Thursday, July 31, 2014

Here's where lottery money is going this year

Teacher assistants positions appear to be rescued by money from the North Carolina lottery this year.

Remember, TA jobs were the big sticking point between the N.C. House and Senate budget proposals. The House wanted smaller raises and no teacher assistant cuts. The Senate wanted bigger raises and a sizable TA cut. The compromise came with a mid-size raise and no TA cuts.

That's possible because of an infusion of $113 million from lottery funds, according to the official budget document (page 8). It appears to be the first time that lottery money has been used to fund TA positions.

The legislature took some money from UNC financial aid and digital learning to make it happen.

Here's the full breakdown:

Classroom Teachers: $254,586,185 (up $34 million)
Teacher Assistants $113,318,880 (all new money)
Prekindergarten Program: $75,535,709 (unchanged)
Public School Building Capital Fund: $100,000,000 (unchanged)
Scholarships for Needy Students: $30,450,000 (unchanged)
UNC Need-Based Financial Aid: 10,744,733 (unchanged)
UNC Need-Based Financial Aid Forward Funding Reserve:  $0 (down $19 million)
Digital Learning: $0 (down $12 million)

Here's a chart of where lottery money has gone historically, from the state's official website:

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.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mission Impossible: Keep up with General Assembly

Last summer I kicked myself for paying too little attention to the legislative session.  Like many others, I struggled to figure out changes to tenure,  teacher pay,  charter school rules and other developments in public education after lawmakers had gone home and everything was a done deal.

This year I vowed to make sure readers knew about education proposals in time to react.  But I'm no longer sure that's possible.

I set out with good intentions,  dutifully trying to keep up with the education bills being introduced.

In June I spent a week in Raleigh covering the General Assembly.  Mostly I learned that not being there isn't as big a disadvantage as I'd thought.  The legislative web site has a lot of great information,  including audio links to key discussions.  After scurrying around to grab a seat in the chambers,  I discovered that the more experienced political reporters often stayed in the press room following the discussions on audio.

So it's great that we can do that from Charlotte.  But I've concluded that the volume and complexity of this system makes it nearly impossible to keep up,  even in this ostensibly short and simple off-year session.

A search for education bills in the 2013-14 session gets 532 results.  I'm pretty sure that only those in the lighter typeface are active in 2014,  but that's still a long list.

Sometimes the content changes dramatically as it moves through the system.  House Bill 1224,  for instance,  began life in May as  "an act to modify the job maintenance and capital development fund provisions."  But when it went to the Senate Finance Committee last week it morphed into a bill that could kill the Mecklenburg County commissioners' plan to hold a referendum on a sales-tax hike to boost Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools salaries.

I've paid especially close attention to Senate Bill 793,  which has been through five versions, 11 proposed amendments and 39 actions since it was introduced in May.  It's the one that,  depending on the day,  either ensures that charter schools will follow the same personnel disclosure and privacy laws as other public schools,  removes all references to said topic or blocks disclosure of charter school employees' names.  (Meanwhile,  the Observer finally completed the database of Charlotte-area salaries last week,  when Lincoln Charter provided its information.)

Because I was dogging that bill,  Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg,  realized that his protect-the-names amendment has consequences far beyond his intentions.  He says he asked the conference committee to delete the amendment he got the House to pass.  Best I can tell,  there's been no action since that committee was created July 1.  What will emerge is anyone's guess.  Meanwhile,  a search for charter school bills turns up 47 other options to keep track of.

In my efforts to serve as a better watchdog,  I've ended up feeling like a mutt trying to chase a forest full of squirrels.  Even with the state's press corps doing their best,  I can't help wondering what  surprises may emerge after the last gavel bangs.  (Public Schools First NC is doing the best job I've seen of tracking education proposals.  Last week's summary filled nine pages.)

I voiced my frustration to Tom Tate,  the CMS board's senior member,  when we were talking about something else.

