Monday, June 30, 2014

Charter name ban: Think it through

A parent recently emailed me with concerns about a soon-to-open charter school in Charlotte.  She's considering enrolling her child,  she said,  so she has been asking questions about staffing,  attending board meetings and researching the new director.  Material she found from the two charter schools where that director worked previously led her to doubt whether the new school's board had made a wise hire and accurately represented the director's experience.

I'm not including specifics because I haven't had time to verify this information.  But my first step was obvious:  Email the two N.C. charter schools where the director worked and ask for details of her work history,  including her titles, dates of employment and whether she resigned or was dismissed.

Under a charter bill passed by the state Senate on June 17,  that information would be indisputably a matter of public record.

Under the amended version the House passed last week,  that's far less clear.

There's no indication that Rep. Charles Jeter,  the Mecklenburg Republican and charter school parent who introduced the amendment,  and the 64 other House members who voted for the amendment want to block parents and reporters from getting this kind of information.  Instead,  Jeter said he wants to stop newspapers from requesting and publishing names and salaries of charter school administrators,  teachers and other staff,  as the Observer and at least one other N.C. newspaper have done recently.

But the amendment doesn't limit itself to certain types of requests or certain categories of employees.  It simply says that names of charter school employees  "shall not be open to inspection,"  apparently putting names into the same category of confidentiality as job evaluations.

I asked public records and personnel experts at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Government how this might play out.

"It appears to prohibit the release of the name of an employee,  presumably for any purpose. That seems to be a broader limitation than what might have been intended,"  said Professor and Associate Dean Freyda Bluestein,  after reading the amendment and consulting with a colleague.

Most charter schools name their administrators on their web sites,  and some name their full faculty.  Employees often make presentations or are included in announcements at charter school board meetings,  which are public and whose minutes become public records.  Would this kind of disclosure be forbidden?

"It seems to me that it might prohibit the release of the name for any purpose, as I mention in my email,"  Bluestein responded.

The bill that passed the Senate on three readings and the House on the first two puts charter school employees under the same personnel privacy protections and disclosure requirements as other public schools.  That spells out 11 personnel items that must be made public for each employee,  including name, employment date, terms of contract, current position, salary  (including benefits,  incentives and bonuses) and information about promotions, demotions, transfers and disciplinary actions.

The amended version that passed the House on third reading removes names from that list.

That creates another puzzler:  If someone  --  whether a journalist,  parent or prospective employer   --  requests the public information for an individual employee by name,  can the school release it?  And if so,  are they required to do so?

"I suppose technically,  if you somehow had the list of names already and asked for their salaries, (or any other type of information that is public under that statute),  they might be required to provide the salaries and other information since this would not involve the school actually making the names open to inspection (since they were provided in the request),"  said Bluestein.  "I'm not sure exactly how this would work as a practical matter,  if enacted."

Bear in mind that this legislation came about because of confusion about what the law requires.  Even charter leaders who said they thought public disclosure was appropriate hesitated to release information in the face of mixed messages from state staff.  If something as basic as publicly naming the director of your school is potentially breaking the law,  I predict some of the public money going to charter schools is going to be spent on legal advice.

Here's hoping that as the Senate and House reconcile the two versions of the bill,  they think this through carefully.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Once banned for life, 'mooner' now covers CMS

WFAE news intern Nick de la Canal grinned as he introduced himself at this week's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools news conference.  He could see me struggling to place the name.

"You wrote an article about me a few years ago," he said.

de la Canal
Ah yes  --  the Myers Park mooner!  When he graduated from Myers Park High in 2011,  de la Canal rigged his pants and gown with velcro,  staged a stumble and gave the crowd a view of his polka-dot boxer shorts.  That stunt wouldn't have merited an Observer story,  but the chief of CMS police decided to  "send a message"  by notifying the newly minted graduate he could never again set foot on CMS property.  De la Canal appealed and the ban was reduced to one year.

In my article,  I noted that de la Canal had clashed with school administrators when he penned a musical spoof of the school modeled on  "Charlotte Squawks."  The following week de la Canal was recognized as a celebrity guest at Squawks.  He met Mike Collins,  co-creator of the musical revue and host of WFAE's  "Charlotte Talks."  He was later interviewed by WFAE reporter Scott Graf and met others at the station.

De la Canal went to Emerson College in Boston to major in journalism,  and last summer he landed an internship with WFAE.  This year he's back doing on-air work on topics such as the Read to Achieve program,  which is what brought him to Tuesday's news conference at Hidden Valley Elementary.

"In a way, dropping trou at graduation was the best career move I've made yet. Can't recommend it enough for aspiring young professionals,"  said de la Canal,  in an email agreeing to let me write about what he dubbed  "my boxers-to-briefcase story."

That sense of humor will serve de la Canal well in journalism,  a field notoriously populated with smart-alecks.  But his WFAE bio indicates he's been doing serious work as well,  winning awards for his coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.

I resisted the temptation to introduce de la Canal to Heath Morrison,  who arrived in 2012,  and fill the superintendent in on his story.  But I'll venture a guess that most folks in CMS aren't sorry to see this alum allowed back on his home turf.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Salaries and opportunities: A wrap-up

When I reported on Superintendent Heath Morrison's new administrative appointments Tuesday night,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools didn't have salary information available for the new jobs in central administration.

They are:  $160,000 a year for Chief Academic Officer Brian Schultz;  $126,900 for Akeshia Craven-Howell,  assistant superintendent of school options,  innovation and design;  and $111,000 for Michele Mason,  executive director of leadership.  They join two new zone superintendents Morrison added earlier this month,  as he revamps administration to provide better support for schools.

