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Lawmakers: “Buckle up” for busy weeks in Raleigh

Three Charlotte-area lawmakers say they expect a flurry of activity at the General Assembly in the coming weeks, after a slow start to the session.

“Buckle up,” said Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), “or you might get left behind.” Horn chairs the House K-12 Education and Appropriations on Education committees.

 “I can feel all this pressure building up,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg). “The same number of issues have to be addressed and they just haven’t this time. So we have this dam, with all this pressure behind it, and I think when we come back (this week) it’s going to burst.”

Horn and Jackson joined Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenburg) last week at a community forum sponsored by MeckEd, the Charlotte area’s public education advocacy organization. About 40 people attended the event, which I moderated, to hear an update on the 2015 General Assembly session.

School grade changes

The three legislators said they soon expect to tackle changes to the N.C. School Performance Grades, which the state released for the first time this year.

Horn and Cotham have filed bills that address two issues critics raise with the school grades—the way the scores are calculated, and the grading scale itself.

Horn’s bill, H358, would delay a planned shift in the scale from the 15 points to 10 points. The state calculated scores on a 15-point scale this year (in which 85-100 was an A, and so forth), but is supposed to shift to a more traditional 10-point scale in 2016 and beyond.

Horn said that’s a concern for him.

“If you’re going to do this, at least let’s be consistent for a while so we can do some reasonable comparison to determine how we’re doing,” he said. “Otherwise you’ve got a grade from a particular point in time with no relevance to another grade at another point in time.”

Horn said he believes that the Senate “will be amenable” to keeping the 15-point scale in place for a few more years.

The larger question, and the focus of Cotham’s bill, goes to the way the grades are calculated. Her measure, H368, would change the weight placed on student performance and student growth. Under the current system, 80 percent of a school’s grade is based on performance, mainly on state testing. Twenty percent of a grade comes from student growth, or the change students exhibit from the beginning of the school year to the end.

Cotham’s measure would flip the proportions, giving growth 80 percent of the weight, and performance 20 percent.

“We do want to know how our students are performing,” she said, but emphasized the effect D and F grades have on struggling schools. “Imagine how hard and bad that is for a school that is under transformation.”

Jackson, whose district overlaps part of Cotham’s, agreed. After this year’s performance grades were released, he called principals at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, including a number that received low grades. “They were heartbroken,” he said.

“If a school is an F, everyone loses faith in it,” Jackson said. “Parents will do everything in their power to keep their kids out of that school.”

He and Cotham want to see provisions for interventions that help struggling schools.

“I think there should be some real meat and teeth in this bill to say if we’re going to continue to do this, here’s what we’ll do as a state and as a local school board to really work together,” Cotham said. “Just having a grade for a grade’s sake is not helping children learn and it’s not transforming a community.”

In a show of bipartisanship, Horn enthusiastically agreed with his legislative colleagues. He said that from his own experience, growing a struggling student is harder than moving a highly proficient student from a B to an A.

“Growth is endemic in education,” he said. It’s unclear how much progress these changes will see in the current session, though Horn said a change could be possible. “We’re trying to engender a conversation with our friends in the Senate to move from 80-20 to, I’d like to see 80-20 the other way, but probably more like 50-50,” he said, referring to the split between proficiency and growth. “Whatever we do, let’s at least be consistent and not get policy whiplash.”

House and Senate budgets

The legislators said they also anticipate conversations about the state budget to gather steam in the next couple of weeks. Horn said his committee is just beginning to discuss how to allocate funding for K-12 education.

But he said there is plenty of uncertainty ahead. “We haven’t received the secret part, what I call the secret part, where all the mischief happens.” Horn was referring to the “special provisions” section of the budget, which often includes significant policy changes. “That is the part that is an enigma to us all.”

Jackson, who is serving his first full term in the Senate, said he’s still trying to figure out the budget process. “My sense is that the House has big chairs and medium chairs and little chairs. The Senate, we have three or four people who call all the shots.”

No matter who holds power, though, the legislators said one of their primary goals this session is to help colleagues understand Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s unique educational challenges.

“We have great schools in Charlotte, we have different schools with different needs and that’s not a bad thing,” Cotham said. “But sometimes if people aren’t used to that and that’s not their perspective, they may not understand why I’m asking for a certain thing.”

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.