In recent years, advocates on the left and right have advanced reforms designed to improve low-performing public schools in North Carolina. Their proposals represent two fundamentally different visions of the role of government.
On one side, liberals argue that the state, with help from the courts, should reconstitute school districts, boost resources, and ensure schools are racially and socio-economically diverse. On the other side, conservatives believe that legislative efforts to strengthen accountability, increase educational options, and enhance local control are more promising than throwing more money and mandates at the problem.
The recent history of the state’s most beleaguered public school district, the Halifax County Schools, suggests that liberal approaches have failed to provide the education that families deserve.
In 2009, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who monitors student performance in low-income districts as part of the Leandro court case, declared that the Halifax County Schools were committing “academic genocide” by failing to provide students a “sound basic education” as guaranteed by the state constitution. Moreover, Manning threatened to subject Halifax schools to state control.
But the court did not order the state to initiate a takeover. Instead, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction intensified its turnaround efforts, directing additional resources and support to teachers, administrators, and staff.
Despite the ongoing assistance, little progress had been made. Six years after Manning’s warning, academic achievement continues to flounder.
Just over one-third of the district’s third-graders read at grade level, compared to a statewide average of 60 percent. Only one in five Halifax eighth-graders are proficient in reading, while over half of North Carolina students meet this mark.
The abysmal performance of students, coupled with the appalling behavior of some school district leaders, prompted the State Board of Education to intervene in the budgetary and personnel affairs of the Halifax County Schools.
Some believe that the courts and/or the state should go even further. Attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights recently asked the courts to force the Halifax County Board of Commissioners to merge Halifax County Schools with the other two school districts in the county, Roanoke City Schools and Weldon City Schools.
The plaintiffs argue that merging the districts would produce academic benefits, operational efficiencies, racial balance, and a precedent for legal challenges to districts in other states. But there is little empirical evidence that merged districts produce the kinds of academic, budgetary, and demographic outcomes envisioned by UNC lawyers.
On the other hand, advocacy groups claim that low-performing districts simply do not have resources necessary to boost student performance. Yet, the Halifax system has one of the highest per-student expenditures in the state. The district spent nearly $11,800 per student last year, which was $3,000 more than North Carolina’s statewide student average. These expenditures have allowed the district to maintain lower-than-average class sizes and own more Internet-connected digital learning devices than students enrolled.
Others say that school improvement is not possible until state and federal government programs alleviate poverty. But demographics are not destiny.
Nearby Gaston College Preparatory, a charter school where nearly 75 percent of students qualify for the federal government’s free- or reduced-price school lunch program, spends an estimated $2,000 per student less than Halifax County Schools but produces considerably higher test scores than most schools in the region.
Indeed, the success of Gaston Prep suggests that expanding school choice is one way to improve the quality of schooling for students in Halifax County. At minimum, the district should collaborate with successful charter schools and adopt policies and practices that have been successful in those schools. Allowing an “achievement school district” to coordinate one or more school improvement initiatives is another idea well worth exploring.