Following up on Wednesday's post about Opportunity Culture in Project LIFT,  the consultants from Public Impact who are leading that effort sent me a link to their own blog projecting the benefits for 31 schools around the nation that piloted Opportunity Culture jobs last year.  That would include the four in CMS' Project LIFT.

You might wonder how these numbers can be so striking  --  for instance,  $290,000 to $900,000 per teacher in additional lifetime pay  --   when Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts says the jobs are changing and evolving so much that it's hard to nail down local specifics.  The Public Impact report takes 2013-14 data and extrapolates on the assumption that all schools  "implement their models fully over three years."  Watts' report indicates it may be tough to forecast what will happen in those three years.  After Tuesday night's meeting, she checked on the status of the 19 who took opportunity culture jobs last year. Ten will continue in those jobs,  five will be in different opportunity culture jobs,  three lost those jobs when their schools redesigned the plans and one retired.

Finally,  the bill that would clarify beyond question that charter school salaries are subject to public disclosure is supposed to get a final House vote today.  Who would have guessed it would generate a report on incest and pedophilia from Rep. Paul Stam?

Meanwhile,  the two Charlotte holdouts to the Observer's salary request have said they'll provide the information.  Sugar Creek has already sent their full list and Lincoln Charter's director says that school's is coming soon.  We'll update the charter school database as soon as Lincoln's information arrives.  I asked both school leaders how much they paid lawyer Richard Vinroot to fight disclosure;  both said they have yet to receive the bill.

Update:  Salaries for nine districts surrounding Mecklenburg County went online today.  Thanks to database reporter Gavin Off for rounding up that information.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Opportunity Culture still evolving in Project LIFT

Opportunity Culture jobs may be the hot thing for Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. House, but in the Project LIFT schools that pioneered them they're still a work in progress.

Zone Superintendent Denise Watts talked about the quest to create higher paying jobs for great classroom teachers as part of a Project LIFT update to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Tuesday.  A couple of things are clear,  she said during the presentation and in a conversation afterward:  The jobs continue to attract a lot of interest,  and they can be effective in retaining the best teachers.


Watts said her office got 800 applications for a small number of jobs at five schools in 2014-15.  It was interesting to see how those numbers broke down,  though:  140 of them passed an initial screening and 65  "elite candidates"  got through three interviews and a data review.  So far 27 have been hired,  her report said,  joining nine who remain from 2013-14.

So how many does that leave still to hire?  Well,  that's where things get murky.  Watts said everything from enrollment projections for her nine schools to the General Assembly's decision on teacher assistants will shape the number of jobs available.  Why assistants?  Because some schools have used assistant positions to bolster pay for teachers taking on extra duties,  so if the legislature eliminates those posts it could become more difficult to make the new jobs work.

When I asked about the teachers who took on the first jobs in 2013-14,  coaching colleagues and/or using technology to reach more students,  Watts hesitated again.  Even during that first year,  she said,  some principals redefined jobs.  And some teachers sought changes.  Watts cited the example of Ranson Middle School math teacher Romain Bertrand,  who took on the responsibility for supervising math instruction in two grade levels,  with about 800 students.  She said he asked to cut back to one grade level in 2014-15,  even though it means a pay reduction,  in hopes of being more effective.

The ultimate question  --  Did those teachers boost student success?  --  has yet to be analyzed.  But Watts said that while the opportunity culture approach may not be proven yet,  the change doesn't mean it's failing.  In fact,  she urged West Charlotte to create some opportunity culture jobs for the coming year in hopes of keeping some academic standouts who were being recruited elsewhere.

The Project LIFT schools will join with 17 more CMS schools in continuing to work on the system next year.  Cabarrus County schools has also signed on with the Public Impact,  the Chapel Hill firm leading the national experiment,  to launch the opportunity culture in 10 schools next year.

And if plans in the governor's and House budgets prevail,  more counties will get state money to start their own pilots over the next couple of years.

Watts said she thinks the additional ventures would be a good thing:  "I don't think it will be a perfected model until we do it a few times."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Study: Get more creative in recruiting principals

Urban school districts aren't doing enough to recruit and pay great school leaders,  according to a new study by the Thomas Fordham Institute titled  "Lacking Leaders:  The Challenges of Principal Recruitment,  Selection and Placement."

The DC-based education research and advocacy group  (funded by the usual list of reform philanthropies) studied five urban districts that have been working to improve their principal processes.  I was guessing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools might be among them,  especially since the institute teamed up with Public Impact of Chapel Hill, which has worked with CMS.  But the descriptions of districts,  which are given pseudonyms such as Reformville and Urbanopolis as part of an anonymity agreement to ensure candor,  don't match.

Still,  the issues loom large here as the summer leadership churn cranks up.  "Leaders must deal with everything from overstretched budgets to mediocre teachers to unruly (and potentially dangerous) students, not to mention heavy pressure to boost academic results (without, of course, 'teaching to the test,' much less engaging in even more dubious practices),"  the report says.  They get little autonomy,  often make little more than classroom teachers and face grueling accountability demands,  it continues.

The researchers conclude that the five districts,  which they describe as pioneers,  are too quick hire from within,  rather than making an energetic and systemic search for the best candidates from other districts and sectors.  Some officials told researchers they'd had limited success with finding outsiders who understand the local culture and stick around,  while others said tapping outsiders over assistant principals in the district hurts morale.

The Fordham Institute and the Broad Foundation issued a 2003  "manifesto"  urging districts to look for noneducators with strong leadership skills.  The latest report also pushes the idea that a strong corporate leader could make a great principal,  so long as there's an instructional expert on the administrative team.

"We acknowledge that private firms do not face the same licensure constraints as school districts, so cross-sector recruitment in public education is apt to be harder" than in corporate hiring,  the report says. "But policymakers could change those licensure rules. And the takeaway is the same: great leaders can succeed across sectors."

