- North Carolina can continue to make progress improving education.
- Three key goals that should receive focus in 2017 are: expanding educational choice, efficiency and accountability and greater transparency.
What’s on my Christmas list this year for educators, parents, students and taxpayers? Three simple goals: Expanding educational freedom, making our schools more efficient and accountable and enhancing transparency. The good thing is North Carolina legislators can take several steps to make those goals a reality in 2017. They include:
New Ways to Pay Principals and Administrators. The current pay system for principals and school administrators in North Carolina has two problems. First, the current system has North Carolina ranked last in average principal pay. Second, pay for principals and school administrators is linked to years of service — not job performance. For these reasons alone it’s a pay system that needs to be replaced. Since principals are responsible for cultivating a quality faculty and are responsible for all that happens in their buildings, shouldn’t a pay plan reflect those realities and reward job performance? Who better than a principal knows how teachers and staff are performing? Sen. Jerry Tillman, Committee Co-Chair of the Legislative Study Committee on School-Based administrator pay had suggested giving LEAs a pot of money and letting school districts pay principals as they saw fit. However, Tillman backed off when a number of Superintendents said they didn’t like the idea, mainly because it asks superintendents and school boards to do something they aren’t currently doing; setting salary levels. While buy-in is important, opposition by superintendents should not be a reason for shelving such a proposal, especially when the potential benefit to principals far outweighs the negative costs. Eliminating salary schedules for principals and administrators allows school boards to better respond to individual labor markets and allows schools to more closely link pay with job performance.
Changes to School Report Cards. In hopes of providing parents more accurate information about how public schools are performing, the North Carolina General Assembly approved legislation requiring all public schools receive an A-F letter grade. Since their inception in 2015, NC school report cards have been shrouded in controversy. Much of the disagreement is rooted in how much weight to ascribe to factors such as academic performance and academic growth. While a readjustment on weighting may improve the system, a far better option is to move schools back to a 10-point grading scale (i.e. each letter grade represents a ten-point range: 90-100 is an ‘A’, 80-90 is a ‘B’, etc.). School grades are based on the composite score the school received and the corresponding letter grade. Republicans should move schools back to a 10-point grading scale because the fifteen-point scale has lowered standards as well as the floor for failure. Under the current system, “A” grades are lowered from 90 to 85; “B” grades begin at 84; “C”; 69 and so forth. “F” grades have been lowered from 59 and below to 39 and below. The legislature delayed implementation of the 10-point grading scale last year, fearing the higher standards would tag too many schools with low scores. If we have too many schools with low scores, we don’t improve education by lowering standards to make everything look better. The 15-point grading scale creates a false security about education quality and what children are actually learning. Restoring the 10-point grading system is a step toward remedying some of the current problems and one that gives parents more accurate information on school report cards.
Revise Charter School Funding. Charter schools continue to grow in North Carolina. In 2015-16, 160 charter schools enrolled nearly 82,000 students. Charter schools are not perfect. Yet, their steady growth attests to the fact that they are doing something right. While charter schools have different governance systems than the public schools they are supposed to be on equal footing with the public schools in funding and support. However, there is a big difference between what is supposed to be and what is actually happening. Most public schools are built through bonds. Charter schools receive no money for capital costs and on average charter schools can spend anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of all expenditures on building costs. While state dollars are supposed to be divided evenly, equity does not translate to the local level.
On average charter public school children across North Carolina receive about seventy-five cents for every dollar given to traditional public schools. In 2015, New Hanover County local public schools received about $2,844 per student in local funding to attend the local public school. Students who attended public charter schools in New Hanover County, however, received $359 less per student, $2,485, in local support.
Aren’t all children – no matter where they attend school entitled to equitable funding? The solution is to adopt legislation that follows the student and not the school. Student-centered funding would go a long way in putting North Carolina charter schools on equal footing and ensuring all children get a chance at a quality education.
Improve Teacher Background Checks. Last year USA Today exposed the poor quality of state systems tracking teacher discipline from around the country. It’s so bad that teachers frequently fled one area and turned up in another lacking a paper trail. USA Today ranked states by the quality of the systems and North Carolina was one of the worst offenders. The Tar Heel state received a failing grade of “F”.
In 2010 a State Board of Education Task Force came up with 15 recommendations to improve North Carolina’s troubled system for doing background checks on teachers. Solutions included hiring more investigators to prosecute teacher misconduct, fingerprinting teacher candidates and allowing the state board to share background information with local school districts. For a variety of reasons, the State Board never acted on the recommendations.
Last session Sen. Chad Barefoot introduced legislation (SB 867) that attempted to address some of the problems. The bill passed the Senate but was never passed by the House. These efforts can be done in a manner that protects the rights of the accused as well as protects our most vulnerable children. If we are really concerned with the safety of students in the classroom we must adopt a system that allows school districts to access accurate information on teaching applicants in a timely manner.
Approve Special Needs ESA. Parents of special needs students in North Carolina can apply for Special Needs Scholarship. Scholarship recipients receive up to $8,000 annually ($4,000 per semester) for tuition, required fees and other expenses (e.g. related services and medical therapies) at nonpublic schools. Families whose child attends a school that participates in the Special Needs Scholarship Program can receive a tuition reimbursement on behalf of the student. Otherwise parents must front the money for such expenses as medical therapies, tutoring, textbooks, transportation costs and other services. The provision – in actuality – makes the program accessible to families that can afford to front the money to incur the expense. We all know Special Needs children come to families of all incomes; and families incur significant expense in educating such students, no matter their income level. Cost can vary widely depending on the nature and severity of individual disabilities.
These problems can be addressed through the creation of a special needs Education Savings Account (ESA) similar to those in Arizona and Florida. A special needs ESA transfers a percentage of state per pupil funding and deposits it in a parent-controlled bank account where the money can be used to cover education-related expenses.
Education Savings Accounts are the next wave in education reform. They not only provide parents the ability to choose how and where their children are educated, but because of their ability to customize education they also serve to drive and shape education reform efforts. ESAs are an idea whose time has come and North Carolina would do well to offer parents and students the opportunity to take control of their education.
For a comprehensive look at the last 30 years of education policy in North Carolina, check out the Civitas Institute’s Public Policy Series Education Guide.