"I don't know how anyone is keeping up with it at this point,"  Tate sympathized.  "Even the legislators themselves."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Olympic's support squad keeps growing

Almost six weeks before the kids report back to school,  dozens of business people,  faith leaders and educators gathered at a southwest Charlotte church Thursday to plot strategy for Olympic High and its eight feeder schools.

I've been hearing about Olympic's partnerships for several years,  since the school split into five smaller schools with career-focused themes in 2006.  Almost everyone talks about collaboration,  but this effort has grown into something that's making a tangible difference for a growing number of students.

Rucker-Shivers in 2013
I've written about how Olympic leaders have worked with nearby businesses to develop internships and apprenticeships to prepare students for high-paying jobs.  It was fun to see 2013 graduate Maceo Rucker-Shivers,  whom I interviewed as a high school student and intern,  at Thursday's event as a CPCC student and Bosch Rexroth apprentice.

Those efforts continue to pay off and expand.  In August,  Olympic's new advanced manufacturing school opens,  supported by an $80,000 grant from the German machine-parts company.  So does Pallisades Park Elementary, a new neighborhood school that will get the youngest children focused on the math,  science and technology themes that can carry through to graduation.

Mike Realon,  Olympic's career development coordinator,  has been leading seven years of summits like the latest one at Central Steele Creek Presbyterian Church. Last year he and his band of partners expanded the effort to include area elementary and middle schools.  They patterned their  "Alignment Southwest Charlotte"  effort and its  "cradle-to-career" theme on similar efforts in Nashville,  he said.  First-year results ranged from reading buddies in elementary schools to donations for teacher grants that helped start a robotics program at Southwest Middle School.

Realon likes to talk about  "finding the happy space,"  where school needs and the interests of businesses and faith partners intersect.  Dozens gathered around tables to talk about needs ranging from literacy tutors at Berewick Elementary to Hispanic family engagement at Southwest to male mentors at Olympic.

That kind of partnership network,  which links elementary,  middle and high schools and gets a community deeply invested in its schools,  is something Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hopes to cultivate across the district.  LaTarzja Henry,  the assistant superintendent in charge of partnerships, said the Southwest Charlotte group is a success story but not necessarily a model that can be replicated for every area.  The needs and resources are different in,  say,  the Governors Village schools in the UNCC area or the McClintock Middle/East Meck zone,  which she cited as other areas leading the way.

The key is finding the right people,  inside and outside of schools,  to locate those happy spaces.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Study cites CMS for reshaping principals' role

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is among six school systems cited for innovative leadership in a recent study of the changing role of principals.

Cotswold Principal Alicia Hash
The Center for American Progress,  a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C., says the changing demands on school leaders has created a stream of early-career departures and early retirements, especially at the most challenging schools.  "The Changing Role of the Principal:  How High Achieving Districts Are Recalibrating School Leadership" looks for ways to make the job more meaningful and manageable while providing better support from central offices.

"Attrition due to resignations and early retirements, along with a shortage of qualified candidates for open principal positions, is leading toward a crisis of leadership in American education,"  the report says.

CMS has had its share of principal churn lately,  but the Southern Methodist University researchers who did the work looked to CMS;  Gwinnett County, Ga.;  Denver;  Washington,  DC;  Uplift Education in Dallas-Fort Worth and the Northeast Leadership Academy at N.C. State University for promising strategies  (read the CMS case study here).  CMS gets credit for creating  "super standards"  that go beyond the required state principal evaluations,  for working with nearby universities to help develop leadership and for providing supports such as  "opportunity culture"  classroom leaders and deans of students,  who can keep principals from being spread too thin.