I don't think I've seen CMS recruit a principal from outside education,  and the district had some setbacks with a couple of HR directors hired from corporate America.  Superintendent Heath Morrision does seems to be searching outside CMS for principals:  A scan of announcements this spring and summer shows seven from within CMS,  three from adjacent districts and one from Tennessee.

The report also calls for compensation that's more in line with corporate pay,  turning principalships into  "phenomenal job opportunities."

"Districts should also see the principal’s job as the year-round position that it is and treat  —  and 
compensate  —  it more like the executive role that it’s become,"  the report says.  "Too costly, you say? Think of it this way: the United States employs roughly 100,000 principals. If we gave each of them a $100,000 raise, the total price tag would amount to $10 billion—obviously not chump change. But that’s less than 2 percent of the K–12 public school budget—and $5 billion less than the total new cost estimated to fund President Obama’s pre-K plan."

Update: The Wallace Foundation,  which has been working with CMS on its  "principal pipeline"  since 2011,  announced today that it will provide additional money to support principal supervisors in hopes of developing a larger corps of strong principals.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Common Core roots are tangled and fascinating

As North Carolina cannonballs into the political battle over Common Core standards,  I came across two in-depth pieces that helped me understand the roots of the current conflict.

Retired teacher Lou Nachman steered me to a recent Washington Post article on  "How Bill Gates pulled off the swift Common Core revolution."

Reporter Lyndsey Layton chronicles how the Microsoft founder's billions pushed the quest for academic standards from obscure wonk talk to a national craze in just a couple of years,  "one of the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history."

Layton outlines how Gates money brought together state leaders and groups on the right  (such as the American Legislative Exchange Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) and left  (teachers unions and the Center for American Progress) to find common ground on Common Core.

 There's a fascinating section on the role of The Hunt Institute,  founded by former Democratic N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt and affiliated with UNC Chapel Hill.  According to the article,  the Hunt Institute got $5 million in Gates money in 2009,  "more than 10 times the size of its next largest donation,"  and used that money to coordinate more than a dozen organizations,  convene weekly conference calls and hire a strategist to create  a  “messaging tool kit that included sample letters to the editor (and) op-ed pieces that could be tailored to individuals depending on whether they were teachers, parents, business executives or civil rights leaders."

Last week's mail also brought the Southern Poverty Law Center's  "Public Schools in the Crosshairs:  Far-Right Propaganda and the Common Core Standards." It also goes deep on the origins of Common Core,  as well as the various sources of opposition that have emerged.
Image from SPLC report
To state the obvious: SPLC,  an Alabama-based civil rights group,  has a strong point of view.  But you don't have to agree with those views, or the premise that some Common Core critics are striving to undermine public education and turn the system over to for-profit interests, to learn something from the 36-page report. It itemizes a number of concerns the group considers valid,  including the influence of the Gates Foundation and testing companies and the link between Common Core and a "toxic testing culture."

The report attempts to track the basis of claims that some might dismiss as  "the rantings of extremists"  --  that Common Core promotes socialism,  anti-Americanism and homosexuality,  for instance,  and is anti-Christian.  It notes that the standards specify only one set of required readings,  for high school students:  The Declaration of Independence,  the preamble to the Constitution,  the Bill of Rights and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.  Most of the objections are based on selections from "exemplar texts,"  or suggested readings,  the SPLC report says. 

No matter your views,  if you care about education and take the time to get through these two pieces,  you're almost sure to come away with more perspective on the debate  --  and to find something that'll make you crazy. 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Study: Teacher prep weak but improving

Teacher prep programs at UNC Chapel Hill,  UNC Wilmington and Elon University earned high marks in a new national study by the National Council on Teacher Quality,  but the group says most universities in North Carolina and the nation have a long way to go.

"Far more needs to be done to expand the pool of teachers properly prepared to meet the challenges of the contemporary American classroom," the report says.  "Still, an upsurge in quality has begun. It is good news indeed to be able to report some movement, however spotty, given the many attempts to improve teacher preparation that never even got off the ground."

The council rated more than 1,600 teacher prep programs on selectivity,  student teaching programs and instruction in early reading,  classroom management and content.  N.C. schools outperformed the national average on selectivity but fell short on most other measures  (read the state report here).

UNC Chapel Hill got the state's best rating,  ranked 17th in the nation for its graduate program in secondary education.  Elon's undergraduate elementary education program ranked 22nd,  and UNC Wilmington's graduate program in secondary education was 37th.

Just across the state line,  South Carolina's Winthrop University was ranked 27th in the nation for undergraduate elementary and 147th for graduate secondary.

Other schools in the Charlotte area didn't fare as well.  UNC Charlotte was ranked No. 101 for graduate elementary, 221 for graduate secondary and 260 for undergraduate elementary.  Queens University's graduate program landed in the bottom half,  which meant it didn't receive a rank.  Belmont Abbey College,  Wingate University and Pfeiffer University are listed as not having provided the requested information.

The council is a reform advocacy group funded by Gates,  Broad,  Carnegie,  Walton and most of the other big names in education philanthropy (including the Charlotte-based Belk Foundation).  N.C. Superintendent June Atkinson,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison and former CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman,  now an executive with the private ed-tech firm Amplify,  are listed as supporters of the N.C. report.

This year's report also rates a sampling of alternative certification programs.  "Alternative certification programs provide on-the-job training to teacher candidates. Candidates are placed in internship before obtaining initial certification and serve as teachers of record who are fully responsible for the students in their classrooms,"  the report says.  The results,  it concludes,  were "even weaker than for traditional programs.  NCTQ found their admissions standards to be too low,  efforts to assess subject matter knowledge inadequate,  and too little training or support provided to candidates who are asked to hit the ground running in the classroom."

