major issue. Surely they wouldn’t leave such a significant matter unresolved given the impact the law was already having. Boy did we miss on that one.
By the close of 2017, the General Assembly’s mandate to require smaller classes in grades K-3 was the single largest policy issue affecting North Carolina schools, students and families. While no one disputed smaller classes in early grades could be a sensible way to improve academic outcomes, lawmakers failed to provide appropriate funds for districts to hire the additional classroom teachers they would need, forcing districts to face the prospect of eliminating thousands of art, music and PE teachers to comply with the law. They also provided no funding or time to build out the extra facilities needed to house these smaller classes.
So as the old adage goes, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” The K-3 class-size mandate tops our list of the Top Ten Education Issues for 2018.
Beyond the class-size mandate, we continue to call on education leaders to implement real accountability and transparency in all the new school choice efforts. Our state’s voucher program – Opportunity Scholarships – desperately needs real oversight, and in 2017, that became clearer than ever when the largest recipient of school vouchers became ensnared in an embezzlement scandal where, amazingly, the culprit continues to teach at that private Christian school in Fayetteville while completing a jail sentence on the weekends. Meanwhile, there seems to be little interest in the General Assembly to investigate, despite the fact that the school receives approximately two-thirds of its revenues from North Carolina taxpayers. We need to do better.
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Looking forward to 2018, we also note our system of school governance is faced with big questions about who is in charge of public education in North Carolina and how we should improve student outcomes along the educational continuum. We have an unusually large number of new commissions, bodies and court cases created to provide solutions to these fundamental education issues, and we ask that our education leaders tasked with steering the governance of our public schools to please do it well – and together.
On the horizon for 2018 are a number of positive developments. The launch of a new Teaching Fellows program will help address a years-long decline in teacher education enrollment by targeting hard-to-staff STEM subjects, special education and low-performing schools. We continue to see an uptick in teacher pay and are optimistic the General Assembly will continue to bring North Carolina along a path toward earnings that are commensurate with the incredibly difficult job of being an educator. Our principals did receive a much needed boost in pay this year after average salaries dropped to 50th nationally. Unfortunately, the new principal pay plan creates winners and losers with an estimated one in six principals actually seeing a pay cut next year unless the plan is changed or a hold-harmless provision is extended. With already high turnover in North Carolina for school administrators, we can ill afford to push some of our most experienced school leaders out the door.
Finally, but perhaps most significantly, North Carolina is considering overhauling its school finance model. We believe this could be an opportunity for positive change as long as adequacy and equity are central tenets to address the chronic and growing divide between urban/rural, wealthy and poorer school systems and their related student achievement gaps. Where children are born should not determine the educational opportunities available to them. Done well, reforming how we fund our schools could be a positive game changer for North Carolina students. Done poorly, we should brace ourselves for the mother of all unintended consequences.
Keith Poston is president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on public education in North Carolina.
Top Ten Education Issues 2018
These are the top education issues in North Carolina for 2018, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina.
1. Provide certainty for students, parents and all educators by fixing the class-size crisis.
2. Adequately and equitably invest in our children’s education, including their school buildings.
3. Insist on transparency and accountability for school choice programs.
4. Recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers and principals.
5. Once again, fix the faulty A-F school grading system.
6. Scale up successes for our state’s struggling schools.
7. Adopt a whole-child approach to health and learning.
8. Pursue outcomes-focused strategies toward racial equity.
9. Keep building upon North Carolina’s investments in early childhood education.
10. For those who govern our state’s public schools, do it well (and together).