Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What will the state budget really mean for teacher pay?

North Carolina legislature leaders announced a budget compromise with fanfare yesterday, touting it as including the largest teacher pay hike in the state's history. Top line figures: 7 percent salary raises, and no cuts to teacher assistants.

We're still waiting on the formal details of the budget to be published (that's expected to be around 10 p.m. tonight). But WRAL has published a state Fiscal Research Division document with a chart that shows what the new teacher base salary range should be under the budget proposal.

Teachers with five to 10 years experience will have the biggest pay bumps. Those with 30+ years won't see much of a difference.

Longevity pay would go away, according to the North Carolina Association of Educators. There's also much fewer pay levels than the old system.

Granted, this all could presumably still change.

Teachers: What are your thoughts on the teacher pay deal? Shoot me an email.

Private school vouchers to go out next month

The highly sought after vouchers to send low-income students to private schools will in fact go out next month.

A Wake County judge on Wednesday declined to put the matter on hold until a lawsuit to block the program is resolved, the AP reports. So the voucher system will go forward as planned: Families will get $4,200 each to help pay for private school tuition. To qualify, the families must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the student can't already be in private school.

The state allotted $10 million for the program, meaning that 2,400 students could get the vouchers -- known as "opportunity scholarships." More than twice that many applied, and the state held a lottery to see who would get one. A total of 937 families applied from Mecklenburg County, significantly more than any other.

The AP article says that only 1,000 students have indicated they'll accept a voucher this fall. I've put a call in to the agency overseeing the program to get a firm number and how many are in Mecklenburg County. I'll update when I find out.

The voucher payments are sent to go out Aug. 15. A hearing on the lawsuit will be held Aug. 19.

UPDATE: The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority reports that 1,298 people have accepted vouchers, though 124 have not yet picked out a private school. Of students who have accepted, 230 are in Mecklenburg.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Catawba County Schools salaries posted

If you've been following this blog, you know the Observer posts the salaries for school district employees in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties each year. One of the final ones we've received this year, for the school district in Catawba County, is now available for search.

Why post school district salaries by name? I think Ann said it well back in May when the first databases of the year went up: It helps the public find out if something is going wrong in public spending.

Take a look and see what stands out.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Switching things up for a year

After 12 years covering education for the Observer, I'm embarking Monday on a new venture covering the Affordable Care Act.

The children who were in kindergarten when I started this beat in February 2002 graduated in June,  so it felt like time to try a new challenge myself.  The opportunity arose when the Observer got a one-year grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation to create a reporting job that will explore how the act is playing out in North Carolina.

Writing about health care appeals to me for the same reasons education reporting does:  It's a beat that combines intellectual complexity with emotional impact, an area where vital public policy decisions are taking shape and people are hungry for good information.

When I applied to the Observer in 1986 it was for the medical writer's job.  The editors hired Karen Garloch instead,  and I've never had cause to question their judgment.  The opportunity to work with and learn from Karen was one of the enticements to make an otherwise daunting leap.

As blog readers will suspect, the notion of a grant-funded job gave me pause.  Public education is being shaped by big-money donors with agendas,  something that's debated here on a regular basis.  But before accepting the grant,  our editors and Garloch determined that the only agenda being pushed by Kaiser Health News,  which isn't affiliated with Kaiser Permanente,  is generating high-quality coverage of a public policy issue that touches virtually every aspect of our lives and economy.

While some may suspect I've grown weary of education,  the opposite is true.  The hardest part of this switch is letting go of the long list of intriguing themes and story ideas in my mental files.  If I could clone myself,  one of me  --  make that two or three of me  --  would delve into those stories.

Absent that option,  I'm delighted that banking reporter Andrew Dunn is stepping in.  He's a skilled reporter who has excelled on a challenging beat.  He's a product of Wake County Public Schools and the father of a 4-year-old,  so his interest in education isn't just theoretical.  He's even an active blogger,  so the switch from Bank Watch to Your Schools shouldn't be too hard  (though I notice that banking readers aren't nearly as eager to comment as the education crowd).

