DPI layoffs will hurt North Carolina's poorest students

N.C. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson oversaw the layoffs of 40 employees, forced by budget cuts handed down by the legislature.
N.C. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson oversaw the layoffs of 40 employees, forced by budget cuts handed down by the legislature. N&O file photo

Last week saw the layoffs of 40 employees at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The cuts were a result of ongoing budget reductions by state lawmakers and came after a General Assembly-mandated third party audit of the department was completed this year. Unfortunately, these changes will make it more difficult for DPI to adequately support students and teachers who need it the most.

Twenty-nine of the cuts came within Educator Support Services (ESS). That office was originally part of District and School Transformation (DST), a department created after the Leandro v. North Carolina lawsuit successfully argued that low-wealth, rural districts did not have enough funding to offer a quality education. (The N.C. Supreme Court found that every child in North Carolina has the constitutional right to the "opportunity to receive a sound basic education," and that the obligation to ensure that education ultimately lies with the state.)

A four-year study by Vanderbilt University and N.C. State’s Friday Institute completed in 2015 found that North Carolina’s lowest-achieving schools had improved performance in reading and math as a result of DST services — services which included instructional coaching, professional development and classroom observations. Researchers also concluded that sustaining the improvements would require ongoing support. A year ago, budget cuts led to the loss of a number of DST staff, and that department was merged with another to become ESS.

ESS provides support to the lowest 5 percent of North Carolina’s Title 1 schools in terms of overall performance, using many of the same approaches DST used. The majority of these schools have high minority and high poverty student populations. Many of them are in rural areas where local funds are insufficient to meet schools' needs without additional help from the state. ESS is one of the few DPI departments to give direct assistance to schools, sending instructional coaches into the field on a daily basis to offer professional development for teachers and principals, do classroom observations, and provide feedback and personalized programs to help teachers improve. All 29 of the ESS staff who were fired were providing those services, working every day to support students in North Carolina’s most struggling schools.

Superior Court Judge David Lee this year issued another ruling related to the Leandro case. Responding to the State Board of Education’s request to be dropped from the case, Lee found that in North Carolina there is “an ongoing constitutional violation of every child’s right to receive the opportunity for a sound basic education.” Judge Lee cited the loss of DPI staff dedicated to serving low-performing schools as evidence that the state is not working hard enough to provide the sound basic education called for in the Supreme Court’s decision, concluding that “the court record is replete with evidence that the Leandro right continues to be denied to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina children.”

This most recent round of layoffs moves us even further away from being able to provide a sound education in our most high-need schools. They follow a trend stretching back several years of our General Assembly prioritizing tax cuts over education funding and shrinking the pipeline of highly qualified teacher candidates. Considering the priorities North Carolina’s legislators have displayed in recent years, it may ultimately require an order by the court to mandate funding at the necessary levels to ensure the education our students need.

Parmenter teaches at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. Email: justin.parmenter