The Public School Forum’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast — an overview with education stakeholders of issues expected to dominate the upcoming legislative session — revisited the organization’s top education issues of 2021 to review what progress had been made in a year.
The short answer from Thursday’s event: not much.
“As we reflect on the past twelve months and consider the investments that have been made in public education, we have been pleased to see some areas receive badly needed support,” said Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the Public School Forum, in a press release. “However, what has come into sharp focus is that there is so much work left to do.”
The Forum found that for some COVID-19-related items, there was progress in 2021. These included districts being held harmless for drops in Average Daily Membership (ADM) or the state’s public schools being exempted from federal and state accountability measures. Additionally, federal funding did come down for the College Advising Corps, and the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program was expanded more than the Public School Forum thought it would be.
The event highlighted partial progress in other areas, such as the adoption of new social studies standards by the State Board of Education. While the Board did adopt new standards, they removed references to some terms including “systemic” racism and discrimination and gender identity. They also noted some progress on principal recruitment and broadband expansion.
However, when it comes to some of the organization’s other priorities from last year, the results were less encouraging.
“This progress report shines a light on what so many of us who work toward improving public education in North Carolina already know — that our children do not yet have access to a system of education that is well-supported across the entire spectrum of services,” said Lauren Fox, senior director of policy for the Public School Forum, in a press release.
Many of these issues were touched on during two panels during the Eggs & Issues event.
Emma Battle, president and CEO of Higher Ed Works, talked extensively about the importance of pre-K, citing research that showed participation in North Carolina’s pre-K program boosted gains for students. She said that enrollment in the program is only about 23% of all eligible students, and that North Carolina is far below the nation as a whole, which has a participation rate for eligible students of about 47%.
“A whopping 77 percent of eligible North Carolina four year olds are not enrolled,” she said.
Renee Cavan, regional group senior manager of marketing at Truist, talked about the importance of a strong education system for businesses looking to locate in North Carolina.
“We don’t want to have to recruit from other places, so we need strong candidates here in North Carolina to take on the jobs that we’re bringing here,” she said.
Joshua Webb, a student at Edgecombe Early College High School, talked about the lack of teachers sticking around in rural counties such as Edgecombe County, a fact also highlighted by Wolf.
“Our state continues to struggle with significant teacher vacancies with 2,600 statewide last fall, according to the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association,” she said in the press release. “We struggle to fill these and other critical roles in education because we have not done enough to set up a robust pipeline that attracts the talent we need.”
That pipeline was the focus of the entire second panel on the workforce crisis in public education.
Elena Ashburn, the 2021 Principal of the Year, said that nobody would argue the important role teachers play in students’ lives.
“There is no debate in the research about the effect that a high-performing teacher has on a child’s education,” she said. “When a student doesn’t have a high-performing teacher, the child’s learning suffers.”
State lawmakers, Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, and Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, both discussed how teachers are being treated. Clemmons said that state leaders must ensure that teachers aren’t vilified, and that there are those in the public who see the valuable role that teachers are playing even while others criticize them. Ballard, on the other hand, said she’s been hearing of teachers feeling silenced by other teachers.
On the teacher pipeline generally, Clemmons said that leaders of all political stripes recognize that a problem exists.
“To me our great opportunity … is that there is a shared understanding of the crisis that we are really in, and in that shared understanding is opportunity to make progress,” she said.
While teachers were a large focus of the event, participating educators like 2021 Teacher of the Year Eugenia Floyd turned the focus on students. The pandemic amplified needs for students and schools that always existed, Floyd said.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about children, and as a classroom teacher … I don’t work for anyone else but the kids,” she said. “And that will always be the sole focus of the work I do.”
Read the progress report on the Top Education Issues 2021-22 here.