Since 2001, Winston-Salem/Forsyth Schools has been building and renovating schools for much less money than other school districts in North Carolina. Their secret? Core principles emphasizing building smaller and more efficient schools, resisting pressure to add or change building features, and holding down costs without compromising quality. Other school districts should adopt these principles, combined with alternative approaches to financing and building schools, to minimize their dependence on large bond issues, maximize state and local revenue, and keep taxes low.
As the law is currently written, the education lottery will do little to fund the most critical needs of North Carolina’s students. Too much of the revenue will be used for unproven class-size reduction efforts and pre-kindergarten programs. Too little of the lottery revenue will be given to school districts and charter schools that have critical school facilities needs. The General Assembly can maximize the educational benefit of the lottery revenue by distributing more funds for capital expenditures to high-growth school districts and to charter schools.
In November, the State Board of Education released the final report of the High Priority Schools Initiative, a four-year, $23 million class-size reduction program targeting low-performing and low-income elementary schools. The report offered no statistical evidence that smaller class sizes raised student achievement. Between the first and final year of the program, fewer schools met their state ABC growth targets and even fewer made Adequate Yearly Progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Reduced class sizes failed to significantly increase student performance on state reading assessments. In the future, legislators and policymakers should not fund class-size initiatives because of their expediency or popularity but because they produce measurable gains in student achievement.
Governor Easley announced that North Carolina will raise its average teacher salary to the national average in three years. Adjusted for cost of living, pension contribution, and teacher experience, however, the state’s average teacher salary ranks 11th in the nation and is about $1,600 above the national average. There is no evidence to support the governor’s contention that a higher average salary will aid in recruiting and retaining a high-quality teacher workforce or will make students more competitive in the global economy. A system of merit-based pay would provide an incentive for highly qualified individuals to enter and stay in the teaching profession.
Like other states, North Carolina maintains a system of certification and licensing for public school teachers. Proponents of the system argue that certification standards will separate good teachers from poor ones, but there is no evidence that these standards determine teacher quality. A state-by-state comparison of teacher certification and student performance on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics exam shows that certification standards and teacher testing did not improve test scores. Schools should be able to recruit and retain talented teachers whether they are certified or not.
Multi-million dollar bond referendums and tax increases will not repair the damage done by years of inadequate school facilities planning. With construction and labor costs rising, massive school building programs, such as the one proposed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), will exert a crippling tax burden on local communities.
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