Teach For America is probably the best known of these programs,  but North Carolina's TFA wasn't among the sample rated. TFA in Massachusetts was the only alternative provider to earn high marks from the council,  while other TFA's sampled landed low ratings  --  along with South Carolina's PACE program and four Regional Alternative Licensing Centers in North Carolina.

The council hopes the rankings will be used by prospective students choosing schools, districts crafting recruitment strategies and government policymakers setting standards. Its conclusions are harsh on both the  "bloated"  traditional university approach and the alternatives that have popped up.

"In our view, the only reason not to pull the plug on the experiment of alternative certification is that traditional teacher preparation continues to have persistent flaws,"  the report concludes.  "Were traditional preparation to add the value that it should,  teachers produced by alternate routes would never be competitive for jobs anywhere.  As long as traditional teacher preparation continues to be so generally substandard,  we recognize the need for,  indeed the value of,  limited, well-regulated alternative certification programs whose outcomes are monitored and made public." 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Proctoring clash at Independence High

What do you get when you mix the tension of testing, a surreptitious video by one of CMS' most prolific critics and a school police officer on a Segway?

Answer: A buzz about what happened when Larry Bumgarner volunteered to proctor exams at Independence High and ended up being escorted off campus and threatened with arrest.

Bumgarner, a three-time school board candidate, calls the incident an example of  "goon squad"  tactics by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Earnest Winston,  the superintendent's chief of staff,  says Principal Amy Dellinger and her staff acted appropriately when Bumgarner became disruptive during state testing.

Adding to the tension is the fact that the presidents of the district's two teacher groups,  Judy Kidd of the Classroom Teachers Association and Charlie Smith of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators,  work at Independence and have different views of what happened.

Here's what I know:  Many schools were in desperate need of proctors in May.  State exams that have consequences for schools and teachers are supposed to get outside monitors to ensure the integrity of the system.  Schools have to be careful that nothing occurs during testing that would violate state rules and invalidate the results.

Bumgarner posts frequently on the Observer's web site,  usually about the shortcomings of CMS and the superiority of charter schools.  But he also volunteers to proctor at his alma mater,  West Charlotte High,  and Kidd asked if he'd do the same at Independence.

Bumgarner agreed.  He and CMS officials agree that during his first day as a volunteer he made a remark about working in  "troubled"  or  "challenged"  schools.  A student's grandparent overheard the comment and complained to school administrators.

During his stint as an Independence proctor,  Bumgarner also used his phone to shoot video of students in the classroom.  At least four had their heads down,  and one,  who had a blue sneaker perched on his desk,  glared at Bumgarner and shook his head.  Bumgarner said Wednesday the students had gotten noisy when the teacher left the room and he shot the video to quiet them.

The next day,  someone from Independence told Bumgarner he wasn't needed to proctor.  Kidd,  who says proctors were still needed,  called Bumgarner.  He came to the school and reported to a classroom that already had a proctor.  Bumgarner was told again that he wasn't needed.

Smith says he saw that part of the encounter,  and Bumgarner was  "pitching a fit."

"He just stormed off,"  Smith said Wednesday.  "He was irate and he was very rude.  Everybody that I saw trying to deal with him was extremely professional and extremely polite."

Bumgarner went to the classroom where Kidd was stationed to proctor an exam.  A campus security guard showed up,  and that's when Bumgarner turned the phone on his belt onto video mode.  In the recording that ensues,  Bumgarner repeatedly urges the guard to call Mint Hill police and asks to talk to the principal.

"You're going to the office and you're getting ready to be arrested,"  the security guard says.  "You have come here and disrupted testing.  Have you lost your mind,  mister?"

Bumgarner continues talking as they approach the school resource officer's office.  "I'm tired of your mouth. Now shut up,  you understand me?"  the guard says.

The school resource officer wheels up on a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Segway,  and Bumgarner is taken into the school security office. The decor captured on the video features an American flag and a life-size shooting-range target with bullet holes clustered around the center of a human silhouette. Other security staff gather in the office, but when Dellinger arrives she disperses them.

In the calm but disjointed conversation that follows,  Bumgarner tells Dellinger that he did  "show my displeasure"  with what he considered a disorganized volunteer system,  in which he and other volunteers were sent to rooms that already had proctors.

"This is the first year where our North Carolina finals have ever had proctoring,"  Dellinger responds.  "We had 87 testing sessions,  67 proctors.  That's a first in history."

Dellinger tells Bumgarner she got complaints about his comment that  "I only work at troubled schools."

"Why do you feel that Independence is a troubled school?"  she asks.  "I'm just curious.  I want to get feedback.  It helps us grow."

Bumgarner asks for  "a Q&A"  with the concerned family members,  refers to his web sites and urges Dellinger to look up her school on,  a site where people submit reviews.  "I assume I'm under arrest,"  Bumgarner states,  and when Dellinger assures him he's not,  he says he's going to go play golf.

"I want to extend my apology on behalf of us,"  Dellinger tells Bumgarner,  adding that she should have asked him earlier about his remark.

Bumgarner,  who was escorted out by a security staffer,  says he called the superintendent's office to report the episode.  He said Wednesday that Dellinger and the school officer were polite,  but the talk of arrest was threatening and the atmosphere,  including the Segway,  is designed to intimidate.  He said he is disappointed that he has not gotten an apology from CMS.

Winston said he spoke with Bumgarner and Dellinger,  and  "I don't have any evidence that anything was done incorrectly or that Larry was mistreated in any way."  Winston said he heard about the  "troubled schools"  comment,  but said Dellinger told him that wasn't why Bumgarner was turned away.  Instead,  he said,  he was told the school simply had enough proctors that day.

"That's a lie,"  said Kidd,  who said the teacher across the hall from her was trying to find a proctor as Bumgarner was being led away.  "They should not have kicked the man off campus,"  she added.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Raleigh cheat sheet: Who's proposing what?