In an aside following up on my recent post about cumbersome school names,  the STEM/STEAM acronym popped up for discussion on the Education Writers Association email list Wednesday.  An EWA staffer shared this New York Times essay urging writers to shun the "didactic and jargony" term for science,  technology,  engineering and math  (with or without art).  A Florida reporter noted the emergence of B-STEM,  adding business.  I figure with the local enthusiasm for entrepreneurship,  it's only a matter of time until we have Education in Science,  Technology, Engineering,  Entrepreneurship and Math,  or ESTEEM schools.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Summer student shuffle gets serious

This week's word that Carolina STEM charter school doesn't have enough students to open this year illustrates a challenge facing Charlotte-area schools and families:  More choice brings more uncertainty.

The state approved 11 new charter schools to serve about 3,200 Mecklenburg and Cabarrus county students in 2014-15.  A court cleared the way for the Opportunity Scholarship program to proceed,  offering low-income families tax-funded scholarships to switch from public to private schools. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools countered with more magnets and other options.

This spring,  families interested in a change could put their kids' names in for various schools, see where they got in and make a choice. Now,  with a little less than six weeks remaining until most students go back to school,  everyone's trying to figure out what those choices are.

For the folks who have spent the last four years trying to make Carolina STEM Academy a reality,  that meant realizing that 170 applications translated to only 66 confirmed enrollments,  according to a letter sent to families and posted on the school's website.  That was 40 to 60 short of what the board believed was necessary to open,  so rather than push things to the wire they called it quits for this year.

Carolina STEM was the second Charlotte-area charter school to drop out of the 2014 opening;  Stewart Creek High had earlier gotten a one-year deferral because of problems getting its building ready.  The question is whether it will be the last.  Many are still recruiting students,  working on facilities and holding information sessions.  The state is monitoring readiness of the remaining schools,  and could defer or revoke charters for those that don't seem to be set for a successful opening.

CMS,  meanwhile,  is trying to staff its schools appropriately.  Last year the district underestimated charter growth and overestimated its own enrollment.  This year planners project that most of the county's enrollment growth will be in charters.  We can only hope that the state's PowerSchool data system works better this year,  allowing everyone timely information about where students land.

In an unrelated nugget,  Wake County Schools Public Relations Director Renee McCoy left that job Tuesday and word is she's coming to CMS,  presumably to fill the gap left by Tahira Stalberte's departure for Union County Schools.  According to her LinkedIn profile, she's a former TV journalist who has also done PR for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The school name game: Keep it simple

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has plenty of serious plans for the coming school year,  but I couldn't help noticing the district is also engaging in the time-honored tradition of spiffing up school names.

I was updating my spreadsheets for 2014-15 when I came across the names of the reorganized Olympic High schools:
   *Olympic Biotechnology, Health and Public Administration.
   *Olympic School of Executive Leadership and Entrepreneurial Development.
   *Olympic School of Technology, Entrepreneurship and Advanced Manufacturing.
   *Olympic Math,  Engineering, Technology and Science (the school predates the trendy STEM acronym).
   *And even the once-simple Olympic Renaissance has become Olympic Renaissance School of Arts and Technology.

Olympic students
Whew! Thirty-five words to name a school the size about the size of Mallard Creek High.

If I were queen of the world, I'd limit school names to one or two descriptive words,  plus the clearest possible label  (such as elementary,  middle or high school,  though I realize the proliferation of mixed-level schools complicates that).  I'd remind everyone involved that a name is not a syllabus,  a mission statement or a marketing slogan.  It should be simple and clear enough to define a community and stand the test of time.

Yes, I'm being crotchety about something that's an annoyance when I'm trying to get names right on deadline and make stories fit limited space.  But there's a serious point here, too.

If you're a newcomer moving into the Olympic zone,  what would you make of the list above?  There are three schools of technology and one of biotechnology,  one that offers entrepreneurship and another offering entrepreneurial development,  and nothing about literature or writing or history,  which I'm certain all the schools teach.  Would this entice or confuse you?  (Whether the five-school structure itself is a help or hindrance is a question for another day.)

