The No Win Situation

I know some schools in North Carolina have already shut down. For some it is a big relief for others a massive juggling act has begun. No matter what we shouldn’t downplay the virus upon us, or the impact of schools shutting down.

Currently, the CDC guidelines, caution total school closures. Many of my social media friends argue the CDC data is flawed due to the lack of testing kits in the US. Others simply argue that we can’t trust government agencies during our current administration. It is difficult to trust anything right now.

Here in Wake the debate is especially relevant since we have known cases in the county. As a parent I read the statement by the CDC and the Wake County School System. The school system is following the CDC. The statement cautions against pre-emtive school closure, but one of the reasons really stood out. The fact is that we don’t have infrastructure for a shut down. Many kids will simply congregate somewhere else.

The World Health Organization even mentioned how complicated the decision to close school can be. For the last two Mays I’ve assisted in helping with distributing food for day of action for our teachers. I witnessed first hand the amount of coordination, volunteer hours, and work that goes into getting food distributed to students for just one day. The food itself came from the community and we were reliant on the food that was provided. It was a mess of different individuals, non profits and our school systems all trying to get food to our kids. We did it, but it certainly didn’t feel like a well oiled machine.

So, many of my friends are simply withholding their kids from schools. This assumes Wake remains open. It is a great measure of privilege. They are in a position to not have to work or work remotely. Maybe their kids are older and can be trusted to self isolate. What happens to the schools where privilege is sparse. In Wake, we have many Title I schools where free and reduced lunch numbers are high. Will we see an uptick in the virus spread in already dense vulnerable areas? If schools close will we have a distribution method of food that rely’s on home delivery rather than massive amount of students and families congregating for free breakfast?

Meanwhile, there are real people in these buildings. Not only do we have our most precious children, but those who devote their lives to our children. Everyone in the building is a value and deserves respect. If we don’t close the school, we ask even more of our teachers and staff. We ask them to put their own health and safety at risk. Many will just have to take leave due to their own health issues. Many have kids in counties who have already shut down. This decision needs to include our educators.

So, I feel like there isn’t a win in this situation. What I’m reminded of, however, is how much our public schools serve as the central figure for social services. Public Schools feed our kids. They care for them during the day. They provide instruction, but they also are the primary location for before/after school care. I honestly don’t know how parents who work, even if from home, will be able to do their job and supervise online learning. Schools have everything from special needs services to coat closets. Perhaps as a nation, a state, and a county, we need to think more broadly how our social services work.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

On Tuesday, I gathered with teachers and other allies of education at the North Carolina General Assembly. The question of the day was centered in the Senate. Would the Democrats stay 21 strong, or would the Senate override the governor’s veto? However, there was another bill in the House that needs our attention too.

Because of the budget impasse, kid’s of military veteran’s had their scholarship in jeopardy. So, the NC House and the NC Senate fixed the issue. Just like that. It was a stand alone bill. It was bipartisan. It passed in the House and the Senate with little fanfare. They got something done.

So, why not education? Why play strategic political games with teachers and more importantly our children? Why can’t they just get a bill out there that pays our teachers and our support staff a well deserved raise? I think I know. They don’t really want to.

Make no mistake I’m calling out the current Republican leadership in the NC General Assembly. They are in control. They have a majority. With the political will, the GOP majority in the House and Senate could fund education. While the Democrats have the ability to put the breaks on what they perceive as bad bills and bad budgets, that’s it. The GOP is in power, still has a majority, and thus has the power to lead. They aren’t leading, at least not in public education.

A veto is simply a check and balance to the legislative power. The GOP has the ability to renegotiate everything. They could write a stand alone bill today to pay our support staff a living wage of $15 an hour. The simple fact that no bill exists means that it isn’t an important enough issue to them.

We saw this with class size chaos. The issue of securing funding for our P.E., music, and other specialist teachers could have been solved within a year. It could have been solved without a bill that added unrelated matters. It could have been fully funded and included construction money to address the space issue as well. That isn’t what happened. Instead it took more than a year of advocacy, a bill that added on controversial issues, and a bill that didn’t fully address the original issue.

