Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour last week asked Superintendent Heath Morrison for a breakdown of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spending by voting district. Such a breakdown, he said, might help address concerns that lead some people to talk about splitting the countywide district into smaller ones.
Morrison, who started the CMS job in July, said he'll try to answer Ridenhour's question. I'll be curious to see what he comes up with.
His predecessor, Peter Gorman, calculated per-pupil spending at each school as part of a CMS equity report. The county has used those numbers to create a per-pupil average for each district.
But Morrison's crew didn't do an equity report and hasn't released updated per-pupil spending numbers.
"This is one community," Dunlap said. "I don't think we ought to be trying to split it up by district."
One of the drawbacks of covering education for more than a decade is that some of the back-and-forth starts to feel like watching an old married couple argue. County Commissioner Bill James, an accountant and a Republican, has been arguing for years that CMS gets too much money and doesn't provide enough results. This time around, he didn't seem to find the energy for critiquing the numbers.
"I just don't really feel that educational achievement is getting better," James said after watching a presentation on CMS academic gains. "Maybe it's a lack of PR on the part of CMS."
"Feelings are not facts," responded Dunlap. "Just because you feel a certain way doesn't make it true."
Dunlap urged his colleagues to look at the data and see how much progress CMS has made toward narrowing the performance gaps between black, Hispanic and white students and between poor and middle-class students.
At the risk of being a party-pooper -- and the even bigger risk of getting in the middle of a political spitting match -- I'd note that those numbers aren't as meaningful as they look. That's because the CMS charts compare results from 2008, when students took state exams only once, with those from 2012, when students who failed the first time retook the test. The state launched that requirement in 2009, and the result was an immediate jump in pass rates. Groups that had more students falling just below the grade-level cutoff (such as black, Hispanic and low-income students) saw big gains, while the change was smaller for groups where most students passed on the first try (white, Asian and middle-class students).
At the time, Gorman blasted the retesting as artificial inflation of results. For the first couple of years he offered comparisons of pass rates before and after the retest bump.
That's probably not practical now. But if CMS wants to make a fair comparison, all it has to do is use 2009, rather than 2008, as the baseline. If the gaps have still narrowed, it says something about student achievement, not just changing rules.