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Previewing major N.C. education changes for 2023
Big money, big reforms will put competing philosophies on education improvement to the test
The North Carolina public education debate is actually fairly simple to boil down. Everyone agrees that too few children are succeeding academically and that the state’s K-12 schools need to improve. The difference is in how to address the problem.
The left believes that the solution is simply more money. Increase funding, and schools will improve. The right believes that the public education system itself is fundamentally flawed, and no amount of money will fix them without significant reforms.
Both sides will be put to the test in 2023.
Over the past year, large school districts across the state have received hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government through COVID relief funds and President Biden’s inflationary American Rescue Plan. It’s so much money, in fact, that school districts have struggled to figure out what to do with it all.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Wake County Public Schools and other large N.C. school districts have all made after-school tutoring programs a key component. These programs, by and large, will finally get off the ground in the new year — and will give us a great indication of whether a massive investment in public education through the current system can pay off.
At the same time, Republicans in the General Assembly and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt are developing major changes to North Carolina’s education system that could be considered in the 2023 long session. These proposals could re-invent how teachers are paid and add significant new accountability to public schools.
Here’s a closer look at both sides of the coin.
North Carolina’s public schools have received roughly $4 billion in federal relief money over the past two years, the vast majority from the American Rescue Plan passed in the early days of the Biden administration.
Per the Department of Public Instruction, school districts are supposed to use the money to help make up for learning loss experienced by students forced out of school for months out of time in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That makes it a good proxy for improving education and helping struggling students in general.
After paying teachers and administrators, the solution most large districts have hit upon is funding tutoring programs or extended school year programs. Less than 15% had been spent by October, meaning most of the impact will be felt in 2023 and beyond.
Wake County received more than $431 million and has spent or committed roughly $179 million, according to the latest available data from the district. WCPSS maintains roughly $217 million in the bank. Here’s how it’s being used:
$22 million on hotspots, student devices
$15 million on food distribution
$18 million on PPE and sanitation
$38 million so far and $53 million in the future on retention bonuses
$16 million so far and $121 million in the future on instructional support and intervention teachers
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has received nearly $361 million received, having committed $87 million and with plans to spend $206 million more. About half has been or will be spent on teacher and administrator bonuses. A total of $50 million will go to an out-of-school-time tutoring program at 42 schools.
Greensboro schools received $307 million, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth got $215 million. Both districts are planning some type of tutoring program or extended instructional time for struggling students. Greensboro’s is a “Fifth Quarter” program to help students over the summer, while WSFCS simply calls their plan “extended learning opportunities.”
For years, the education bureaucracy has begged almost exclusively for more money. Now they’ve got it. This year will show what they can do with it.
Some are being initiated by the General Assembly. The House Committee on an Education System For North Carolina’s Future has met regularly throughout 2022 and is expected to release a report on its findings this month.
Others have worked their way through the State Board of Education, under Truitt’s guidance. Anything from the state board would still need General Assembly approval. Here are a few highlights.
Merit-based teacher pay
The State Board of Education voted this week to recommend a new system for evaluating and paying teachers, known as “Pathways to Excellence.” For years, conservatives have pushed to move away from paying teachers based on longevity and toward paying based on performance, and this is the biggest step so far towards implementing such a plan.
The rationale behind paying for performance is simple and powerful: Research shows that talented teachers can have a dramatic effect on student performance. Teacher experience alone does not help children learn.
Essentially, Pathways to Excellence creates a new teacher licensure program. Brand-new teachers would receive an entry-level license good for up to five years, which can’t be renewed. Once a teacher proves his or her effectiveness (as measured by three years’ worth of positive evaluations), they become eligible for a full license and a massive pay bump — up to $56,000 or more. That’s significantly higher than teachers are currently paid at that experience level.
This full teaching license would be renewed every five years, a process that includes another large pay bump. Teachers would still get annual pay increases along the way.
A sample pay scale also shows that teacher pay tops out at a much higher level — about $72,000 rather than $54,000. (This should be higher, by the way: There’s no reason our state’s most effective teachers shouldn’t earn $100,000 per year).
It’s an expensive plan. Implemented statewide, Pathways to Excellence is expected to cost upwards of an additional $1 billion per year. The General Assembly is expected to consider testing the program in a limited area of the state before expanding statewide.
New school letter grades
Since 2014, public schools in North Carolina have gotten A-F letter grades reporting on their performance. These grades are based primarily on the percentage of students scoring proficient on standardized tests, with weight also going to the percentage of students meeting growth targets (i.e. who are improving their scores). The State Board of Education plans to roll out a proposal for a new grading system to go before the General Assembly early next year. It could go into effect for the 2023-24 school year.
The new policy is likely to have different grading systems for elementary, middle and high schools, reflecting the different priorities each level has. For example, a high school’s performance grade should include graduation rate and percentage of students taking high-level courses. The first look at a framework should come on Dec. 12.
Parents’ Bill of Rights
Virtual school was massive wake-up call for parents across the country. For the first time, we got a good, hard look at exactly what our children were being taught — and not being taught. Now that students are back in the classroom, parents are demanding more of a say in their childrens’ education.
In the previous session, the General Assembly considered a bill that would require more curriculum transparency. This later morphed into a bill that would restrict the teaching of radical gender and race theory in elementary schools. Legislative leaders have indicated a similar bill could be re-considered in 2023 — though it’s not clear which version is more palatable.
House committee report with a grab-bag of changes
The biggest unanswered question is what will emerge from the House Committee on an Education System For North Carolina’s Future. At its most recent meeting, chairman Rep. John Torbett previewed a few potential aspects of its recommendations. These include, according to WRAL:
Calendar changes that would push the school year between Labor Day and Memorial Day
Higher teacher pay
School safety and discipline policy
Changes to end-of-grade testing
Changing the structure of the government’s education oversight
What will the impact be?