The current leadership is telling our teachers, our bus drivers, our students that they aren’t willing to work to get the job done. The veto is a new reality. The NCGA GOP member’s absolute power is in check. However, make no mistake, they still hold the cards. They still can and should fund our public schools and provide living wages to our educators. The fact that they aren’t doing anything, but trying to give ultimatums is telling. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In the case of North Carolina’s GOP leadership, where there isn’t a will, there’s no way we’re getting anywhere.

A Seat at the Table



It was an incredible honor to be asked to part of a Governor Cooper’s roundtable discussion on education.  Being a parent sometimes it is hard to get a seat at those important tables.  Parents are often left out or don’t even know they can speak out.  

At the roundtable, I spoke about the shared anxiety that both teachers and students sometimes share about their classroom.  I shared about how budget cuts negatively effect struggling students and those with disabilities like my son.  I also spoke about the dwindling resources, both in personnel like our TAs, and our physical resources like textbooks.  

Governor Cooper thanked Save Our Schools NC more than once for our advocacy and what a key role we played in getting some action behind the class size mandate chaos.  I felt proud to be part of a wonderful group of parents.

The day just got better.  In the evening, I learned that the Department of Information Technology granted the company Amplify a temporary stay against the use of IStation for the duration of the ongoing investigation.  I’m no huge fan of Amplify’s MClass.  However, IStation raised multiple red flags including signs of corruption.  

The movement to bring attention to the IStation issue proves that educators and parents working together make a difference.  It was teachers who investigated the story.  It was a school psychologist and awesome mom who researched the project.  It was parents who organized a press conference and used our platform it inform others.  Everyone working together.

When parents join with educators, I believe we are truly a force to be reckoned with!  Parents, I encourage to keep speaking out.  We make a difference.  We can get a seat at the big table and we help make change a reality.  Don’t give up.  Hang in there.  We can win the fight for a better funded public school!

 

Table Discussion with Gov. Cooper


What is going on with Istation?

There has been fabulous reporting educators like Justin Parmenter and Stu Egan on the implantation of Istation. A lot has been in the news and happening with this new computer based assessment tool. I’m simply going to try and summarize.

First, how did we get here? Well it shouldn’t be shocking to anyone that this all started with a provision within a budget bill. Under “Read to Achieve Diagnostic Changes Section 7.27” the 2017 bill outlines a call for a diagnostic tool to assess reading. The bill says that the tool must address oral language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension using developmentally appropriate practices. The final statement is telling however, these assessments may be administered by computer or other electronic device. The other important piece is that the NCGA gave the Superintendent authority to convene an Evaluation Panel exclusively from DPI, but ultimately the law is being interpreted as the final authority resting in the hands of the Superintendent. To find the language in the bill follow the link and do a quick ctrl f search for Read to Achieve. https://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2017/Bills/Senate/HTML/S257v8.html

As we know, thanks to people like Amy Jablonski, an evaluation team was formed, and a conclusion to maintain using mClass was reached. We also know that Mark Johnson the State Superintendent ignored the evaluation team’s finding and has contracted with a company called Istation.

The evaluation team had good reason not to pick Istation. The reasons have much to do with Istation’s limitations on what it can assess. While mClass is in no way perfect, it is administered by a teacher, and that teacher does get to listen one on one with a student reading aloud. The fact that Istation is computer based means that a student no longer has that one on one time with a teacher. Other issues involve that Istation doesn’t measure DIBELS or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills. DIBELS has been highly researched and is a recognized standard. Talk to any teacher and they will give you an earful on why a computer based assessment tool for literacy has some major flaws.

A friend and school psychologist, Chelsea Bartel, did a deep academic dive into papers written on Istation. Using Istation’s own links she found that it had cited many articles with positive reviews for the product written by a person employed by Istation. The independent article looked somewhat favorable from the summery provided by Istation, but the actual article cast serious doubts on product.