Long-timers know it's a challenge to keep up with what schools are called from one year to the next.  Cynics suspect that adding trendy twists to names can be a substitute for real action.  Newcomers may struggle to figure out that Irwin Academic Center is an elementary school magnet,  that iMeck Academy is the high school portion of Cochrane Collegiate Academy,  and that terms such as "Collegiate" and "University" (in Harding University High) simply reflect a college-prep aspiration shared by all district schools.

I don't blame CMS for trying to keep up with a changing world and a competitive market.  Flexibility and innovation are great.  I'm just not sure it works to cram too much into school names.

If nothing else,  I can be grateful for the new Palisades Park Elementary School,  which resisted the temptation to put  "STEM"  into its name.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Senate walkout a first for Morrison

Heath Morrison came to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with a reputation for his work with the Nevada state legislature, and he's worn out the pavement between here and Raleigh since taking this job two years ago.

But Wednesday morning's Senate walkout as Morrison prepared to speak to the budget conference committee was a first for him.


The senators weren't objecting to the CMS superintendent personally.  They were protesting the House members' insistence on summoning three superintendents to talk about the harm that would come from the Senate proposal to cut teacher assistants.

Morrison voiced gratitude that the Senate,  House and governor's plans include teacher raises,  but said the Senate plan would cost CMS 817 assistant jobs.  Assistants average about $19,000 a year,  he said,  describing them as  "some of the best bangs for our buck that we have in our state."  If they lose their jobs,  Morrison said,  they could end up collecting $14,000 a year in unemployment and health benefits from the state.  Giving up their skills to save $5,000 a year is  "not a good return on investment,"  he told the House members who remained.

House Speaker Thom Tillis,  R-Mecklenburg,  asked Morrison whether he'd prefer to keep the two-year budget approved last summer,  which includes no raise for teachers and other state employees,  or get a revised budget that includes raises but eliminates 800 teacher jobs that were promised for 2014-15.  Morrison compared that question to the movie "Sophie's Choice,"  in which Nazis force a woman to choose between her two children.  "I don't think either of those are particularly appealing,"  he said.

In response to another question from Tillis,  Morrison said that the Senate plan,  which provides the largest teacher raises,  would require going back to Mecklenburg County commissioners for more money or cutting $6 million to $7 million from the 2014-15 budget to match those raises for teachers paid with county money.

When Frank Till,  Cumberland County's superintendent,  spoke about the importance of teacher assistants,  Tillis posed what he described as  "a slightly fairer choice:"  Would he prefer the House plan,  which gives raises averaging 5 percent,  or the Senate plan,  where raises average 11 percent but teacher assistants and other aspects of public education are cut?

"I'd rather not make draconian cuts and have a smaller raise,"  Till said.  He added that he'd prefer to see the state raise more revenue,  but said he understood that legislators don't consider that an option.

"We agree on that,"  Tillis said with a laugh.  (By the way,  if you want to listen in on legislative discussions,  check the House and Senate calendars near the top of the General Assembly web page, then find the appropriate audio link.)

Morrison said afterward he wasn't offended by the walkout:   "I had a number of Senate members come out and chat on the way out, and thanked me for what we are doing in CMS and for coming up to testify,"  he emailed in response to my query.  "They wanted me to know that their issue was respecting the rules they had established (with) the House not a lack of respect for the superintendents and teachers speaking." 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

CMS/Meck talk on sales tax sparks war of words

A meeting scheduled today between leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mecklenburg County sparked allegations by Commissioner Bill James that it's a  "secret meeting"  to plot strategy for a November referendum on a sales tax hike.

School board Vice Chair Tim Morgan and Commissioners' Chair Trevor Fuller say it's simply a session for county officials to brief their CMS counterparts on the plan for a quarter-cent increase that would go toward teacher raises.


Morgan,  a Republican,  says he and CMS board Chair Mary McCray requested the meeting after commissioners approved the sales tax referendum in May.  He said they had been reading about the plan in the newspaper but hadn't gotten a first-hand report.  If approved,  the hike is expected to raise up to $35 million a year,  with 80 percent for CMS salaries and the rest divided among CPCC,  the Arts & Science Council and libraries.

