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How should NC education change to provide equal access? The Leandro commission hones its proposals

For more than a year, the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education has been tackling a central question presented by the decades-long Leandro lawsuit: How can the state ensure every child has equal access to a sound, basic education?

The group has reached consensus on its recommendations to answer that question, from raising teacher pay to eliminating the state’s A-F school grading system.

Since the early 1990s, when several families from low-wealth districts sued the state claiming their children were not receiving the same educational quality as those in wealthier districts, the lawsuit has traveled through the court system, establishing that the state does indeed have a constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education to all students. In 2002, the court outlined some necessities in meeting that obligation:

  1. “A ‘competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of study’ in every classroom.
  2. A ‘well-trained competent principal with the leadership skills and ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers’ in every school.
  3. The ‘resources necessary to support the effective instructional program’ in every school ‘so that the educational needs of all children, including at-risk children, to have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, can be met.'”

In July 2017, the court ordered that outside consultant WestEd produce a plan to meet those necessities. About the same time, an executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper established a 17-person commission to publicly work on the issue “in conjunction” with the consultant. WestEd’s report has been turned in to Judge David Lee, who is presiding over the case, and the governor’s commission will meet again once that report is made public this fall to see if it needs to tweak its recommendations.

Let’s take a look at highlights from each group of recommendations, broken down by finance, teachers, principals, early childhood, and accountability. The full recommendations are available at the end of each section within this article.

Finance

This group is focusing on how schools and educators are funded. It recommends staying with an allotment system, meaning the state gives districts funding in blocks of money designated for specific purposes. Within that allotment system, the group recommends providing more funding to students and districts with high needs and consolidating some allotments so that districts have more flexibility in how they spend that money.

The recommendations do not go into exactly how much money the state should give districts or teachers, but say an “adequate” amount should be determined — both to provide a sound, basic education to all children (focusing on varying needs across the state) and to attract and retain high-quality teachers and principals. 

The group recommends that the state fund specialized school support personnel at nationally recommended ratios. Right now, none of those positions are funded at those ratios, and many support staffers — such as nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers — have to split their time among multiple schools. Leigh Kokenes, a Wake County school psychologist and member of the commission, has emphasized how important specialized personnel are in meeting students’ needs. 

The group also calls on the state to fully fund districts’ operational costs, which is now a responsibility of the state but, in reality, ends up falling on localities.

“The decline in state funding support for our public schools has resulted in local governments having to cover the costs of more operational expenses, which has led to a strain on their ability to cover capital and infrastructure needs,” the group’s recommendation says. It proposes that the state dedicate recurring funds to support capital and infrastructure needs as well.

The group recommends conducting a study on how to best fund charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. How to address these schools, which have more flexibility in such areas as management, staffing, and scheduling, has come up time and time again in the commission’s discussions.

“Unfortunately, the expansion of charter schools has begun to place a financial and planning burden on public schools in school districts,” the recommendations say. “Given that the state is obligated to ensure that every public school student has access to a sound, basic education, the state should provide adequate funding for all students in a way that does not have an adverse effect on the ability of school districts to provide a sound, basic education.”

Teachers

This group focuses on a necessity in that 2002 ruling: how to make sure every classroom has a high-quality teacher. The recommendations dive into how teachers should be prepared, paid, recruited, placed, and retained within varying economic contexts across the state. 

The group suggests an entity be placed in charge of recruiting, placing, and retaining teachers — working with both institutions of higher education and districts throughout the state. To enhance the state’s teacher pipeline, the group makes several recommendations on expanding the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, which helps pay tuition for students who commit to teaching in-state. The teacher working group wants to expand the program beyond its current focus on teachers specializing in special education and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and beyond its current scope of five partner universities.

The group also recommends giving grants to colleges and universities to experiment with ways to persuade students in non-education majors to switch their majors and become teachers.

And the group suggests a long-term plan for supporting institutions of higher education and other entities that prepare teachers. “The state should move away from short-term, ‘put warm bodies in schools at any costs’ approach,” the recommendations say. They also outline goals for educator preparation programs, such as increasing the percentage of teachers prepared by in-state institutions and increasing those prepared by in-state institutions that are committed to teaching at in-state schools. 