Another revelation that came out of the reporting on Istation, is the influence on outside money. While during the process of choosing an assessment tool, the Evaluation Team signs non disclosure agreements and conflict of interest forms. These of course end once the evaluation is finished and the final report is submitted. However, was Mark Johnson held to this same standard? It has been discovered that a donor to the Republican Party is also an influential lobbyist for Istation as well as another product Mark Johsnon championed called ClassWallet. This all doesn’t pass the sniff test.

In addition to what looks like political corruption, Mark Johnson’s office has been giving out misleading information. The corporation behind mClass have filed legal proceedings on the contract process. One thing revealed in the initial claim is that Mark Johnson inflated the price of mClass in a presentation to make Istation look better.

Superintendents from across the state have called for a year delay in the implementation. This wasn’t granted. The program training begins now. Students will begin using it immediately. It won’t count towards school grades however until January. School systems can still use mClass, but will have to fit the bill with local money.

This is a mess. However, on a very personal level I’m worried about one more aspect of Istation. Experts including Amy Jablonski have said that Istation isn’t accessible for all students. Students with disabilities and ESL students may not be able to use Istation. It also may not be able measure their skills. Although DPI denies this claim, it doesn’t help identify students with dyslexia a specific provision recently put into law. I hope all my disability rights and equal rights friends are paying attention.

This is my own quick summery of the work done by some fantastic writers and educators.

Justin Parmenter’s : http://notesfromthechalkboard.com/

Stu Egan: https://caffeinatedrage.com/

Hear Amy Jablonski’s interview on Doc Carter’s Pod Cast

Why I’m Marching

On May 1st, educators in North Carolina have called for a day of action.  They have highlighted five main issues that they’d like to see addressed this budget cycle.  As a parent, I will be marching with them. We are in the midst of a public education crisis and it is time to demand better.

I could give you  a page of statistics and bar graphs, but it feels no one reads those anymore.  I can tell you from personal experience that my son is in crisis in an underfunded public school.  He is on the autism spectrum. There is so much I can’t do to help him in his journey, but the one thing I can do is work to advocate for his teachers and his public school to get the support he needs.  

We can’t hide our heads in the sand, support means funding. We can’t can’t keep patching things over. Our roofs are literally leaking.  Our children don’t have enough busses or drivers, Our children with life threatening health issues don’t have a nurse. Our children struggling with trauma don’t have a mental health professional in their school. Our children have lost thousands of vital TAs that assist with everything from classwork to our special needs kids. Our public schools are starving for funding. This is not just a problem. This is a crisis.

To help my son and many like him, I’ve joined forces with educators and fellow advocates.  We’ve knocked politely on the doors of our Senators and Representatives. We’ve been a part of lobby days, big and small.  We’ve made formal appointments, or we’ve randomly shown up, and had conversations with our lawmakers in and out of the hallways of our General Assembly. We’ve been part of organizations, held demonstrations, and events.  We’ve sent invitations to our lawmakers and officials. We’ve used social media, and engaged politicians on Twitter. We’ve rallied in summers and on weekends. We’ve been nice.

We’ve been told to be patient.  We’ve been told it takes baby steps.  We’ve been told the budget is tight and we can’t do everything.  We’ve seen band aids placed on top of bad policies. We’ve watched as even the baby step bills die in committee.  We’ve experienced closed doors, unanswered emails and phone calls. We’ve gotten polite notes of thank you, but no. Mark Johnson tells us things will be better in 2030.

We demand better for our children.  We’re tired of baby steps to nowhere, We’re tired of a constrained budget manufactured by corporate interests. We’re’ tired of the lack of funding and bad policies.  We’re tired of being told to wait. Our children can’t wait. Many children are in crisis in their public schools across the state at this very moment. Now is not the time to ask.  Now is the time to demand.