I'd say  "So long until next summer,"  but I've noticed something when I tell sources about the switch:  Almost everyone shares a passionate observation about how the Affordable Care Act is affecting their families and/or business,  for good or for bad.

I hope to get lots of personal stories to make policy coverage come to life. So I'll just say  "Stay in touch."  And provide Andrew with the same stream of tips,  questions,  color commentary and,  ahem,  constructive criticism that I've come to count on.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Study: N.C. charters get better results for less money

Students in N.C. charter schools earned higher reading and math scores in 2011 than their counterparts in traditional public schools,  while the charter schools got less money for doing it,  according to a new study from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

The latest study,  "The Productivity of Public Charter Schools,"  piggybacks on an April report that compared per-pupil spending on charters and other public schools.  It compares scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth-grade reading and math exams for the two groups and links those to spending.

The report,  which looks at all states that had charter schools in 2011,  shows that N.C. charter school students averaged 13 points higher in reading and nine points higher in math than students in N.C. school districts.  Meanwhile,  charter schools averaged $8,277 per charter student compared with $9,999 per district student.  The study does a lot of other number-crunching but that's the gist:  Higher scores for less money.

Skeptics may assume that's because charter schools are working with the students who tend to score higher.  But according to this study,  the N.C. charter schools averaged slightly higher percentages of low-income and disabled students than public schools across the state.

Of course,  there are plenty of caveats to consider,  and the 43-page report explores many of them.  This is one year's performance  (a year that precedes North Carolina's charter school expansion)  for one grade level.  As the study notes,  those students may have experienced a mix of charter and traditional public schooling  (and,  for that matter,  private and home-schooling),  all of which contributes to eighth-grade scores. The report uses that data to extrapolate a  "return on investment"  based on lifetime earnings.  I'm skeptical of that technique,  which is used to turn small data points into huge savings by any number of educational groups,  including traditional public schools.

The researchers note that the overall analysis leads to one clear national finding:  "Charter schools tend to exhibit more productivity than traditional public schools."

You can bet that will come up as North Carolina debates how to balance its investment in various forms of public education.

Update: A reader steered me to a University of Colorado National Education Policy Center review of the April report on charter inequities. Reviewer Bruce Baker of Rutgers University says the University of Arkansas study  "displays complete lack of understanding of intergovernmental fiscal relationships."  For instance,  he writes,  money that is passed through school districts for distribution to charters is counted as school district revenue in per-pupil calculations  (CMS passed through about $23 million in 2013).

"In addition, the report suffers from alarmingly vague documentation regarding data sources and methodologies, and it constructs entirely inappropriate comparisons of student population characteristics,"  Baker writes.  "Simply put, the findings and conclusions of the study
are not valid or useful."

As some of you have noted,  and as I pointed out in the post about the April report,  the University of Arkansas research is part of the university's School Choice Demonstration Project,  which is funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

Read more here:

Read more here:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Can grants make CMS schools safer?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is seeking a little more than $7 million in federal money aimed at making schools safer,  and that launched some interesting discussion about risks and strategies.

The school board approved a $2.5 million request to the U.S. Department of Education to "expand the district’s capacity to assist schools in high violence communities in breaking the cycle of violence,"  the summary presented Tuesday says.  "The 13 CMS Project Prevent schools serve a total of 11,035 students. A position will be developed that relieves school counselors and social workers from the non-specialized duties that frequently monopolize their time. In addition, student services staff will receive training and consultative support in the delivery of evidence-based counseling methods to support children who have experienced trauma."

