The most telling words spoken at this week’s meeting of the General Assembly‘s top oversight committee had nothing to do with the pay to play scandal in the McCrory Administration, the ridiculous process used by the UNC Board of Governors to give chancellors big raises, or the shameful pandering by the governor about Syrian refugees.
Instead they came from Senator Bob Rucho during testimony by leaders of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools who were summoned to Raleigh to defend their efforts to lessen the stigmatizing effect of the A-F school grading system created by the General Assembly.
Rucho scolded the officials for their efforts and then explained in no uncertain terms why the grading was developed in the first place.
“What it was always designed to be is to show that the (public school) system has failed and we’re out fixing it,” Rucho said.
It is hard to be any clearer than that. Rucho likes the A-F grading system because he thinks it shows that public schools have failed.
But what it actually shows is where low-income kids go to school. School grades are determined by a formula with test scores counting for 80 percent and growth in scores for only 20 percent.
That means schools that start out far behind, most often schools with high percentages of low-income students, have very little chance of earning a high grade regardless of how much they improve.
That’s why 97 percent of schools that earned a D or F have a majority of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. And it’s also why many advocates on the Right and Left have called for an adjustment in the formula so low-income schools who improve are not stigmatized with a failing grade.
Rucho and the rest of the Senate leadership don’t want to hear that and they refused to consider House proposals this past legislative session to change the formula. Giving schools failing grades appears to be the objective.
They bristled when the officials with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools explained that the sanctions for principals that come with the failing grades undermine efforts to help the students at the low-income schools.
Why would a star principal ever move to a school that was struggling if he or she could be sanctioned if their new school didn’t get a higher letter grade in two years because of a formula that makes the improvement almost impossible?
But that’s not the point, as an exchange between the local officials and Senator Chad Barefoot made clear. Barefoot wanted to know why the local school officials were bumping up some schools by one letter grade based on growth when that would make them ineligible for extra attention under the law.
But as the officials told the committee, the schools do not lose any extra help from the state because there is none available.
There are sanctions and stigmas for D and F schools in the law, not more funding or extra personnel.
Listening to Senate leaders browbeat the school officials made the motivation clear. And so did Rucho’s additional comments that he wants parents to know “exactly what they are getting and then at some point give them an opportunity to choose where they want to educate their child.”
In other words, expand the entirely unaccountable school voucher scheme that diverts public money to private and religious schools, which are not part of the grading system at all. No one knows how well students are performing.
Or lower the bar for academic achievement for charter schools, an effort that is now underway.
And on top of it all, underfund the same traditional public schools that Rucho is so certain are failing. End funding for 7,500 teacher assistants that help kids read, spend $500 less per pupil than in 2008 when adjusted for inflation, and refuse to give most veteran teachers a raise.
That’s what Rucho and his colleagues have done, made it harder for teachers and schools to succeed so they can attack them when they struggle. And a proposal to turn some low-performing schools to over to for-profit charter companies is on the way.
No wonder they are upset with the leaders of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and other education officials across the state who are still working every day to help kids learn and to make our traditional public schools better instead of dismantling them.
Rucho simply can’t stand for that.
Chris Fitzsimon is the Founder and Executive Director of NC Policy Watch.