No more waiting.  No more asking. No more starving our public schools.  March with our educators as they demand better for our public schools. March with the bus drivers and staff to demand a living wage. March with librarians, nurses, counselors, and  psychologists as they demand to expand their numbers. March with our retired teachers as they demand back retiree benefits and a decent cost of living increase. March with the community to demand health care for families and children. March with parents, but most of all march for all the kids in crisis across the state.  March with me, march with your fists raised high.

If you’re in the Cary area, join us on April 24th from 5pm -8pm at Jordan Lake Brewery for advocacy, information, and fellowship.

The App

A new initiative was just announced today from Mark Johnson and Senator Andy Wells, a Republican from Catawba County. The announcement essentially gives flexible state supply money directly to teachers instead of to districts. Each teacher will receive about $400 each to spend on classroom supplies according to the press conference.

The most startling aspect is that no new money is coming from the state. We are just redistributing money. Senator Wells was quoted as saying “All too often local bureaucrats decided not to spend the money on school supplies” Districts once again are being painted as the bad guys who aren’t using state money properly. I’ve heard this song and dance before. It seems to be the sounding cry before bad policy is introduced.

Districts use state and county buying contracts to purchase the big and basic supplies. These are things like paper, toner, and even toilet paper. Purchasers are trained and it is drilled into their heads that, “You are stewards of the state’s money.” With districts doing less of the buying I see a potential for money loss. Individual buying costs more. Any shopper at Costco knows the power of buying in bulk.

Yesterday the Wake County School Board Superintendent released the budget. As it was presented we learned that half the budget request was due to state obligations and loss of budget flexibility. Loss of budget flexibility costs our districts money, and ultimately the tax payers. This new initiative takes more money from our strapped districts and confines it to a very specific purpose. Budgets need to be as flexible as possible. Districts never know when they might face an unexpected expense like rising utility costs or broken down buses. Loss of flexibility makes budgets for districts that much tighter and expect to feel it in your property taxes.

Teachers absolutely need flexible supply money provided by the state. It should be new appropriations. They shouldn’t have to worry if their district can supply the copy paper. They also have to use an app to purchase. The app itself seems fraught with issues including limited vendors, and limiting when supplies can be purchased. A blog from Florida seems to sum up the issues : Why Teachers Hate Class Wallet

Being a steward of the state’s money isn’t easy. I don’t think an app is the answer. Districts don’t move around supply money just for fun. They move money from one pot or another based on need. It is also tracked and documented with many steps of approval along the way. We may not always agree on how our districts spend their money, we might feel teachers need more supply funds, but this app is just bad policy.

Medicaid Expansion

While we often talk about fully funding our public schools, we don’t often talk about fully funding our families. Strong families make even stronger students, schools, and communities. One way to support strong families is to advocate for Medicaid expansion in North Carolina.

While many or our children are covered by current Medicaid, most of their parents and even caregivers fall in the coverage gap. Under current Medicaid restrictions, parents with 3 kids making more than $8,004 without disability are ineligible. A stable home life is important for the health and well being of all our children. Sick parents can have a deep impact on our kids. We all know that problems at home can impact their education.

Healthy parents also lead to healthy children. North Carolina has a terrible infant mortality rate. One way to help change that is to provide better coverage to adults. Many North Carolina women don’t get the pre natal care they need.

Listen I get that many think we should stick to education funding topics only. However, healthy families and communities play a key role in our students’ lives. The financial implications are huge. Medical bills can lead to tough financial choices for families, that they shouldn’t have to make. Check out our partners thoughts on the issue and support Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 5.

https://www.ncjustice.org/publications/profiling-north-carolinas-uninsured-how-expanding-medicaid-can-make-a-difference/

https://www.ncchild.org/north-carolinas-leaders-must-come-together-health-care/

https://www.ncjustice.org/projects/health-advocacy-project/medicaid-expansion/expanding-medicaid-in-nc/

https://action.momsrising.org/sign/nc-med-ex-2019/?source=blog

 


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Lifting Up Our Public Schools

It is School Choice Week in North Carolina.  I’m seeing phrases like, “failing public schools” on twitter by some of school choice’s most ardent believers.  I hate the term, failing public schools.  If there is failure, it is the failure of our state to fully fund our public schools.    However,  sometimes those funding failures aren’t clearly articulated to the public.  Sometimes, we put school boards in the hot seat or even county commissioners.  We see our kid struggle to learn, but sometimes don’t ask the right questions as to why this is happening.    We don’t point the finger in the right place.

