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Perspective | An uncommon week in the great education debate

What a week. And I’m not even talking about the U.S. House drafting articles of impeachment of the president of the United States. Rather, let’s focus on an extraordinary week in education policy and politics in North Carolina.

While members of Congress tangled in Washington over the Trump presidency, North Carolina’s governor and lieutenant governor gave a prelude to campaign 2020 with back-to-back letters to teachers and principals. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who has filed for re-election, reiterated that he vetoed the general fund budget because it provided too much in corporate tax cuts and too little in pay increases for educators. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who seeks his party’s gubernatorial nomination, outlined what he says is the “true story’’ of education spending under GOP legislative rule, while also assailing the North Carolina Association of Educators.

Four days after the state’s two top ranking office-holders clashed over public education financing, the much-awaited findings from an extensive evaluation of preK-12 schooling in North Carolina by WestEd were released. WestEd, a California-based non-partisan research agency, led a team of consultants commissioned by Superior Court Judge David Lee to inform the next rulings in the long-running Leandro case.

Leandro report released: What it will take for NC children to receive sound, basic education

It will take a while to digest the report’s account of education policy initiatives and shifts, its trove of data and its array of recommendations. Whatever the legal ramifications, the report should serve as a touchstone in the next two or three legislative cycles and in the 2020 state campaigns.

“North Carolina was recognized during the 1980s and 1990s as an example of how state policy makers could turn a state around by making strong investments in teachers’ knowledge and skills, along with standards for students and teachers, and in early childhood support and education,” says the WestEd report. It goes on to say that “cutbacks that began during the recession after 2008 and much deeper legislative cuts over the last few years have eliminated or greatly reduced many of the programs put in place during this time and have begun to undermine the quality and equity gains that were previously made.”

As it so happened, the WestEd report came out on the same day that scores of educators and policy makers assembled at N.C. State University for a “summit’’ convened by the governor’s office, the Hunt Institute and the N.C. Business Committee for Education. The summit’s purpose was to propel North Carolina to increase its supply of teachers of color as a central strategy to raise achievement and horizons of more young people, especially in high-poverty and majority-minority schools.

NC takes the lead on intentionally building a pipeline of educators of color

In an executive order establishing a task force to address “equity and inclusion,” Cooper summarized the demographic-change and teacher-supply contexts for a push to increase teachers of color: The state’s public schools need 7,000 new teachers each year. Twenty percent of the state’s educators are people of color in a system in which 48% of students are whites, 25% black, 18% Hispanic and nearly 10% Asian, American Indian or multi-racial.

The WestEd report cites an “encouraging’’ recent increase in enrollment by students of color, especially Latinx, in teacher preparation programs. And the report draws on substantial research to show the benefits of students having some teachers of their own racial and ethnic group as adult role models.

“In North Carolina, having at least one Black teacher in grades three to five cut the high school dropout rate in half for Black boys,” says the report. “Black boys from low-income families were 39% less likely to drop out of high school than those who had never had a Black teacher. … [In] addition to academic benefits, students of color can experience social-emotional benefits from having teachers of color, with fewer unexcused absences and fewer suspensions or expulsions.”

In its lengthy analysis of the state’s overall teacher shortage and high turnover, particularly in high-poverty schools, WestEd points to “uneven preparation and mentoring, inadequate compensation and poor working conditions.” WestEd calls on North Carolina again to set a goal of reaching the national average in beginning teacher salaries, along with pay increases for experienced teachers, over the next 10 years.

As often the case in contentious American democracy, North Carolina has at times a ragged debate over budget, taxes and setting priorities. Still, this extraordinary week has elevated the great debate in 2020 and beyond over how to provide North Carolina schools with high-quality teachers and school leaders so as to meet the constitutional requirement of a sound basic education for all the state’s young people.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.