Too many NC children aren’t receiving adequate education, court filings say

The state has abandoned its constitutional commitment to provide all North Carolina children with a sound, basic education, say lawyers for low-income school districts, who cite years of budget reductions, jettisoned programs and tens of thousands of low-scoring students.

In a new filing, attorneys in a landmark school quality lawsuit call for a hearing in August and a detailed plan from the state, with timetables, for complying with the basic education mandate from two previous Supreme Court rulings. They say North Carolina has discarded many of the planned remedies to the problem, leaving 800,000 poor students – 56 percent of all school children – at risk of academic failure.

“While the State has advanced some meritorious initiatives, many of those initiatives, since 2008, have been eliminated or substantially curtailed,” said the April 29 filing by the attorneys for five low-income counties in the lawsuit, known as Leandro for the original student plaintiff.

Meanwhile, the judge overseeing the case issued a stinging, 38-page report this week on “the reading problem” in North Carolina, taking educators to task for “way too many thousands of school children” who have not received an adequate education.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr., who has monitored schools’ progress for more than a decade, said he is awaiting the results of this year’s end-of-grade and end-of-course tests, along with the latest ACT scores of state students. He also issued a warning.

“Notwithstanding the results of these assessments, the State of North Carolina cannot ‘cut and run’ from the results by reducing standards and deleting the assessments because they do not bring good news,” Manning wrote in his report. “The children of North Carolina have a constitutional right to a sound basic education and the adults who are paid and charged with the responsibility of providing that education in every school and classroom have no valid right to cover up the results of their failure to provide that opportunity, parents and the public included.”

The two court documents, filed just before the start of the legislative session next week, portend another showdown on education spending and the performance of public schools.

The reports are chock full of dismal test results before and after the state implemented higher education standards known as Common Core. A legislative committee recently recommended replacing those standards. The legislature has also dropped eight of 11 high school end-of-course tests since 2000, but last year ratcheted up testing in third grade as part of a new law known as Read To Achieve.

‘A direct violation’

The court filing says 483,000 students are not proficient in reading and math and thus aren’t receiving a basic education. Proficiency is defined by Level III (out of four levels) on end-of-grade tests. Anticipating lower scores with the new standards, the State Board of Education adjusted the defined proficiency levels, adding a fifth level. That means that Level III is now a lesser designation – “prepared for the next grade level” but “not yet on track for college-and-career readiness without academic support.”

“This is a direct violation of the Supreme Court’s ruling and an attempt to mask the number of students who are not receiving an opportunity for a sound basic education,” the Leandro attorneys wrote.

The court had previously concluded that at-risk students required additional resources, such as smaller class sizes, more instructional time, early childhood programs and well-trained teachers with updated professional development.

The Leandro lawyers argue that the state has watered down or eliminated many of the strategies that were meant to help at-risk children succeed in school.

For example, they said, the state committed to raising teacher salaries above the national average, but North Carolina instead dropped to 46th in teacher pay. Programs aimed at recruiting talented people, such as the Teaching Fellows and Future Teachers Scholarship/Loan Program, were ended. Thousands of teacher assistant jobs were eliminated. Allocations for assistant principals and other school jobs were reduced, and textbook funding was slashed. Dollars for students without English proficiency were cut, and pre-kindergarten slots for 4-year-olds were reduced.

“Ten years after the Supreme Court’s second Leandro decision, we still have too many children who are not at grade level and who are not receiving a sound basic education,” said Melanie Dubis, attorney for the low-income districts. “We are saying that that is an unacceptable and, frankly, unlawful situation and the state needs to address that.”

At the same time, the percentage of children in the state eligible for free and reduced lunch has increased from 38.9 percent in 1997, at the case’s trial, to 56 percent in 2011-12.

“The needs are greater and we are doing less,” Dubis said. “The results reflect that.”

‘More money’

Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden, said four of the five school districts in the Leandro case receive more than the statewide average in funding.

“If more money was the only factor in these children’s education, their academic performance would be above the state average and not below it,” Auth said in an email.

While the Leandro lawyers blame inadequate resources, Manning zeros in on reading proficiency by third grade as the key to educational success for all children.

His report seems to support the same goals as Berger’s Read to Achieve law, which requires that third-graders pass end-of-grade tests in reading or be held back. The law calls for summer reading camps for children who can’t pass the test. Some teachers and parents have criticized the law for the constant testing it requires throughout the year with young children.

But Manning said teachers and principals have the tools they need to ensure that students learn to read from kindergarten to third grade. He cited methods of frequent informal testing, with results that are instant and computerized. Many teachers may be conducting the assessments but not using the data to effectively target their lessons to meet individual children’s needs.

‘Use the information’

He minced no words in telling educators what they needed to do. “Bottom line requirement: Do the formative assessment and use the information to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the individual child,” he wrote. “Do not put the data in the folder and continue on with the instruction for the entire class on one level. (What about this do you not understand?)”

Critics say Read to Achieve may have good goals, but its implementation is putting damaging pressure on 8-year-olds. “I cannot think of a better way to make a generation hate reading than this,” said Janna Siegel Robertson, an education professor at UNC Wilmington who is a dropout prevention specialist.

Standardized testing has a role as one data point among many, Robertson said, but the constant testing is wrong for young children. “Good teachers always know how their students are doing,” she said. “We’ve done it for years without testing them every week. The most authentic assessment is not a standardized test. The best way for me to know if you can read is to have you read to me.”

Berger said in a statement that he is glad to see Manning’s support for accountability in early reading.

“There is agreement among Senate Republicans and the Leandro court that North Carolina public schools are failing the children covered by this litigation,” Berger said. “I am pleased the court’s report recognizes the need for the accountability and standards provided by programs like Read to Achieve to ensure every child in North Carolina can read. I intend to push for full funding of Read to Achieve in the state budget.”

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