Public Schools are public.  That means it is up to us to lift them up.  We can vote, we can advocate, we can speak up.  When we see a problem in our schools, it is our job to find a solution that benefits not just our child, but our community as a whole.    We are the public, and ultimately we are responsible for our schools.  We can’t let them fail.  We can’t let our legislators fail our students any more than they already have.

Here lies the biggest struggle.  How do we lift up problems, and not scare away parents.  I get to hear terms like ‘market share’ in meetings now.  It means administrators and even teachers won’t voice their real concern for needs in the classroom.  As a parent, I’m not always aware of the number of TAs our school has or how much a difference that can make to teachers and students.   Many parents may know that their child’s 4th grade class is overcrowded, but not the reason why.

Despite market share and the threat of competition, we need to speak out.  Rarely do we fix problems and issues with our silence.   We need to get educated on the issues facing our schools.  Parents need teachers to speak out.  Parents need administrators to speak out.  When we identify the problems, we can also identify the solutions.    Don’t be afraid to speak up.

As legislative agendas get finalized by many education non profit organizations and advocates, you will hear about some of those problems and solutions.   As parents, as the public, we need to be part of the solutions.  It might mean showing up to a meeting or two.  Maybe your school could benefit from some education issue forums?  Maybe a legislative visit is in your future?  Save Our Schools NC would be happy to help.  Contact us.  We have materials and are happy to share.

So when looking at other choices I urge you to ask hard questions.  Ask if fully funded, how different our already awesome traditional public schools could be?   We need to make the choice in North Carolina to fully fund our public schools.

 

 

School Budget Woes

Sometimes its just depressing…

Last week, Susan and I attended our local Board Advisory Council meeting (in Wake County, each school board member has a BAC made up of parent representatives and the principals of all of the schools in his/her district.  They meet periodically to discuss issues important to the school system).   The topic of the evening was the school system’s budget process, and well, it wasn’t pretty.  But it’s important for us to understand the school budgeting process, so today I’d like to summarize what we learned.  While the information here is specific to WCPSS, I think many of the principles and concerns are applicable throughout NC.

WCPSS is one of the largest school systems in the country, and it has a proportionally large budget, totaling about $1.6 billion from all sources.  About 60% of WCPSS’ funding comes from the State, as part of its Constitutional obligation to provide a sound, basic education to every NC child.  WCPSS, like the rest of NC’s school systems, does not get to make budget requests of the NCGA.  Rather, the Legislature decides how much money it is willing to spend on schools and the school systems are supposed to make it work (no matter how divorced that amount of money may be from the reality of running a school system).  In addition, the NCGA requires that some of the funds it provides to the schools actually be sent right back to the state as their share of, for example, teacher raises or the state retirement system.  And, of course, the public school systems must pay out of their own budgets for the operation of charter schools.

One way in which school systems deal with the budget shortfalls created by inadequate school funding from the NCGA is that they ask their counties to kick in funds to make up the difference.  In Wake County, about 30% of the budget is funded by the County.  But even in a county as large and as prosperous as Wake County, there’s no guarantee that County leadership will be willing or able to cure budget shortfalls completely.   For example, this past year the County’s budget left WCPSS with a $25 million shortfall.