A meeting was set to include Morgan,  McCray,  Fuller,  commissioners' Vice Chair Dumont Clarke,  County Manager Dena Diorio and Superintendent Heath Morrison.

Morgan said commissioner Matthew Ridenhour,  also a Republican,  texted him to ask if such a meeting was happening.  "I said 'absolutely,' "  Morgan said Tuesday.  "It's not a secret to our folks."

Ridenhour said he contacted the board services office and was told it was a leadership meeting which he couldn't attend. He then emailed Fuller and other commissioners,  saying he understood that it was a meeting to craft a memo that commissioners would eventually vote on.

"Given the subject matter of the meeting,  the allocation of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars,  I had hoped to sit in on this meeting so I could be fully aware of what was being discussed. ...  I was quite surprised to learn that I am not allowed to attend the meeting, nor are any other Commissioners allowed to attend,"  he wrote.  Ridenhour asked that the county clerk take minutes for the full board to review.

James,  a Republican,  took the matter further in an email copied to news media:  "This meeting sounds like a secret planning meeting to figure out how to present the sales tax proposal to the media/public without them knowing about the details in advance.  If the Democrats want to do that they should just go somewhere else other than the government center to hatch their plans. They certainly shouldn’t involve the County Manager and sup(erintendent)."

"I would point out that government resources of ANY kind can’t be used to promote or support a ballot initiative,"  James added.  "Ultimately, what is the reason for meeting with CMS and the various managers but to coordinate ballot support in violation of state law."  He said Morrison and Diorio count as such resources and their participation is  "ill-advised and I believe illegal."

Fuller,  a Democrat,  responded that Ridenhour's message was riddled with inaccuracies.  There is no plan to draft a memo,  he said.

"The unremarkable fact is that the chair of the school board asked (and I agreed) for us to meet so as to better understand the meaning and intent of the County Commission's policy concerning the sales tax referendum. Since you oppose this policy, I don't understand what legitimate reason you have to insist on being part of the meeting,"  Fuller said.  "In any case, since this is not an official meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, it is inappropriate for a single commissioner to request that the Clerk of the Board serve as a personal stenographer."

A note:  It's neither uncommon nor illegal for small groups of elected officials to meet to discuss business.  However,  if a meeting involves a quorum of the board,  it becomes subject to the N.C. Open Meetings Law,  which requires public notice and an opportunity for the public to attend.

George Dunlap,  a Democrat who was a school board member before he became a county commissioner,  emailed that some of his colleagues seem to have suddenly  "gotten religion"  in taking umbrage at such meetings.

"The meeting is not a secret if you know about it,"  Dunlap said in a reply to James.  "Every one of us has meetings or has had a meeting with folk the (sic) we want at the table,  and we didn't open it up to anyone else."

Morgan said his goal is to get information to report back to the full school board.  "This is the proper role of leadership of the boards to have this conversation,"  he said.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tarte's raise announcement based on 'scuttlebutt'

An electronic update emailed by N.C. Sen. Jeff Tarte's office Monday contained startling news: "The Senate, House and Governor have all put forward plans to address teacher pay.  The conference committee negotiating differences in the plans has agreed upon 8% pay raises."

Reporters in Charlotte and Raleigh weren't the only ones caught by surprise.


"That is news to me,"  said Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Waxhaw.  Unlike Tarte,  a Cornelius Republican,  Tucker is a member of the conference committee trying to reconcile the Senate and House budgets.

Tucker said lawmakers remain  "all over the board"  on teacher pay plans,  with average estimated raises ranging from 2 percent in the governor's plan to 11 percent in the Senate's.  He said there have been no developments since last week's agreement on Medicaid spending.

The Senate, House and governor's budgets all call for significant teacher raises,  though none proposes a flat percentage.  The conference committee is still working through plans to revamp the pay scale.  Major differences remain on how to award and pay for raises.