The group recommends several strategies to attract high-quality teachers to low-wealth schools and districts. The group suggests providing recruitment bonuses for teachers who transfer to teach in low-wealth schools for four years, paid for by the state and district depending on the district’s wealth level. The group also recommends a loan repayment model similar to NC Teaching Fellows for education students who commit to teaching in low-wealth schools and districts. Incentive pay, both for teaching in low-wealth areas and in high-need subject concentrations, is another of the group’s suggestions.

As far as teacher pay goes, the group suggests a study be conducted on salaries of college graduates in comparable fields in North Carolina. “Pending the recommended study, the state should move teacher pay (including teachers who are paid by district funds) to the level of other college graduates in NC,” it says.

Principals

The second prescribed necessity for a sound, basic education is placing high-quality principals in all schools. The principals working group wants every district to have a partnership with a high-quality principal preparation program. These programs, the group says, should meet national standards, provide a year-long paid internship, and prepare a diverse set of administrators to better represent the students they are serving. 

The group suggests the principal pay scale focus more on principals’ experience levels and on placing principals in the environments that best use their skills. The group recommends a mentorship program that supports beginning principals and assistant principals. 

The recommendations also include expanding funding and time for professional development opportunities for superintendents and administrators and tweaking the assistant principal allotment to allow principals more flexibility in how they staff their leadership teams.

Early childhood

At the commission’s last meeting, most of the discussion focused on the early childhood group because of the complexity of the state’s early childhood landscape. The working group re-framed its recommendations to focus on six priorities:

  1. “Build the early childhood educator pipeline for birth through third grade.
  2. Scale up Smart Start to provide early childhood system infrastructure and a continuum of services for children and families from birth to age five.
  3. Expand access to early intervention.
  4. Scale up the NC Pre-K Program to serve all eligible at-risk four-year-olds.
  5. Ensure that elementary schools are ready to meet the needs of all children in the early grades.
  6. Improve cross-sector early childhood data quality, collection, analysis and use across the state and build a culture of continuous quality improvement (CQI) to support data-based decision making.”

The group suggests creating a benefits and salary schedule for birth-five educators and incentivizing programs that receive state and federal funds to adopt this scale. Like the other groups, members don’t say exactly how much these educators should be paid, but that early educators before kindergarten should receive comparable salaries to teachers in early elementary grades, which is not always the case.

The group recommends the state increase its funding to make NC Pre-K, the state’s preschool for at-risk four-year-olds, a full-day and full-year program. The group not only says funding should be increased to reach all eligible children, but that specific strategies should be implemented to reach communities of color and non-English speaking communities. 

The group also says the increased NC Pre-K funding account for “the true cost” of the program, including salaries with parity to elementary school teachers, capital costs, and transportation. A National Institute for Early Education Research study in January found these and other factors were prohibiting counties from using funds and reaching more students. 

Several of the group’s recommended strategies focus on the first three years of elementary school and how teachers and schools can be ready to meet students at all levels of development and school readiness. These strategies include providing instructional assistants for high-needs schools, increasing contact between home and school, and implementing a common formative assessment model that is developmentally appropriate for young students. 

Accountability

This group is focused on how to effectively and responsibly measure progress in students and schools. The group emphasizes the importance of both proficiency and growth in measuring success, as well as considering factors that the current accountability system does not — such as chronic absenteeism, school climate, student discipline disaggregated by demographics, extended-year graduation rates, and college-and-career readiness. 

The group recommends discontinuing the state’s A-F school grading system, which gives letter grades to schools each year based on a formula of 80% proficiency and 20% growth. Instead, the group says the state should simply release proficiency and growth rates, as well as establish a new set of accountability measures for schools.

The group stresses the importance of formative assessments, or tests that produce helpful information to inform teacher instruction. The group specifically says K-2 literacy assessments should remain formative rather than summative. 

The group recommends the state provide the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) with appropriate funds to support and improve low-performing schools and districts by conducting a comprehensive needs assessment, helping with school planning, providing professional development and coaching to educators, and engaging families and community. 

The group’s final recommendation instructs DPI and the Department of Public Safety to define the role of school resource officers and provide training to integrate these individuals into school environments.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.