Priority list: making our concerns known to legislators

Each year, prior to the beginning of a new session of the General Assembly, LCPS hosts a gathering of legislators who represent Lenoir County, along with members of the Lenoir County Board of Commissioners and Lenoir County Board of Education. This morning, at a breakfast held at the school district’s central office, these elected officials received a list of legislative priorities for the district from Superintendent Brent Williams — a list not much changed from last year due the General Assembly’s focus on other issues. Below are those priorities. The short session of the General Assembly begins Monday.

It seems likely that issues related to public education will occupy a good portion of the North Carolina General Assembly’s time again this year. We appreciate your being with us this morning to hear and to talk about our views on what LCPS considers the most important of these issues. Perhaps we can more easily find common ground on some of these issues than on others. We do feel, however, that it is important to meet and to discuss the issues and concerns that are so vital to our mission of providing the best possible education to the children we serve. We believe that there has been forward movement and positive progress made in several education-related issues. We have stated below our views about the issues that we feel are most significant to our school system.

Teacher Pay and Recruitment
We are appreciative of the raises granted by the General Assembly over the last two years. We are concerned, however, about the lack equitable pay raises for our veteran teachers who have been impacted more dramatically by freezes in pay over the last several years. In addition to outstanding classroom instructional duties, we depend on these veteran educators to mentor our beginning teachers.

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 current 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 four years. All teachers regardless of experience should receive pay increases and all teachers who obtain advanced degrees should receive pay increases.

Technology Funding
Technology is essential to support teaching and learning today. 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. We probably 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 ongoing 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 unless the General Assembly continues to support funding. The decision to eliminate state funding for driver education would put thousands of students and school districts across the state in a financial bind. It would cost LCPS an estimated $100,000 a year – money previously earmarked for other instructional programs. It would 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 would be left with is an unfunded state mandate and an enfeebled driver education program. We ask that consideration be given to providing an allocation for driver education that does not cut into other education allotments.

Capital Funding
During the last ten years, LCPS has made some progress in addressing the tremendous challenge presented by what was for many years an across-the-board problem of outdated school buildings in great need of extensive renovations or complete replacement. We have managed to build three new schools and to renovate three others. Still, however, these efforts have resulted in effectively addressing the intense facilities needs at only six of our seventeen school sites. The major improvements that we have made were possible by the use of school bond money, a funding source that cannot be used again until the current twenty-year debt service is complete. The essence of the problem goes back to 2009-10 when the ADM Public School Building Capital Fund revenues stopped going towards capital needs. Since that time, LCPS has struggled to maintain and renovate school buildings. With diminished ADM Public School Building Capital Funds and lottery funds obligated to pay bond debt, LCPS will have to rely on the County to help with required facility needs. Unfortunately, without the additional capital funds, our schools will suffer and may eventually become unsafe for our children. Please consider reinstating much needed capital funds.

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. We appreciate the vote by the General Assembly during last session to fund teacher assistant positions. We ask that you also consider supporting the need for teacher assistants in K-3 at a 1:1 ratio.

Read to Achieve
The goal of the Read to Achieve law is that students will be proficient in reading by the end of the 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 tradition or accelerated fourth grade class. This summer, the Summer Reading Camp opportunity was extended to include rising second and third graders. The expectation is that reading 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. The Summer Reading Camp opportunity for rising second and third graders will be on a first come, first-served basis because there is not sufficient funding to serve the approximate 1,500 students who are expected to be eligible. 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.

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 last year 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 discussions about 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 way to achieve greater levels of fairness in this process.

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 School Performance Grades are going to be 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.

Child Nutrition
North Carolina is one of the few states currently not designating any state funds for the School Nutrition Program. The program is a self-operating and self-sufficient program including all benefits and overhead. The ability to generate funds has significantly diminished as a result of the Smart Snack federal regulations among other stringent regulations over the past five years. Over half of school districts in N.C. are operating in the red, which means the LEA must keep the programs financially solvent. School Nutrition is asking for consideration through legislate` on in helping to fund these meals. We currently have a “gap” amount of approximately $ .13 per lunch meal between reimbursement and actual cost. Any State help would limit the use of local education funds for this purpose and would, in turn, allow that money to be used in the classroom.

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 regular LEA health plan which can cause confusion and a lapse in coverage. Rehired retirees should retain their State Health Plan coverage when employed as teachers, interim principals, interim superintendents, and other administrative positions. School systems could be billed for the cost of this coverage during the term of the employee’s additional work with the system.

Charter Schools
We believe that local boards of education should have the authority to approve charters and to keep them under their governance, thus allowing local boards an opportunity to experiment with different educational practices. The system for allotting funding for charter schools needs to be reevaluated, so that money will follow a student that returns the school district mid-year. In order for all students to have an opportunity to choose amongst the different publicly-funded and accountable schools, charter schools should also be required to provide transportation to those students who live in a certain radius and provide lunches for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. A mechanism needs to be established for charter schools to share their innovative practices with the schools. We are encouraged and very pleased with the recent decisions of the State Board of Education regarding the possibility of charter-like flexibility for LEAs.