Trying to keep up with three plans for teacher raises,  vouchers,  charter schools and other education issues before the General Assembly is enough to make anyone's head spin.  Bill Anderson of MeckEd pointed me toward a comparison sheet on the Senate, House and governor's plans prepared by Public Schools First NC.

The group has an agenda  --  it supports more money for traditional public schools and opposes shifting money to charters and private schools  --  but the reporting strikes me as factual and it's the best at-a-glance synopsis I've seen.  Things can change every time the legislature convenes,  so check in on the legislative updates page for fresh reports.

It's not as easy to read,  but here's the General Assembly's comparison  (it goes beyond the education items,  which are at the top).  Feel free to share links to updates from other groups.

Berger with protesters

Meanwhile,  last week's conversation between Moral Monday education protesters and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger didn't produce any lasting harmony.  Although no one was arrested then,  the state NAACP filed suit later that week to challenge the new rules governing protests in the Legislative Building.  They won an injunction from Superior Court Judge Carl Fox,  who said the rules against making noise and creating a disturbance are so vague they could get groups of visiting schoolchildren in trouble.  This week's protest,  which focused on labor issues,  was a noisier event that led to 20 arrests,  the (Raleigh) News & Observer reports.

Berger's office says the Republican majority is just trying to "liberalize and clarify archaic and confusing building rules" adopted by Democrats in decades past.

“For years we’ve heard feedback that the 30-year-old building rules implemented by previous Democrat leaders were confusing and restrictive,” the Rockingham Republican said in a press statement. “We responded to those concerns, and I am baffled why (state NAACP president William) Barber is now trying to turn back the progress we made in increasing building access and free speech.”

Berger had told the group that the Moral Monday agenda would cost up to $7 billion and require a corporate tax hike of 50 percent,  up from the current 6 percent.  This week the Forward Together Moral Monday Movement countered with an analysis by the progressive N.C. Policy Watch saying Berger's analysis contained  "false or exaggerated"  premises.  That analysis contends that the Moral Monday agenda is revenue neutral  --  that is,  it wouldn't require huge tax hikes -- and might even produce new income for the state.

Meanwhile, a Forbes article circulated by Berger's staff bumped up the rhetoric with a headline saying  "North Carolina Progressives Demand Billions in Higher Taxes, 80 Percent Corporate Tax"  (that's Berger's 50 percent estimate plus the federal corporate income tax,  the article says).

The Raleigh-based Civitas Institute boosted the cost estimate for the Moral Monday agenda to $10 billion  --  and promptly followed up with a fund-raising letter. "The Left wants to take your money  ... We, on the other hand, ask our friends to voluntarily support us so that we can help regain and preserve the freedoms that are our birthright,"  says the letter from institute President Francis De Luca.

Someone will ask why the Observer doesn't have reporters delving in to sort out these conflicting claims.  The answer:  It's all an exercise in rhetoric.  If the General Assembly were seriously considering this spending program,  it would be vital to know what it would cost and how it would be paid for.  But no one's really pushing this plan.  Work on the real budget proposals continues hot and heavy  --  and my colleagues covering the legislature are more than busy trying to keep up with that.

Let's end with some literal political theater:  "Moral Mondays, the Musical!" It's a production of Will Rice,  identified by WRAL as a left-leaning communications consultant.  It's set to  "Monday, Monday" and features some Daily Show-style interviews with protesters.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Check details of CMS school time survey

People who care about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bell schedules care a lot,  and there's a lot to read in the results of surveys of 11,000 parents,  5,000 parents and 2,000 students.

Susan Plaza
The School Time Task Force that generated the surveys voted Monday to shorten the elementary day and move back the controversial late bell schedule,  undoing changes that were launched during the recession to save money on busing.  The report will go to Superintendent Heath Morrison;  presumably any changes with significant costs would have to be worked into the 2015-16 budget plan.

Susan Plaza,  one of the parents on the task force,  says CMS opted not to send a press release summarizing the survey results.  The online reports,  prepared by the K12 Insight consulting group,  present the raw data in an number of formats and groupings.

Monday, June 16, 2014

In Nashville, a different way to do charters

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison often talks about charter schools authorized by school districts,  an arrangement that isn't allowed in North Carolina.  I recently got a chance to see that model in action at Cameron College Prep,  a charter authorized by Metro Nashville Public Schools to take over a failing district school.

The tour was part of the recent Education Writers Association national seminar,  and it gave us a chance to see something I hadn't heard of before:  A charter school with an attendance zone,  and one that's being phased in as the traditional public school phases out.

Cameron College Prep

Some background:  Cameron began life as an all-black high school in south Nashville in the 1930s.  In recent decades the neighborhood and the school changed.  Cameron Middle School  (that's grades 5-8 in Nashville)  had an international population and a history of low academic performance when the district's Office of Innovation asked for takeover proposals in 2010.  The district chose the plan presented by LEAD Academy, a charter school authorized by MNPS.

Charter leaders had a year to get to know the community and try to build support for the new approach,  which involves a heavy emphasis on getting all student ready for college.  College banners and motivational slogans line the halls  (a common approach with college-prep charters I've seen).

Cameron College Prep opened with fifth-graders only,  while grades 6-8 attended Cameron Middle.  By the time we visited in May, the third year of the phase-in,  grades 5-7 were in the charter school while only the eighth-graders remained in the MNPS school. Sharing the building can be awkward,  Shaka Mitchell of LEAD acknowledged:  "It works like you getting a roommate you didn't ask for."  But it also brought vital support for the fledgling charter.  Like N.C. charters,  those in Tennessee don't get money for busing or buildings.  But the district is providing both,  though LEAD will have to take over expenses for the aging school once the last district students leave.  "That's going to hit our books,  and that's pretty serious,"  Mitchell said.