Senate leader Phil Berger's office said the same thing:  "We are not aware of any budget deal on teacher pay."

So what inspired Tarte,  a first-term senator who serves on the Senate education committee,  to announce an agreement?  "That's just the scuttlebutt in the hallways,"  he said,  adding that indications are that 5 percent to 8 percent will be  "the baseline to start from."  The raise item,  tucked in the middle of his legislative update,  "got everybody reading anyway," he said.

Meanwhile,  Garinger High School teacher James Ford,  who is North Carolina's teacher of the year,  plans a trip to Raleigh today to distribute a letter to lawmakers and the governor urging them to find a compromise on teacher raises.
Ford (CMS image)
He said he isn't taking a stand on which plan he prefers.  Instead,  Ford says he'll emphasize the common ground they already have:  "I'm glad they recognize the importance of attracting and retaining quality teachers.  It's something that has to be done.  There's so much in the balance."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sugar Creek Charter salaries posted

We've updated the charter school salary database to include employees of Sugar Creek Charter School, leaving Lincoln Charter School as the only school that hasn't provided names  (Chief Administrator Dave Machado has said his school is working on that list).

The Observer requested salary information from 22 Charlotte-area charter schools in March,  sparking a prolonged debate over disclosure that continues to work its way through the General Assembly.

Sugar Creek students at school choice rally with Gov. McCrory
I don't think the Sugar Creek names are  "stop the press"  news.  The school had already provided details for its top administrators,  withholding names of lower-ranking employees.

But I do think full disclosure is important.  As Rep. Charles Jeter learned when he introduced an amendment designed to block the Observer and other media from publishing salary lists for charter schools  --  the same kind of lists that have been published for employees of school districts and other public bodies for years  --  when you start trying to pull some information from public scrutiny you can create more problems than you solve.

If a broader discussion of salary discussion loops around in the coming year,  as Jeter has suggested,  I hope the people who want to limit public access to personnel data will be challenged to provide specific,  first-hand information on the harm that disclosure causes.  We heard dire predictions when we first posted Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools salaries in 2008.  I'm well aware that many individuals don't like seeing their salaries posted,  but I have gotten no reports that it disrupted public education.

Likewise,  some charter school officials and advocates said disclosure of merit-based salaries would lead to such turmoil on the faculty that students would suffer.  But since we posted the salaries in May,  along with articles analyzing teacher pay and administrator salaries in charters and CMS,  no one has contacted me or Observer editors to say their school fell apart.  Some charter directors have told me the articles helped dispel public myths about extravagant pay at their schools.

I hope any discussion will be precise about terms, too.  During debate over Jeter's amendment,  which the House approved,  he referred to the need to prevent disclosure of merit pay.  As I've noted before,  merit pay,  which is used in some charter and traditional public schools,  should make sense,  even if there's room to debate the results.  Market pay can be random. As one of my professors used to say,  the market is amoral.  The teacher in the next classroom may earn significantly more for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with fairness or ability.  That may be disturbing for teachers to discover,  but I suspect the real discomfort falls on the administrators who have to explain it.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Student assignment, crime and moving vans

A couple of recent academic studies provide intriguing looks at the impact of  "resegregation"  in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools 12 years after the district gave up race-based student assignment.

In a newcomer-rich community like this one, the 2002 demise of court-ordered desegregation and the long legal battle that led up to it may seem like ancient history.  But researchers take the long view,  and both papers used years of individual data for CMS students before and after the switch to a race-neutral system.

For those who missed it,  CMS used school boundaries to achieve racial balance from the 1970s to the 1990s.  At that point,  magnets began to play a growing role in efforts to encourage voluntary desegregation.  Lawsuits by white families seeking to end race-based assignment  led to the end of court-ordered desegregation. The ensuing assignment plans, which combine neighborhood schools and magnets, created a rapid and dramatic increase in mostly-black and mostly-white schools. (Both papers give a more detailed history.)