In the debate over fixing North Carolina public education, I’m firmly in the camp that believes pouring more money into the same system won’t solve the problem. We’ve seen it ourselves in Charlotte — every big-dollar program aimed at boosting struggling schools has failed miserably.
These school district plans may have a small effect in shoring up COVID-restriction learning loss, but in a best-case scenario, we’re likely to be left back where we started.
What’s more likely is that the education establishment will use these dwindling funds as a political hammer in the 2024 elections. School districts are already warning about a “fiscal cliff” when the federal money runs out in 2024 or 2025.
Education reforms show more promise. In the first decade of Republican leadership, the General Assembly focused heavily on school choice. The GOP lifted the cap on charter schools, ushering in a new wave of innovative schools that have grown rapidly in popularity. While traditional public school enrollment is in decline, charter schools are booming. Republican leaders also created the Opportunity Scholarship program, which has opened the doors for low- and moderate-income families to afford private schools.
School choice is extremely important. As the father of four, I’m well aware that not all children learn the same way. Families need options, but the traditional public school must be an excellent one.
That’s why I’m optimistic about the potential changes to the state’s education system. A big one is already in the works. The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 is pushing school districts to change how they teach reading to reflect the latest scientific research on the subject. If you’re unfamiliar with this, listen to the Sold a Story podcast series. It’s well worth it.
Merit-based teacher pay could be another game-changer. I can see North Carolina becoming a destination for the nation’s top teachers, people who don’t want to be held back by union pay scales and want to make a difference in childrens’ lives.
5 things of note
Mark Robinson behind Josh Stein in perhaps the first poll of 2024 gubernatorial race
With both North Carolina Republicans and Democrats seemingly settled on gubernatorial candidates for 2024, polling season has already begun. Liberal-leaning Carolina Forward published a poll this week showing Democrat state Attorney General Josh Stein narrowly ahead of Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson in a presumptive 2024 matchup, 44-42.
However, Robinson is in a much stronger position in the Republican Party than Stein is among Democrats, the polling also shows. More than half of Republican survey respondents listed Robinson as their choice for the Republican nomination, followed by just 20% for U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who has given no indication he'd seek the office anyway. State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who has said he'd consider running, was at just 5%.
Stein earned a plurality of the Democrat vote, at 22%. Interestingly, former state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen came in just behind him at 18%. U.S. Rep.-elect Jeff Jackson pulled in 12%. Cheri Beasley was not included in the poll. This seems to indicate that the party is not fully on board with a Stein candidacy, though there are not too many choices with any established name recognition. Beasley could presumably give Stein a major challenge, should she choose to run a third statewide race in six years.
Here’s the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools wishlist for education
In a meeting Monday, Charlotte’s school board outlined a few proposals for their legislative agenda for the upcoming year. They’re worth noting. Some of these are interesting ideas worth considering. Others are DOA in the General Assembly.
Allocate unspent Opportunity Scholarship funds to a K-12 tutoring program
Higher pay for principals for large schools, 2,000 students, 2,500 and 3,000.
Make Charlotte eligible for broadband grants that mostly go to rural areas
Increase principal and teacher pay to the national average within 3 years
Increase non-instructional staff salaries by 3-5%
Make it easier for professionals to be teachers, nurses
Reinstate lifetime health benefits for retired teachers
N.C. piloting new community-based, social support program for Medicaid recipients
The Assembly published a long piece this week on a fascinating new $650 million pilot program that aims to help people with Medicaid coverage live healthier lives, potentially saving money in the long run by avoiding expensive ER visits or hospital stays. Essentially, the money goes to a network of small, community churches and nonprofits that can check in on Medicaid recipients and see what they need most — things like housing assistance, fresh produce, parenting classes, or transportation.
I hope it works. While the goals of federal assistance programs are admirable, the impersonal way they’re run can be tremendously damaging. The social safety net must move from federal checks to a relationship at the local, community level — just like this pilot program.
Berger again promises Medicaid expansion
Speaking of Medicaid, the steady drumbeat of national coverage of North Carolina’s expansion efforts continued this week with a Politico piece on the dwindling number of states that have yet to expand Medicaid. In it, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger basically says he’s been converted on the necessity of expanding Medicaid.
“If there’s a person in North Carolina in public office who’s spoken more in opposition to Medicaid expansion than me, I would like to meet that person,” Berger told Politico. “I came to the position that expansion is something we should be in favor of and something we probably need to do.”
I’d love to hear more from Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore on their rationale for changing their minds. Both have been somewhat hesitant to make an affirmative case for expanding Medicaid, perhaps wary of alienating Republican base voters.
My main problem with Medicaid expansion continues to be the fact that it doubles down on and pours billions more dollars into a broken system. Health insurance is not health care, and our goal should be getting more people healthy, not simply giving them a plastic card for their wallets. It should also focus on a pathway to self-sufficiency, rather than open-ended government subsidy.
When Berger and Moore lay out their reasons for supporting Medicaid expansion, I hope they outline a vision for a new style of health care system based on transparent pricing, more widely available primary care services, and insurance that’s used for catastrophic injuries and illnesses rather than the main way healthcare gets paid for.
Sen. Berger will be the longest-serving state legislative leader in the U.S.
A Medicaid expansion deal would become the latest piece of Berger’s growing legacy over the past decade-plus in leadership. That longevity is notable: With re-election to a seventh consecutive term as Senate President Pro Tem, Berger is now set to become the longest-tenured active legislative leader in the country, according to Pluribus News. He'll take over that position from Oregon State Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat who's helmed that body for 20 years and is now stepping down.
As the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, Berger has overseen dramatic changes that have improved North Carolina's well-being and economy. He told Pluribus News he has no plans to move on.
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