Prioritizing K-12 education in North Carolina

By Carolina Commentary

As summer vacation for students nears an end, now is a good time to take a look at the state of K-12 schools in North Carolina, given the significant changes legislated over much of this decade by the Republican-led legislature. One notable is the change in control of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) along with a number of other moves that are changing the face of public education in North Carolina.

The overriding question the public has to ask is: Will legislative and administrative changes by State Superintendent Mark Johnson result in smaller class sizes, higher reading and math scores, graduation rates, and recruitment and retention of teachers? Give the Republicans credit; they have made a strong effort to improve public schools since they took control of the legislature. Remember, elections have consequences.

At the end of the day every person in the state covets better schools. Better schools result in students being better prepared for college, careers and assuming the role of being responsible and informed citizens. Our democracy is predicated on having educated people who can lead the next generation.

Johnson has put in place a web-based infrastructure for school and district performance accountability by providing access to a Report Card for the general public. The report card is comprehensive and covers a wide range of areas, including overall school and district performance, end of grade performance in math and reading, readiness of students, teacher qualifications, teacher turnover and much more. The Republicans have been strong advocates for preparing students to join the workforce. The report card site also offers a student readiness indicator for students who are interested in a technical education. The transparency of school performance is to be commended.

Another significant change is the reporting relationship between the local district superintendents, DPI board and the state superintendent. Johnson informed DPI leaders that their reporting relationship had changed and they now report to him, the state superintendent, and not the State Board of Education. Johnson cited the N.C. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Session Law 2016-126, that gives the authority to direct education in the State to the State Superintendent.

With the state superintendent’s new power and the lifting of the cap on the number of charter schools in the state, it is important for parents and legislators to watch the growth of state-funded charter schools. Charter schools are not fully accountable to many of the educational regulations that public schools must follow. Charter school enrollment now exceeds 100,000 and continues to grow. We can expect this trend to continue with taxpayer funding being tapped to allow families to send their children to alternative schools, which are often becoming more racially and economically segregated. No one can fault a parent for seeking the best education possible for their children in their neighborhood. However, policymakers need to ensure that the growth of charter and private schools does not diminish the educational opportunities for children who are less fortunate and live in rural and urban areas, which rely more heavily on traditional public education. The continued growth of charter schools will potentially lead to more separation and unequal education opportunities for children.

The 2018-19 DPI budget is $9.60 billion dollars. Notable budget adjustments include an average 3.3 percent teacher pay raise, with raises for almost every step and an increase and bonuses of $385 for 25 years of service. Click here for more detailed budget information.

Compensation for teachers and the importance of having committed and well-compensated teachers is an important component of a successful educational system. The state deserves some credit for increasing teacher pay by an average of 20 percent since 2013-14. However, keep in mind North Carolina’s legislature did not legislate the compensation increases willingly. Teachers pressured legislators, similar to the political pressure that took place in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Despite the pay increases, North Carolina teacher pay is ranked an abysmal 43rd in the nation at $47,941 and below the national average of $58,353, according to the National Education Association and US Census.

North Carolina ranks 9th in the nation in terms of student population with 2 million children aged 5 to 17, which speaks to the critical importance of fair educational opportunities for all children. The legislative requirements to lower K-3 class size to 17 students per class within three years is laudable, and the fact that legislators have earmarked $61 million for art and PE teachers demonstrates a commitment to executing the smaller classroom policy. Many systems were looking at the prospect of eliminating those positions in order to find dollars to meet the smaller class size mandate.

Funding needs to be a priority to ensure classroom space is made available and teachers are recruited and competitively compensated to fulfill this worthy and timely educational policy.

The next few years will position North Carolina to move up the rankings for educational achievement and teacher pay. Not doing so would be a doing a disservice to the teachers and students of the state.

By Carolina Commentary

Carolina Commentary is a commentary platform established for the purpose of providing opinion and analysis focused on North Carolina public policy issues. Writers are moderate progressives who hope to promote thoughtful debate that renounces ideology in favor of dialogue based on facts. The goal is to provide commentary that minimizes polarization and promotes a collaborative approach to solving public policy problems.

Carolina Commentary is a commentary platform established for the purpose of providing opinion and analysis focused on North Carolina public policy issues. Writers are moderate progressives who hope to promote thoughtful debate that renounces ideology in favor of dialogue based on facts. The goal is to provide commentary that minimizes polarization and promotes a collaborative approach to solving public policy problems.