By Dr. Michael D. Priddy, Acting President/Executive Director, Public School Forum of NC

A crisis has befallen our state, our country and our entire world. We are in the midst of a pandemic that not only threatens our lives, but our way of life as well, as many of us push pause on our daily routines in the hopes of limiting this virus’ spread. Our heroes on the frontline, meanwhile, continue to toil for us, notably our healthcare workers, grocery store workers, delivery personnel — and, of course, our educators and school personnel, by seeking and developing innovative ways to teach our children at a distance while they stay home and out of their school buildings. 

Here in North Carolina, this virus known as COVID-19 and these once unimaginable — yet necessary — efforts to wage war against it, also present a formidable threat to tackling a challenge that, just a short time ago, we believed would be our greatest undertaking this year. That challenge? Take Immediate and Intentional Actions to Meet Our Constitutional Obligation to Provide Each Child a Sound Basic Education.

It was in January that Judge David Lee asked plaintiffs and defendants in the state’s long-running Leandro school funding case to work together to develop an action plan for the  state to take aggressive action to ensure that this constitutional obligation is met for every child in North Carolina  — something that the NC Supreme Court has found that our state has persistently failed to do since its original ruling in 1997.

Just prior to Judge Lee’s January consent order, a data-rich, court-ordered report was released by independent consultants who studied the past few decades of North Carolina’s school funding efforts and outcomes. The report’s authors made a series of recommendations that were entered into the Court’s findings, many of which the Public School Forum of North Carolina endorsed in our Top Education Issues released in February. In our report, we called for a school funding system that was more equitable and robust in serving all districts — especially those that encompass more vulnerable communities and children — with the resources and tools they need to meet our constitutional obligation to every child. We also asked our state leaders to overhaul educator compensation, recruitment and professional development strategies, revamp our school accountability system, and support major investments that address our abysmally inadequate school infrastructure needs. These recommendations did not comprise everything that needs to be done to ultimately ensure every child has the opportunity to access a sound basic education—-but it was a start.

Today, however, we have an even greater challenge at hand that has both short- and long-term implications. Our school buildings are closed until at least May 15 — possibly for the remainder of the school year — in order to ensure that our state and our nation are not overcome with a health care crisis of monumental proportions. North Carolinians understand the need to comply with this order, but our children must still be cared for, educated, and nurtured in the meantime. And while our educators are working harder than ever to develop new ways to reach every child through distance learning options, it is becoming clear that the significant structural inequities that so many of our children already face on a daily basis — especially those with learning differences, those who live in rural areas, English language learners and those who live in low-income households —- will become even greater during this enormously challenging time.

If we want to live up to our constitutional obligation to provide access to a sound basic education to each and every child in North Carolina, we must take quick action to mitigate what appears to be the very likely possibility of regressing even further away from January’s starting point. When our state lawmakers return to the task of legislating at the end of this month, the Public School Forum calls on our leadership to take specific actions that can help to ensure we continue to progress toward a positive resolution of the Leandro lawsuit.

Immediately Address the Broadband Gap

According to the NC Department of Internet Technology (NC DIT), roughly half of all of North Carolina’s households are not signed up for broadband internet for myriad reasons — and 67 percent of households that do not have broadband internet cite cost as the primary barrier. 

Now that children across our state cannot physically attend school until at least May 15 — and possibly for the remainder of the school year — they are expected to engage in remote learning that requires a reliable and robust internet connection. For this reason, it is incumbent on our state’s leaders to find solutions that address this broadband gap, as it is clear that we as a state have not committed ourselves fully to digital equity. This reality promises to be one of the greatest barriers to our success during this challenging time; without taking immediate action, the already substantial educational inequities that already exist between our low-income households and those who can afford to access the internet will grow even greater. 

One quick solution that has already been deployed in some areas include funding and implementing WiFi hotspots in locales that do not have the infrastructure to provide high speed internet, as well as accessing public internet outside of schools and libraries. While this can serve as a temporary solution (but only if cellular service is available in a designated area), we know that in the long run, this level of internet connectivity is not sufficient for our students to meet our high academic standards and access rich digital content that requires more bandwidth. We have to do more, and we have to take action quickly — the state must foster cross-sector collaborations and public-private partnerships to implement and sustain multi-faceted solutions, as recommended by the NC DIT and NC State University’s Friday Institute.

North Carolina’s Broadband Plan, Connecting North Carolina, recommends that counties and communities working to expand broadband access partner directly with private-sector Internet Service Providers (ISPs). State lawmakers should also consider accelerating funding for the Growing Rural Economies Through Access to Technology program, which is currently funded at $150 million over the next ten years and provides support and incentives directly to ISPs. Federal policymakers could also look toward making modifications to the Federal Communication Commission’s program called “Lifeline,” which is designed to help make communications services more affordable for low-income consumers. Lifeline provides subscribers a discount on monthly telephone service, broadband internet access service, or voice-broadband bundled service purchased from participating providers. We should also support reforms to the E-Rate program so that the digital infrastructure program is oriented toward efforts to support an entire community’s internet connectivity needs, not only school buildings. And let’s come together to brainstorm other digital infrastructure investments that can help us quickly address broadband gaps.

