A state legislative committee tasked with making recommendations to the General Assembly for how to improve public education in North Carolina issued a modest report on Tuesday, proposing more flexibility for local school districts in implementing third grade reading requirements and taking a hands-off approach, at least for now, in ensuring the viability of cash-strapped Elizabeth City State University.
Members of the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee assembled four times since the conclusion of the 2014 legislative session last summer, hearing presentations on education issues that ranged from the continuation of some federally funded Race to the Top programs to concerns regarding the recent redesign of the Advanced Placement United States History course, which critics say presents a negative view of American history.
But while committee members heard discussions on a wide variety of education issues over the last several months, they decided to make recommendations on just four to the 2015 General Assembly.
Read to Achieve: The Read to Achieve law, enacted in 2012 as part of Senate leader Phil Berger’s Excellent Public Schools Act, was designed to ensure that all students are reading at or above grade level by the end of the third grade. If a student fails to achieve that benchmark, then the law requires that student to be held back from advancing to the fourth grade. (Click here to read more about Read to Achieve.)
While many have voiced support for this literacy goal, the implementation of Read to Achieve has proved difficult at best. Teachers have felt compelled to subject third graders to excessive testing to comply with the law, and summer reading camps designed to help students catch up have strained school districts’ resources and frustrated parents who had already planned summer activities for their children.
After hearing from the education community last fall, lawmakers decided to recommend offering districts a bit more flexibility in how they administer summer reading camps. Instead of restricting the summer camps to third grade students, lawmakers recommended opening them up to students in grades K-2 as well in an effort to address remediation needs earlier.
There was no mention, however, of whether to offer districts additional state funding to pay for the summer camp programs or how to improve on the assessment component of the law, which has frustrated many teachers, parents and students.
Elizabeth City State University: ECSU, a historically black university in eastern North Carolina, made headlines last summer when the school faced possible closure thanks to declining enrollment and budget cuts.
The legislature saved the school last year, and in the fall the UNC Board of Governors elected new leadership for Elizabeth City State. Chancellor Stacey Franklin Jones is at the helm of a “rightsizing initiative” for which lawmakers yesterday voiced their support.
“We’ll let them alone,” said Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Moore, Randolph), in response to Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union), who questioned why lawmakers on the education oversight committee had not been directly engaged with Elizabeth City leadership on how to steer the direction of the school. Tillman indicated he was happy with the leadership Chancellor Jones had already exhibited and wanted to take a hands-off approach.
The committee’s formal recommendation endorses the school’s “rightsizing initiative” that puts the university on a path toward financial and enrollment stability.
Health Coverage for Reemployed Retirees in 2015: Retirees interested in long-term work assignments at schools that would offer more than 30 hours of work a week are required to participate in a health plan that is less generous than the regular state health plan for retirees. This has proven a deterrent for many high quality retired teachers interested in continuing to work in the state’s school systems.
Lawmakers recommended a statutory change to allow the retirees access to the regular state health plan. This was the only recommendation for which lawmakers also supplied a draft piece of legislation.
Vocational Training for Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Lawmakers recommended collaboration across different state agencies and the college and university systems to provide high quality educational opportunities and strong vocational and job skills training for those with special needs.
The big issue left out of the committee’s recommendations? The College Board’s recent redesign of the Advanced Placement (AP) United States history course, which has sparked a national outcry by conservatives who have said the new course presents a negative view of American history and panders to liberal ideologies.
The State Board of Education heard discussion at their November 2014 meeting on the AP U.S. History controversy, but has taken no action to date.
Critics pushed the board to formally admonish the College Board for its revision of the course, which they say diminishes America’s “exceptionalism” in global history. Also in question is whether the course’s revised curriculum complies with the state law that students learn about individual rights, rule of law, and equal justice under the law, among other principles.
While the education oversight committee made no formal recommendations about the AP U.S. History controversy this week, it is possible lawmakers could introduce related legislation during the session.
Busy session on tap for education
While the education oversight committee offered relatively few recommendations for the 2015 General Assembly, that’s not necessarily an indicator of how active lawmakers will be when it comes to education this year.
According to the Raleigh News & Observer, GOP leaders will gather for a substantive closed-door session on Thursday in Kannapolis to discuss their education agenda.
At the session, lawmakers will hear from Mary Laura Bragg of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, education analyst Terry Stoops of the conservative John Locke Foundation, and Julia Freeland of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation in California.
The meeting, which is identified as a Republican caucus, is not subject to the N.C. Open Meetings law because no official public business or actions can take place at caucuses.
Stay tuned next week for a legislative preview of what is likely to be the hottest education issues lawmakers will take up during the 2015 legislative session.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or [email protected]. Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC