2015 priorities: making legislators aware of education’s needs

It appears issues related to public education will occupy a good portion of the General Assembly’s time again this year. On a few of those issues, there will be easy agreement. Rep. John Bell, a member of the delegation representing Lenoir County, got us off to a good start by sponsoring a bill that gives LCPS, along with some other school districts, local control over its calendar (http://tinyurl.com/ltcjydn). On other issues … well, we’ll have to talk about it.

That conversation formally  began last week when Dr. Steve Mazingo, LCPS superintendent, presented the district’s legislative agenda to Sen. Don Davis and Rep. George Graham at a dinner meeting that also included members of the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners and the Lenoir County Board of Education. Here are the issues Dr. Mazingo singled out as important for legislators to consider:

Teacher Pay and Recruitment

We are appreciative of the raises granted by the General Assembly last year but the schedule of pay increases created some distinct winners and losers. Chief among the losers were experienced teachers who we depend on mentoring our beginning teachers and who have been most affected by pay freezes over the last decade.

In addition, the loss of additional pay for earning Master’s and Advanced Degrees amounts to another salary deduction for the best teachers. Teacher pay is crucial to teacher recruitment and retention. Lenoir County, as well as the majority of eastern North Carolina, struggles to hire teachers. Competition for teachers within the state heavily favors richer urban counties, which have been able to use local funds to adequately reward experienced teachers and eliminate the disparities inherent in the 2014 pay plan. In the past, we have successfully recruited teachers from other states; however, our applicant pool from other states has decreased drastically over the last three years. All teachers regardless of experience should receive pay increases and all teachers who obtain advanced degrees should receive pay increases.

Technology Funding

You only have to look at your smartphone to understand where technology stands in relation to our lives today. It’s the same with technology and our schools. Digital devices, solid connectivity in our classrooms, and the skilled technicians needed to keep those networks running are no longer the “extras” offered by the most forward-looking school systems; they are the standard pursued by all school systems that do not want to fall desperately behind. Unfortunately, that pursuit is complicated by the lack of adequate state-level funding for technology. At the same time it mandates online testing and e-textbooks, state government has not provided the resources required to give school districts a reliable digital presence.

School systems like LCPS that recognize the necessity of 1:1 technology and other digital initiatives have to piece together funding for those programs from multiple sources, leaving the programs vulnerable to funding issues on as many fronts and raising questions about their sustainability. This patchwork approach also ensures that digital learning, instead of developing uniformly and equitably, will proceed in North Carolina’s public schools in a ragged and disparate manner. I think we can agree that today’s jobs require digital proficiency, that to prepare today’s students for future careers they need to learn on digital devices in wired classrooms and that digital literacy is as much an economic benefit as it is an educational necessity. We ask the General Assembly to acknowledge this 21st century reality by committing to a funding plan that is on-going and sufficient to prepare students to succeed in a digital society.

Drivers Education Funding

Driver education is a key component of North Carolina’s graduated driver’s license program. To earn a full-privilege license at age 16, young people in our state are required to successfully complete 36 hours of driver education. This requirement accounts in large measure for the fact that each year an average of 750 students from LCPS take the driver education classes offered by this school district. Efficient operation has allowed LCPS to offer these classes for free. Unfortunately, that excellent system – one that provides the best training for the most students – will end this summer unless the current General Assembly decides otherwise.

The decision to eliminate state funding for driver education as of July 1, 2015, will put thousands of students and school districts across the state in a financial bind. It will cost LCPS an estimated $100,000 a year – money previously earmarked for other instructional programs. It will cost each driver education student $65 – a fee that not all students who want to follow the law and acquire a license at age 16 will be able to pay. What we are left with is an unfunded state mandate and an enfeebled driver education program. Next month, the Lenoir County Board of Education will consider – and, I predict, will approve – a resolution asking the General Assembly to revisit its decision to sunset driver education program funding and either restore the full Highway Trust Fund allocation or establish another funding source that does not cut into other education allotments. Speaking for LCPS and for all our students approaching driving age, we would like to stress the importance of that request.

Teacher Assistants

The role of the teacher assistant has transformed into the role of an instructional assistant in recent years.  Because of the increase in education requirements and assessments in North Carolina, a teacher assistant has become an essential component to student learning, especially in the early years. With the increased focus on early grades and more attention to reading by the third grade, the instructional support that teacher assistants provide to classroom teachers is invaluable.  More and more students are entering school with tremendous deficits in vocabulary and the skills needed to access curriculum.  Without an instructional assistant in the classroom to assist in differentiation in the early grades, the classroom teacher is left with a monumental task that is made even more difficult.
Not only do we depend on teacher assistants to support instruction in the classroom, but we depend on teacher assistants to drive our buses.  We simply do not have enough people employed in the district who drive buses and with another decrease in teacher assistant positions, we are put in a terrible position of running double routes and losing instructional time to travel time.  Funding for teacher assistants should not only be increased but should be allocated by position ratios in K-3 in the same manner as classroom teachers.