Cameron Middle teacher had options as their grades phased out:  They could apply to stay as charter faculty or be given first crack at other jobs in the district.  As LEAD employees,  they lose tenure,  make a little more money and work more days during the school year.  Most opted to stay with the district,  but the handful who applied with LEAD were hired,  LEAD officials told us.  Because of the extra days and hours,  "they're getting paid less on an hourly basis,"  Chief Operating Officer Adrienne Useted said.

The original LEAD school,  which is also a middle school,  took students by application,  as most charters do.  Because of the unique partnership with the school district,  students who live in the Cameron zone automatically go to the charter school unless they apply for another district or charter option.  In other words,  it's a charter neighborhood school.

School officials say that's a mixed blessing.  Families associate Cameron College Prep with a system they don't trust,  said school director Tait Danhausen,  and motivating them to get involved has been a challenge.  He said his biggest surprise with the school has been the deep distrust of educators that seems to be a part of generational poverty in Nashville.

The school and its relationship with the district is still evolving.  LEAD now has six schools in Nashville,  including one that's part of the Tennessee Achievement School District,  which was created to take over the state's lowest-performing schools and come up with new strategies for them.

Cameron College Prep has  "done OK"  so far,  MNPS school board member Will Pinkston said during a separate session on authorizing charter schools  (see an 8-minute video of that panel here).

"They're not knocking it out of the park,"  Pinkston said.  "They're good people trying hard,  but it's not outperforming other charters or district schools."

Pinkston and MMPS spokesman Joe Bass steered me to this school rating chart,  which also strikes me as something that CMS and/or North Carolina might want to look at.  It provides an easy-to-scan comparison of test results  (growth and proficiency) and student and teacher survey results for Nashville district and charter schools.  It's not as simplistic as the letter grades North Carolina plans to assign all schools,  but easier to use as a comparison point than the state's detailed school report cards.

Morrison has talked about creating something along these lines for CMS since his arrival two years ago,  but with the data delays and glitches created by the conversion to PowerSchool,  nothing has appeared yet.  Presumably,  anything created by CMS would not include charter schools because they do not report to or have any formal relationship with the district.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Voucher debate sparks civil rights rhetoric

It was no shock when the Republican-dominated state House voted down a proposal Thursday to pull the $10 million budgeted for Opportunity Scholarships and shift it to classroom teachers in public schools.  After all,  this was the group that voted last year to offer vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.

But the most intense support of the scholarships came from two African American Democrats who co-sponsored the bill last year.  Reps. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford,  and Edward Hanes Jr.,  D-Forsyth,  argued that colleagues opposing the vouchers are denying children an alternative to failing schools.

Brandon said some public schools in his community can't meet the constitutional requirement to provide a sound basic education.

"That's not because we have bad teachers and it's not because we have bad principals,"  he said.  "It's because we have a bad system."

The amendment to shift voucher money to classroom teachers came from Ken Goodman, a Rockingham Democrat.  He said the state constitution is explicit about the obligation to provide a free public education,  and channeling public money to private schools does not meet that definition.

Some Republicans,  including Mecklenburg's Rob Bryan,  spoke for preserving the scholarships on the grounds of financial effectiveness.  Students who qualify can get $4,200 a year in state money for private school tuition,  less than it costs to educate them in public schools.

Brandon and Hanes accused Opportunity Scholarship opponents of hypocrisy if they voted for vouchers to send students with disabilities to private schools.  That program,  which offers up to $6,000 a year for tuition and special services,  passed in 2013 with less controversy than the income-based scholarships.  Brandon said children in his district  "may not roll up in wheelchairs,  but their needs are indeed special."

Hanes said some legislators,  including those  "in my caucus,"  send their children to private schools because they don't consider high-poverty,  low-performing schools acceptable for their own children.  But he said they want to deny that option to families who can't afford tuition.

"If students are forced to go to schools that are 99 percent free and reduced lunch,  I don't know how free that is.  I think those students are being taxed,"  Hanes said.  "There's nothing free when 99 percent of those students look like me."

The amendment failed 43-71.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bill could abolish state superintendent's job

If Sen. Jerry Tillman has his way,  voters will decide in November whether to abolish the elected superintendent's job and replace that post with an appointed education secretary.

Tillman,  who chairs the Senate Education Committee,  introduced a bill Wednesday that would put the question on the November ballot,  with the switch taking effect when the current superintendent's term ends in 2016.  Because the superintendent is among eight Council of State offices created by the state constitution,  the change requires a constititional amendment.

Tillman is a Republican and June Atkinson,  who has held the superintendent's office since 2005,  is a Democrat.  But the push to change the way the Department of Public Instruction is run has been bipartisan.

For more than a decade,  the state Board of Education hired a deputy superintendent who ran DPI.  Soon after Democrat Bev Perdue was elected in 2009,  she created a new CEO's job to run the department,  appointing Bill Harrison as CEO and chairman of the state board.  Atkinson sued and won,  giving her clear authority over DPI.

Atkinson said Wednesday she hadn't seen Tillman's bill but it wouldn't be the first time lawmakers have tried to abolish the elected job and replace it with a political appointee.  Tillman's bill goes to the Senate Education Committee, where I'm guessing it will get a favorable reception.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Grading N.C. schools: House wants to change curve

North Carolina's public schools are poised to get letter grades based on this year's results on state exams.  But it's not yet clear how those grades will be assigned.

The bill passed last summer called for 80 percent of a school's score to be based on student proficiency and 20 percent on growth.  The House budget plan introduced Tuesday would flip that.