Ensure All of Our School Employees are Fully Supported

We are encouraged that the State Board of Education has enacted measures to ensure all school employees are paid through at least the end of April — and we are confident those measures will be extended as appropriate for as long as our children must stay home and engage with their schooling in a remote learning context. In many districts, we hear that hourly employees continue to be paid or given access to state leave programs in the event they cannot perform their jobs. We support these moves and hope they are statewide, consistent and adequate.

In addition, we believe that front line essential workers who are working outside of their homes to provide meals and other essential services to students deserve additional pay to compensate them for work that puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has extended paid time and a half for those who are working in food distribution, and we believe this should serve as a model for a statewide program.

Finally, we encourage our state leaders to pass legislation that would eliminate the Praxis I Core requirement for undergraduate students seeking entry into Educator Preparation Programs in 2020. For educators who are up for renewal of their licenses, we recommend that lawmakers grant them a one year extension to pass the required tests.

Ease or Eliminate State Testing and Accountability Measures for the 2019-20 School Year

It is also encouraging that the U.S. Department of Education has waived federal requirements for North Carolina with regard to testing and accountability for the 2019-20 school year, and we ask that the General Assembly agree to waive state accountability requirements for this year that require end of year tests, as well.

There are many students learning at home who do not have sufficient access to high speed internet and whose parents must continue to work on the front lines of COVID-19. These realities will mean that any kind of standardized testing that takes place this year will be a reflection of these inequities when it comes to accessing a sound basic education — not an indicator of how students fared academically while standing on a level playing field.

We also support the State Board of Education’s vote to ask the NC General Assembly to push pause on the A-F school grading system for the 2019-20 school year, and we are encouraged that lawmakers have already drafted legislation to this end. However, the Public School Forum also believes this accountability model is fundamentally flawed and should be eliminated altogether for a model that is more nuanced and largely reflects student academic growth over time. It is our hope that lawmakers reach the conclusion that this model should be abolished and not continue going forward.

Provide All Districts Calendar Flexibility

For many years, countless proposals have moved through the General Assembly seeking calendar flexibility so that districts can accommodate their local needs when it comes to fulfilling the requirement that schools provide either 1,025 hours of instruction or meet for 185 days out of the year. Current law requires that traditional schools start their school years no sooner than late August and end by the middle of June. But over the years, the myriad legislative proposals to grant districts calendar flexibility have failed.

Now that we are in the middle of a pandemic that has forced our schools to remain closed for a considerable chunk of the traditional school calendar year, there has never been a more important time than this one to grant districts the autonomy to determine when students can come to school, provided it abides by rules ensuring our public health.

Schools should have the freedom to begin the 2020-21 school year earlier than August 26, if state and national plans to address COVID-19 allow. Our students’ academic success depends on our ability to be nimble and make changes to our traditional ways of doing things. Our teachers have shown their innovation and flexibility in remarkably fast ways, and we owe it to them to provide the same with the tools that we have at our disposal.

Enable Greater School Funding Flexibility 

On March 24, Governor Cooper announced a new $50 million flexible funding allotment to help public schools with COVID-19 related expenses such as providing meals, childcare, and distance learning. The Governor’s executive order also extends additional flexibility for districts to use unspent funds in specific allotment categories (including Textbooks and Digital Resources, Transportation, At-Risk Student Services, Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Funding, and Low-Wealth Supplemental Funding) from the current year to address their particular immediate needs. 

Granting this additional flexibility to districts was necessary because of restrictions placed onto districts’ spending by the General Assembly in recent years. Our state employs a “resource allocation” model in which funding is provided to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) through position allotments for classroom teachers and instructional support and categorical allotments for items such as transportation, teacher assistants, supplies and supplemental funding for children with disabilities. While in previous years districts were able to move funds from one allotment to another as budgeting needs arose, restrictions are now in place on allotments that fund teacher assistants, exceptional children, academically or intellectually gifted students, and textbooks. This poses significant challenges for districts– especially those that lack the local wealth to generate substantial local dollars to be allocated where they are most needed. As schools continue to grapple with COVID-19 and its aftermath, the Forum supports extending funding flexibility into the 2020-21 school year and beyond. 

Supporting Our Public Schools 

The current crisis has created unprecedented challenges for our schools, our students, and our state overall, and has made the deep inequities that have always existed even more pressing to address. At the same time, this experience has made all the more clear the essential role that public schools play in all of our communities. Our teachers and school leaders have proven to be the innovative, dedicated professionals that we always knew they were as they have worked to quickly transition to a remote learning environment, oftentimes while simultaneously managing the needs of their own families. Our bus drivers and other school staff have put their own health at risk delivering meals to ensure that children of all ages-including those who do not attend the traditional public schools-have access to meals. We all recognize the daunting task ahead of our state leaders going into the 2020 legislative session as they begin to prepare for our recovery from this pandemic. At this time, it is absolutely critical that supporting our essential public schools, educators, staff, and students and meeting the constitutional requirement for all students to receive a sound basic education is at the top of the priority list. 

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