Read to Achieve

The goal of the Read to Achieve law (RtA) is that students will be proficient in reading by the end of third grade.  The goal of Lenoir County Public Schools is that students will be proficient in reading by the end of second grade.  Reading research shows that the earlier intense reading intervention begins for struggling readers, the more likely reading problems will decrease.  RtA requires that students who are not proficient in reading at the end of third grade will attend a Summer Reading Camp and if proficiency is still not achieved then, students will be enrolled in a transition or accelerated fourth grade class.  These interventions will be more effective if they occur earlier in a struggling reader’s education.

In addition, the funding for RtA is not sufficient for the total costs of the requirements of the law.  Therefore, we ask that flexibility be given to the Local Education Agency (LEA) to develop a reading plan, aligned to the state’s literacy plan to ensure that students are reading by the end of third grade by providing interventions and strategies based on that LEA’s needs.  This flexibility would allow us to develop a plan that is aligned to our goal of reading proficiency by the end of second grade.  We also ask that for the 2015 Summer Reading Camp be revised to mandatory hours instead of mandatory days in order to reduce transportation costs.

Pre-K Education

For over a decade the State-funded NC Pre-K program, formerly known as More at Four, has been providing high-quality early educational opportunities to North Carolina’s at-risk children. A large and growing body of research shows that investing in high-quality pre-kindergarten education yields benefits for children, schools, and communities.   Education experts are convinced that early childhood education plays a crucial role in narrowing the achievement gap for minority and low-income children. Research shows that young children who participate in high-quality pre-k programs enter school more ready to learn than their peers and score higher on reading and math tests than children that did not receive pre-K services. Numerous studies have shown a reduced use of special education services and lower grade retention among pre-k participants.

Funding levels provide for only 27,000 slots for roughly 67,000 eligible children. Funding for a meaningful level of additional slots is crucial if we are to ensure an equal start for Kindergarten readiness for at-risk children. In addition, the program should be returned to be part of the Department of Public Instruction in order to strategically focus on the early years and reform education for all North Carolina children, preschool through third grade.

Testing and Accountability

To ensure student success, it is important to measure student learning to identify strengths and weaknesses in a child’s academic program. Assessments, both formative and summative, should provide feedback that improves instruction. However, as state testing mandates have increased, too much instructional time is being utilized for testing and assessing students. Quality instructional time is being lost in order to meet the state testing requirements. Rigid testing schedules can squelch the creativity and enthusiasm that make teaching and learning fun. State-mandated tests and related local assessments can total more than one hundred a year in a school system. That is too many. We believe that a new accountability plan should be proposed that maximizes instructional time, assesses students to gain information to improve instruction, and minimizes the stress on students and teachers while maintaining a balance between instruction and accountability.

School Performance Grades

Reaction to the unveiling of the first School Performance Grades earlier this month said less about what the grades intended to show than what they didn’t show or what they showed by accident. Educators, editorialists, and public policy observers were nearly unanimous in concluding the current model does not accurately reflect the learning going on in many schools and that it overlooks the obvious impact of poverty on academic achievement. In short, they concluded, as we do, that the current formula is flawed and should be reworked. We are encouraged by the apparent sentiment for revising the formula in this year’s General Assembly and ask that the delegation representing Lenoir County take an active role in that work – with the goal of giving schools and teachers credit for students’ progress. Frankly, we do not think there is a completely fair way to compress a year’s worth of school into a single grade. We do, however, think there is a fairer way.

The current School Performance Grade model puts too much emphasis on test performance and too little on academic growth. The 80-20 split means most schools are graded largely on scores from two tests taken on two days during a long school year. Academic growth, the basis for the state’s teacher evaluation system and, to us, the essence of learning, is an afterthought. Ignored altogether are the socioeconomic conditions that create obstacles to learning and lie outside a school’s control. High-poverty schools – including the schools in Kinston that draw from two of the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the state – are judged on the same scale as the state’s most affluent schools. The comparison is meaningless. If the General Assembly is intent on making School Performance Grades part of the state’s school report card, we ask that legislators at least make the grade meaningful. To do that means making academic growth a majority component of the formula and incorporating a more of the factors which contribute to the value of a school.

Working Retirees Health Insurance

Quality substitute teachers are critical in our classrooms especially as long-term substitutes. Not only do they provide continuity for our classrooms, they also have the knowledge base needed in a classroom to provide quality instruction to our students. Also, employing retired school administrators for interim positions, such as an interim principal, is critical to the smooth operation of a school. Currently, we are unable to employ a retired teacher or administrator for more than 29 hours per week because the existing law forces these retirees to switch to the Bronze insurance plan, which is a less desirable plan. We are heartened by the fact that a discussion about restoring previous policy is underway in House and Senate Committees thanks to the legislation already introduced. Rehired retirees should retain their State Health Plan coverage when employed as teachers, interim principals, interim superintendents, and other administrative positions.