To-do list: undoing the damage lawmakers have done

As state legislators prepare to sit for another rousing session of public service, local elected officials like to offer up a suggested agenda — a wish list, as it were, from their particular board or agency — for the upcoming gathering of the N.C. General Assembly. The Lenoir County Board of Education and LCPS administrators plan to do the same on Feb. 19, as the legislature really gets down to business. What the school board will wish for we don’t yet know — there’s a long list of things that need doing for public education in North Carolina — but lawmakers could begin by undoing the damage they’ve done in the last two years.

Start here:

Letter grades for schools. There’s so much wrong with this system that we’re going to have to stick to a summary and come back to it later, closer to the release date for these grades next month. The brainchild of Sen. Phil Berger and his Republicans pals in the Senate, the idea of assigning letter grades of A through F to each and every public school in the state is ostensibly an effort to give parents and others a clear picture of how schools are performing. That’s a load of junk. More accurately, it’s another effort by Republicans to undermine public education.

No single letter can encapsulate the quality of a school, particularly when that letter grade is based almost solely upon student performance on a couple of standardized tests. Parents who are interested in seeing meaningful, comparative data on public schools only need to visit the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s website and check out the North Carolina School Report Cards A better way to assess the quality of a particular school would be to spend some time there, get involved with the PTA, get to know the administration and the teachers and get an idea what their goals and plans are.

When people say they’re interested in education, they’re really saying they are interested in how their child or grandchild or a child they know is faring in a specific classroom. Is she happy? Is he getting the help he needs? Do they want to go to school? None of these characteristics important to parents are contained in a letter grade, which makes North Carolina’s new system misleading, if not meaningless.

The best way around this potential confusion is to see the grade system for what it is — unnecessary and biased — and toss it out. That won’t happen, though, so the next best way is to revise the formula that determines the grade. Give more weight to students’ growth, because growth is what education is all about. Take into account the socioeconomic factors that make a school in a poor neighborhood much different from a school in an affluent area. Build into the system some measures to help elevate those schools that don’t score well.

Or admit this grading scheme is about ideology, not improvement.

Driver’s education funding. In a typical year, 700 or more students take driver’s education classes through LCPS. This isn’t surprising. They have to if they want to acquire their license when they turn 16. It’s required by law. Unless something changes in this legislative session, it will become a requirement the state refuses to pay for.

In the 2014 session, legislators decided to erase the $26 million earmarked annually for driver’s education, effective with the 2015-2016 school year. That leaves school districts and parents in a bad spot. Somebody’s going to have to pay the $198 per student the classes cost. If that’s the school district, about $149,000 now going to other instructional programs will have to go to driver’s ed. If that’s the parents, a lot of kids won’t be getting that valuable (perhaps lifesaving) training simply because the family can’t afford it.

Even if they split the cost — the parents paying the $65 the state will allow under the new system and the school district picking up the rest — the financial impact is eased only a little, especially considering that driver’s ed has traditionally been offered for free.

Is driver’s education important? Should the state fund a program it mandates? Should parents be ticked when legislators shirk that responsibility? Honk if you think the answer is yes.

War on public schools. You think that’s overstating the situation? The 2013-2015 state budget eliminated 5,000 teacher positions and another 272 jobs for support personnel like guidance counselors and social workers. In the two years, public schools lost more than 7,000 teacher assistant positions. Per-pupil funding in 2014-2015 fell to $5,766 — $130 less than in 2008-2009 — and put North Carolina 46th nationally. Slots for pre-K instruction were cut by 2,500 — despite a waiting list of nearly 12,000. Money for instructional supplies and textbooks is down dramatically. Legislators cut the budget of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction by 30 percent, the most of any state agency.

As one of their signature initiatives, Republicans authored a school voucher program that allocated $12.6 million in public money to fund payments of $4,200 per student to families who choose private and religious schools. (Like a couple of other signature initiatives authored by N.C. Republicans, this one ran into a little snag called the Constitution.) The state’s very productive Teaching Fellows program is history. So is extra pay for teachers who earn advanced degrees.

Meanwhile, life got easier for existing charter schools in the state, the number of brick-and-mortar charters continued to grow and the General Assembly authorized the creation of two pilot K-12 online charter schools. Earlier this month, Republicans from both the House and Senate held a closed-door meeting to discuss education policy that, judging from the guest list, polished the concept of privatization to a high shine.

When is enough going to be enough for taxpayers and voters? There are about 1.5 million students enrolled in North Carolina’s public schools. Private school enrollment is less than 115,000. Charter schools enroll about 58,000. Clearly, the key to improving education in North Carolina is improving its public schools, not in favoring alternatives. Legislators go back to work on Wednesday and we wish you’d tell them that.