"School Segregation,  Educational Attainment and Crime:  Evidence From the End of Busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg"  draws a striking conclusion:  The strongest,  most lasting impact of sending students to high-poverty,  mostly-minority schools is a rise in crime among minority males who live in poverty.

"The results show clearly that it is the combination of race and income segregation that leads to 
increases in crime.  Minority males have significantly more arrests and days incarcerated when they are assigned to schools with more poor minorities.  However, we find no impact on crime of being assigned to schools with more non-poor minorities or poor non-minorities,"  says the study by Stephen Billings  (UNC Charlotte),  David Deming  (Harvard Graduate School of Education)  and Jonah Rockoff  (Columbia University Graduate School of Business).  It's published in the February issue of The Quarterly Journal of Economics, but the link above takes you to an earlier working paper you can read free.

The report also found negative academic impacts on all groups assigned to such schools,  but found that those disadvantages faded over time.  "Our results suggest that equal or greater resources combined with active policy efforts may be able to reduce the impact of school segregation on academic outcomes, but not for crime,"  the report says. "To the extent that crime is driven by social context and peer interactions,  it will be difficult for schools to address racial and economic inequality through means other than deliberately integrative student assignment policies."


"Does School Policy Affect Housing Choices?  Evidence From the End of Desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg"  acknowledges that housing patterns shape the racial composition of schools.  It then examines a follow-up:  Does student assignment also affect housing decisions?

The conclusion:  Yes  --  for a relatively small number of white families.

The study by David Liebowitz  (Harvard University)  and Lindsay Page  (University of Pittsburgh)  found that African American and Hispanic families are more mobile than white ones,  and their moving patterns didn't change significantly when student assignment changed. But they found differences for white families after 2002,  when moving became a practical way to seek a higher-quality neighborhood school,  "even if one criterion was racial homogeneity of the school."

Even during race-based assignment,  whites who moved  "exhibited a strong preference for communities that were less integrated than their starting community."  After 2002,  the researchers found,  "White families were much more likely to select into a Whiter but worse performing zone than their current one.  However,  they were no more likely to select into a Whiter and academically stronger neighborhood than before the new assignment policy."  Despite those trends,  the researchers found that the numbers were too small to affect the district's overall level of segregation.

Please note that I am simplifying two long,  complex papers about touchy subjects.  There's no way to crunch some combined 80 pages of academic analysis into a blog post and catch all the nuances.  I can't find a free version of the second article,  which is published in the American Educational Research Journal, so it may be tough to read the full thing.  Just know that both papers contain a more sophisticated analysis than I can summarize here.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Contracts, pay and tenure remain in limbo

July 1 marked the start of the 2014-15 budget year,  but crucial decisions about educator pay and working conditions remain in the hands of the N.C. General Assembly,  where GOP leaders remain deeply divided.

That means leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts had better come back from the July 4 week revved up and ready to hustle.  Consider:

*The fate of hundreds of teacher assistants remains uncertain. The Senate plan cuts jobs to boost teacher pay, while plans from the House and governor preserve them.  Additional teacher jobs that were promised in last year's two-year spending plan also remain in limbo.  The result:  Schools will have to adjust staffing plans whenever lawmakers come to agreement.

*  The Senate's budget requires teachers to choose between a scale where they keep tenure and get locked into current pay or a  "professional scale"  that provides significant raises with no job protection.  The House and governor's plans do not.  If the Senate approach prevails,  districts will have to figure out how to get thousands of teachers to indicate their choice,  then adjust their pay accordingly.  If that's not done by the state of the academic year,  which seems likely,  they could  have to calculate retroactive pay.

*Teachers who are working on master's degrees don't yet know whether they'll be compensated for them.

*Under the  "25 percent plan"  approved last year,  CMS had to designate teachers eligible for four-year contracts,  and teachers selected would have had to say yes or no by Monday.  A judge put that plan on hold,  but the Senate budget would revive it.