All of this would be fine (If less than ideal) if it were a temporary situation — if funding for schools was short for one year, or even two.  But in NC, our schools have been chronically underfunded for at least a decade.  And it shows.  Some alarming facts:

WCPSS has 165 fewer buses on the road this year than it did five years ago, even though it has more students enrolled.  Simply put, WCPSS cannot attract enough bus drivers at its current rate of pay, but it cannot afford to raise driver pay any further.  In addition to the obvious downsides (longer bus rides for children), transportation shortfalls have an effect on school assignment and even on the kinds of programs our schools can offer.

In recent years, WCPSS has added 5 million square feet of instructional space since 2008; but spending for maintenance and custodial services has decreased.    As a result, WCPSS spends far less on school maintenance that recommended, leading to long-term facilities issues.

The proportion of adults to children in our schools has fallen, leaving students with fewer opportunities to interact with interested, caring adults during their school day.

One of things drove my husband and I to choose to move to Wake County from Maryland 13 years ago was the quality of the public education system compared to other options on the East Coast.  North Carolina was heralded as a national leader in education.  But a decade of cuts to educational funding has taken its toll, such that many families in this state have never even experienced adequately funded schools.  Getting us back to our proud place as leaders in education will require all of us — parents, educators, and interested members of the public — to demand that our leaders start prioritizing public education again.

 

Creating a Positive and Safe School Climate in North Carolina

More and more studies are showing that having a positive school environment can help promote school safety and wellness.  We are starting to see data come out to back up the idea that having a positive school climate and students connected to the school can decrease violence in our schools.  One researcher, Ron Astor, at the Summit on Student Safety and Wellbeing, spoke of starting out with a welcoming school climate in which programs to decrease violence can thrive. Do North Carolina Schools provide a positive welcoming school climate?  My answer is that we have a lot of work ahead of us.

    We need to first look at our physical space. We have billions of dollars of need for renovations in our public schools.  I can’t imagine how we begin to provide a positive school climate, when we literally have trouble with climate.  We have air conditioning and heating failures.  We have mold. We have insect infestations. What we don’t have is a statewide school bond with dedicated money to address the problem.  To have a safe environment for our students we need to begin by providing them a healthy space to learn. School bonds promote school safety.

      Next, our teachers need care too.  We need healthy teachers. We need them physically healthy and mentally healthy.   Our teachers don’t always feel secure. I’m not just talking about rude or violent students.  I’m saying they need to know that if they have a toothache, they can afford the dental bill.  Teachers can hardly feel mentally safe when they are working multiple jobs and worry about bills.  We need to take care of their mental health as well.  I’m sure teachers don’t feel safe when leaders in the state call them thugs for simply advocating for a better living wage.  This also applies to our principals and staff members. We need better teacher pay and benefits to begin our journey to safer schools.  Better teacher pay, better staff pay, and better principal pay promote school safety.

     Next, our students can hardly begin to embrace a social emotional programs with the testing burden perched forever on their shoulders.  We tell them about kindness and empathy yet also tell them that the fate of their future rests on a scan-tron or computerized test. It is difficult to feel safe with constant anxiety.  We need to decrease the testing burden to begin our journey to safer schools.

      Our legislators need to take a hard look at policies they support that have little payoff and seem to cause chaos and anxiety in our schools.  They need to take a look at the class size mandate and the problems it is causing our school boards and our principals. They need to look at principal pay as well and ISD school takeovers.  We can’t have a positive school climate with legislation that is hindering our progress as a state. No one feels a positive connection to a school system in constant crisis.

      Finally,  we need more adults in our kids’ lives that can help them feel safe.  We need our counselors, we need our nurses and we need our psychologists.  They are professionals in school wellness. They do it best and we need more of them in our hallways.  We need healthier ratios than what we have now. We don’t need limited grants where some counties miss out.  We don’t need limited grants that only last for one or two years. We need permanent funding across the state for support staff to begin our journey to safer schools.

     Creating a welcoming positive school climate is step one to a safer school  We have work ahead of us. We need welcoming physical space. We need a staff that is healthy and connected to our students.  The blueprint for a safe school is out there. We just need the public and political will to get started.