Proficiency is easy to understand:  It's the percent of students who scored at or above grade level on state exams.  Critics say that doesn't reflect the quality of a school as much as the readiness and motivation of the students who attend.

Growth is a more complicated calculation designed to measure whether students did better or worse than expected based on past performance.  It can recognize a school that's making strides with the most challenged students,  or highlight a school that's not doing enough to stimulate students who are already doing well.  You can look up last year's growth scores here,  and here's an article I wrote about last year's results.

Ranson Middle scored high on growth, low on proficiency

Somehow the combination of those measures will be turned into a score from 0-100.  The original bill sets a 10-point scale:  90 and up is an A,  80 and up a B,  etc.,  with anything below 60 an F.  However,  it sets a 15-point scale for the first year,  with As going as low as 85 and Fs falling below 40.  The House proposal would keep that lower scale moving forward.

The House plan also includes a couple items that will likely be celebrated in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  Like the governor's budget,  but unlike the Senate's,  it includes almost $1.9 million for six early and middle college high schools,  three of which are in CMS.  They're set to open in August,  and CMS is counting on the money.

It also eliminates the "25 percent plan"  that CMS and many other districts have been fighting.

House Speaker Thom Tillis,  a Mecklenburg Republican who was once an active CMS parent,  said the push to approve a budget before the end of June will help districts plan for the coming year,  something local officials often wish for.  But what will emerge from the speeded-up work to mesh the House and Senate plans remains to be seen.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Protesters, Berger school each other

An hour's conversation between Senate leader Phil Berger and 15 Moral Monday protesters didn't bridge the essential gap between them:  The protesters want increased spending for public education to trump tax cuts for the wealthy.  Berger says those tax cuts aren't negotiable.

But the political theater on both sides was a fascinating lesson for me.

Hundreds gathered in Raleigh for an event touted on social media as #SchooltheNCGA.  Based on a little more than a year's experience with such protests,  organizers expected a chance to lecture members of the General Assembly without anyone showing up to talk back.

They had their points lined up:  Republican leaders are following an ALEC agenda that benefits the wealthy at the expense of public education.  The talk of big raises for teachers is merely a Trojan horse,  offered in hopes of dividing educator supporters and enticing teachers to give up job protections that allow them to speak up.

The Moral Monday organizers had some zingers ready.   The Rev. William Barber,  president of the N.C. NAACP, called on Berger,  House Speaker Thom Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory to  "stop being political extremists and be good Republicans.  I'm not asking them to be Democrats,"  just  "good Lincoln Republicans."

Author and historian Timothy Tyson said Republican leaders want to shift public money to private education through vouchers:  "They want the world with a fence around it and they'd like you to pay for the fence."  He added that  "perhaps the worst indictment of public schools is that a number of the political extremists in the General Assembly attended them."

After more than an hour in the hot sun,  the crowd lined up,  children in front,  and marched toward the Legislative Building.

Some went to Berger's office,  where they demanded a meeting and conducted a "teach-in" while they waited.  It was understood that if Berger didn't show up and the building closed,  they'd be arrested.  The Senate convened at 7,  and the protesters had packed bag lunches and prepared for a long haul.  Anticipating that Berger would shut them out,  they chanted  "Phil skipped school!"

The call to clear the building came just before 8 p.m. and most of the protesters left.  Luckily for me,  the Capitol Police let credentialed reporters stay,  so I didn't risk landing in jail like my colleague Tim Funk did covering last year's Moral Monday civil disobedience.  As police and reporters circled,  the police chief made a proposal:  Would the protesters leave if Berger talked with them?  They agreed,  as long as he listened and responded to their specific points.

Soon after Berger came out,  had staffers pull six blue couches into a circle in the hallway and asked the assembled educators,  college students,  clergy and recent graduates to introduce themselves.

The points made won't come as a surprise to anyone who's been following these things.  Berger talked about how Republicans have increased spending for public education and made tough trade-offs to get North Carolina out of its dismal teacher pay rankings.  Protesters said spending hasn't kept up with enrollment growth,  and urged him to scale back on tax cuts to provide enough money for raises and other spending.

Berger said Republicans were elected to roll back taxes and reduce unemployment.  "We have done what we told the people we would do when we were elected in 2010."

Berger lamented that 40 percent of third-graders have been promoted without being able to read at grade level,  and touted the Read to Achieve act as addressing that.  Teachers said it comes with unreasonable testing,  which Berger blamed on a botched rollout,  rather than the plan itself.

Some of the most heated discussion came when Durham teacher Bryan Proffitt said it sounded like Berger and others blame teachers for students' academic struggles.  Berger said that wasn't what he was saying,  and when pressed,  cited the breakup of families and even the students themselves as contributing factors.

Holly Hardin,  another Durham teacher,  said many of her students'  parents are working multiple jobs,  often without health care.  "Don't you dare blame our students' families!" she said.

With Sen. Tom Apodaca hovering and grousing that the group had dinner plans at 8:45,  Proffitt asked for a few minutes for the teachers to confer and come back with a short list of requests.  As they did so,  Berger and his staff stepped into their offices.

Before Proffitt could present his group's list,  Berger headed them off.  He said he had  "engaged" with Barber earlier in the spring and prepared an amendment that dealt with all the items on the Moral Monday list,  from livable wages and universal health care to collective bargaining for public employees and bringing troops home from Iraq.  Berger read a list of 14 Moral Monday agenda points as his staff handed copies to the protesters.

"Are these things you're saying you're accepting?"  one teacher asked in astonishment.

No, Berger said.  They're things he had the legislative staff draft into an amendment and calculate costs for.  He cited a pricetag of $5 billion to $6 billion,  and said raising that money through corporate income taxes would require raising it from 6 percent to 50 percent.  No legislator of either party would take that on,  he said.