CMS never notified teachers whether they made the 25 percent cut.  But in June the district did offer one-year contracts to teachers who haven't qualified for career status,  or tenure.  Spokeswoman Kathryn Block says just over 84 percent of those contracts have been signed,  and the rest are getting reminders.  Six who didn't sign have resigned,  she added.

*Money for textbooks,  technology and three new college-based high schools that CMS will open in August also remain up in the air.

All of this makes the back-to-school countdown nerve-wracking for all concerned.  And while Aug. 25 is the big day,  it comes even earlier for students in year-round Project LIFT schools and the high schools based on Central Piedmont Community College campuses and at UNC Charlotte.

Charter schools are exempt from many of the state rules about tenure and pay.  But they,  too,  are waiting on passage of a state budget to know how much money they can count on.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Jeter's charter-bill quotes attributed to wrong man

I owe Rep. David Lewis, R-Hartnett, an apology.

My recent front-page article on a charter-bill amendment introduced by Rep. Charles Jeter and a follow-up blog post  (now revised)  indicated that Lewis had spoken in favor of that amendment. I just learned from the Associated Press that the comments attributed to Lewis referring to a hostile work environment were in fact made by Jeter, a Mecklenburg Republican.


Lewis emailed me to say the quotes were wrong.

"While I,  along with 64 other members,  did vote for the Amendment, I have never commented publicly on the subject,"  he wrote.  "I do agree largely with Rep. Jeter's argument that the public is not harmed by withholding the charter teacher's name while fully disclosing everything else.  I only bring this to your attention because I am proud of my efforts to increase transparency whenever possible and this article, which has been picked up by periodicals statewide, implies I vocally supported and helped carry the amendment which seems to be contrary to that effort."

I've been covering issues related to charter school salaries and compliance with the state's Public Records Law since March.  When political reporter Jim Morrill told me about the amendment,  I checked the legislative records,  did a phone interview with Jeter and wrote the story.  I added quotes from the AP article,  believing they had a second voice speaking strongly to the issue.  After I forwarded Lewis'  email to the AP, they confirmed that Jeter's remarks had been erroneously attributed to Lewis,  who did not take part in the debate.

Lewis forwarded a 17-minute audio clip of the debate,  which provided some interesting details.  Several representatives,  including Jeter and Rep. Rob Bryan,  R-Mecklenburg,  said they'd like to see future discussion of removing even more personnel information from public view,  either for charter employees and/or for teachers in traditional public schools.  Jeter's argument is that salary rosters such as the Observer publishes for employees of school districts,  public universities,  city,  state and county governments create strife when the same is done for charter schools because charter teachers are not on the state pay scale.  In charter schools  --  and in many Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools that are involved in merit pay programs  --  teachers with similar experience and credentials may earn different salaries.

In introducing the amendment,  which simply states that names of charter school employees are not subject to public disclosure,  Jeter said that  "Charter school teachers are not state employees.  Charter school teachers do not get to participate in the state pension plan."

Two legislators noted that charter boards actually decide whether their employees participate.  One of them suggested  "displacing"  the amendment to get clarification,  but Jeter declined,  saying the pension issue is not critical.  "Teachers' names should not have to be published for ridicule,"  he said.

Two Democratic women,  Rep. Carla Cunningham of Mecklenburg and Rep. Verla Insko of Orange,  suggested that disclosing pay by name reveals whether female teachers are being paid equally for equal work.  Jeter responded that names are not always gender-specific.  Bryan added that  "just like in private business,  people bring discrimination claims all the time and that information can be discovered,  so I think that's really a non-issue." 

It's now up to the Senate and House to reconcile their different versions of the charter bill,  which addresses several issues other than disclosure of names.  Gov. Pat McCrory has threatened to veto the whole bill if the amendment shielding names remains.

However it's resolved,  it looks like we can expect more efforts next year to scale back the amount of public information that's subject to public review.