The 13 schools are Garinger High in east Charlotte,  Harding High in west Charlotte and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.  Board member Joyce Waddell asked why Hidden Valley Elementary and Martin Luther King Middle School weren't included,  given that the Hidden Valley neighborhood in northeast Charlotte has been notorious for gang activity.  (She didn't mention it,  but Hidden Valley Elementary was the site of the state's only at-school homocide in 2012-13,  when police shot a teenager in the school parking lot during a drug sting gone bad last summer.)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police reviewed crime in high school zones and found that the highest rates were in the West Charlotte,  Garinger,  Harding and Vance zones,  in that order,  according to the staffer making the report  (I think,  but am not certain,  it was Karen Thomas,  who is retiring as executive director of student support services.)  West Charlotte High already gets support from the public-private Project LIFT,  she said,  so the grant focuses on the Garinger and Harding areas.  Note that this refers to crime in the neighborhoods the schools serve,  not to crime in the schools themselves.

Hidden Valley is in the Vance zone.  The staffer said Vance and its feeder schools will be part of another request approved Tuesday,  for almost $4.6 million from the Department of Justice to "develop knowledge about the specific programs, activities and interventions that improve school safety in a sustainable and cost-effective manner. The researcher will collect evidence and evaluate intervention approaches that enhance school safety,"  the summary says.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Another round of the miracle-gains game

While reporting a recent article on Sugar Creek Charter School's plans to add high school, I was dismayed to see the test-score reporting by UNC Charlotte's Urban Education Collaborative.  A 37-page report from the collaborative,  which is part of the College of Education,  bases its claims for  "extraordinary outcomes in public education"  on the school's proficiency gains between 2008 and 2012.

Not surprisingly, you don't see that number plunge to 40 percent in 2013.  And if the researchers had included that shocker,  they'd certainly have explained that North Carolina introduced new exams with a higher bar for passing.  They'd have noted that most schools across the state saw pass rates plummet,  with the biggest drop among schools such as Sugar Creek that serve mostly low-income and minority students.

Yet nowhere do these researchers, who are part of a partnership with Sugar Creek known as Schoolwise,  explain that scores also plunged statewide in 2008,  when North Carolina introduced a tougher reading exam. And that they rose sharply in 2009,  when the state started giving students a second chance to pass.  The curve depicted for Sugar Creek is common to most N.C. schools  --  again,  with the biggest plunge-and-rise among schools serving kids who traditionally struggle to reach grade level.

I've called Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools out on playing the same game in the past.  I shudder to think how many national experts believe schools and programs across our state are successful based on big gains since 2008.  Charts like this are a great marketing tool,  if not exactly a testament to integrity in reporting.

When testing changes,  year-to-year comparisons carry little meaning.  At that point,  the best bet is to see how a given school,  district or group of schools compares with similar students.  As I noted in my article,  such comparisons indicate Sugar Creek is doing well compared with state and CMS averages,  though the latest numbers are unlikely to inspire breathless praise. (For careful readers,  the numbers I cite,  from N.C. school report cards,  represent the percent of students who passed both reading and math tests;  that's different from the composite score based on reading,  math and science exams.  Both are legitimate ways to measure proficiency.)

CMS used to do a good job of this when officials evaluated programs such as strategic staffing.  The studies were sometimes buried online,  but they existed.  Unfortunately,  a reader recently pointed out to me that the CMS research link,  which I'd kept in the rail at the right of this blog,  is now dead.  If there's a new one I can't find it.

Chance Lewis,  director of the Urban Education Collaborative,  says he's working on just such a comparison for Sugar Creek,  which is the collaborative's partner.  He and I agree that the challenge is figuring out the fairest comparison for the charter school,  which serves grades K-8.  Do you look at CMS neighborhood schools or at magnets?  Focus only on other K-8 schools,  or on elementaries and middle schools?  Do categories such as "African American" and "economically disadvantaged" give a true apples-to-apples look?

Results for 2014 are due out later this summer.  We already know they'll be up,  because the state changed the scoring system to allow more students to pass.  With all the uncertainty about Common Core,  it's hard to tell what we'll get in coming years.  Here's my forecast:  By 2017,  we're going to see lots of charts showing that schools have made amazing gains since 2013.