Proffitt finally got to introduce his group's "asks":  Agree to restore all spending for teacher assistants,  provide teacher raises without requiring them to surrender tenure and commit to a public dialogue by the end of this month.

Berger noted that he can't make any promises on what will come out of the House and Senate conference on the budget:  "It's not up to me."

"You have a considerable amount of power,  Senator,"  Proffitt replied.

Bottom line:  Berger said he'd consider some type of follow-up discussion and asked the Moral Monday representatives for suggestions on ways to pay for the assistants without raising taxes.  The group thanked him for talking with them and said they'd leave the building  --  but return if there isn't any real progress.

The follow-up began almost immediately.  Berger's office sent their documents to the media before 10 p.m.,  with the cost estimate up to  "more than $7 billion."

"Sen. Berger explained Senate Republicans could not support that due to the devastating effect it would have on North Carolina jobs,"  said the statement from Berger spokeswoman Amy Auth.  "It is also worth noting that no member of either party in the Senate offered an amendment to accomplish Rev. Barber’s goals."

An hour later Barber issued a news release scolding Berger for holding the meeting only after the building had been cleared.

"We have spent the past few years attempting to get a good-faith meeting between the legislative leadership and the Forward Together Moral Movement,"  he said.  "For Senator Berger to clear the building before meeting with the moral witnesses,  to avoid the people for the past few weeks on Mondays,  is shameful.  Teachers are smarter than that.  The Moral Mondays Movement will not fall for it."

Monday, June 9, 2014

Will PowerSchool finish strong?

The school year is ending across North Carolina,  and I'm curious about how the problem-plagued debut of PowerSchool will shape this stretch.  Will schools be able to calculate grade-point averages needed to name valedictorians and salutatorians?  Will they be able to generate timely reports on which third-graders need to take summer school to meet Read to Achieve mandates?

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction and Pearson,  the education technology company that provides PowerSchool,  say they've been working all year to resolve the problems.  Let's hear from the folks in the classrooms:  Have they gotten it right?

2013 education rally in Raleigh

I'm heading to Raleigh this week to take a turn on General Assembly duty,  First stop:  today's Moral Monday protest focusing on education  (it will be livestreamed here starting at 4 p.m.).  I'm guessing the crowd won't match the one from last July,  simply because school isn't over so it's hard for out-of-towners to make the trek.

Meanwhile,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools boosters have started their virtual rally on social media today,  in advance of Wednesday's Mecklenburg County budget hearing. The Twitter hashtag seems to be #CMSpsf,  for the new Charlotte Mecklenburg Public School Friends group that's organizing the push.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Tenure, crowds and absent teachers: A roundup

This week has been so busy that I'm spilling into the weekend to catch up:

* Financial planner and insurance agent Dennis Carlson says he proctored state exams at a high school and was struck by the confusion over the Senate's proposed pay plan,  which asks teachers to trade tenure for raises.  He wrote this blog post calculating the value of what teachers are getting in return for surrendering their job protection,  ranging from $18,900 for a teacher with 25 years' experience to $130,500 for a five-year teacher.

* Bolyn McClung,  a regular at Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings,  warns that anyone planning to attend Wednesday's public hearing on the Mecklenburg County budget had better line up early to get through the Government Center's security screening.

"Each person now takes about 30 seconds,"  McClung wrote in an email to county commissioners and media. "An example of the zealousness is that the next person in line cannot go through the metal detector until the first person’s personal possessions in the little white basket have been meticulously inspected.  Big purses, of which there surely will be a lot, are going to be an issue."

He's right.  The line was long and slow at the school board's public hearing,  and I barely squeezed in to cover the meeting.  The screeners have been known to unzip the change compartment on my wallet and peer at my pennies,  so be prepared and don't bring pocket knives or anything else that resembles a weapon.

* Finally, retired educator and substitute teacher Jim Thomas sent these thoughts after reading about a study on teacher absences (I've edited for length):

Part of the problem is teachers take "mental health days" at will. Teachers who know they won't be back the next year start taking their "sick leave" and personal leave days, some to hunt for a new job.  First, Fridays seemed to be the day of choice. Then Mondays became popular.

Many times there are not enough subs. Teachers have to cover the absent teachers using their planning periods.  My wife, a high school teacher, went many weeks without having a planning period.  I have to admit that there are legitimate reasons for being out of school, like jury duty,  sickness,  child sickness and other things that can't be done during the school day.  But when teachers take a day off to have their dog groomed,  due to a hangover, get their nails done, or go to the beach, that hurts the entire educational process.  Veteran teachers who are conscientious can tell when a person isn't coming back to teach the next year before it's announced.   And, of course, the high absenteeism hurts school morale.

Teachers are tired and overwhelmed by unnecessary paperwork, regulations, and countless meetings.  Teachers are blamed for students' lack of performance.  Student behavior is considered the teacher's fault and not the student or his family.  In other words, the absenteeism is a symptom of a much bigger societal problem and the best scapegoat is the teacher.

One doesn't need a blue-ribbon report to tell what the problems in schools are.  I don't know many occupations where blame is so personal to a specific position like a teacher.  Policeman and fireman are often said to have stressful jobs but they aren't blamed for starting the fires or causing criminal activities.  It's only natural to cope the only way one can and that is sometimes get away from it.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

CMS school demographics are here

Yes, the school year is almost over, but you can finally see the racial breakdowns for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

After requesting the numbers all year,  I got a link to the raw numbers in mid-May and finally found time to calculate and map percentages. Click here to see the results for all schools.

These numbers normally come out in October but were delayed by persistent problems with the state's new PowerSchool data system.  There are no dramatic changes from previous years.  As noted before,  the district is now 41.2 percent black,  30.8 percent white,  19.4 percent Hispanic and 5.5 percent Asian.

Look for a story Monday with more analysis.