RALEIGH — With a semester nearly under their belts, N.C.’s education leadership is taking time to recognize National Education Week. Gov. Roy Cooper issued a declaration Monday and dispatched some of his leadership team to public schools for a visit.
“We know we need to do more to support public education in North Carolina,” said Cooper. “That starts with highlighting the work being done in our schools and learning about the challenges our students and teachers face. I’m so grateful to our parents, teachers and school support personnel for all they do to educate young people.”
Among the visits this week, the state’s Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland went to Neal Magnet Middle School in Durham, the governor’s budget director Charlie Perusse went to Havelock High School, and Highway Patrol Commander Col. Glenn McNeill visited Reedy Creek Middle School in Cary. Cooper visited Washington Elementary School in Raleigh. All the schools that welcomed a member of Cooper’s team were traditional public schools, and no public charters.
Also notably absent from the governor’s list was the Superintendent of Public Schools, Mark Johnson. Johnson defeated three-term incumbent June Atkinson, a Democrat, for the position last year. Since taking office Johnson has visited traditional public schools and public charter schools.
This isn’t the first time that Cooper’s critics have pointed out a snub at public charters, despite having said during the campaign that “carefully selected charters can bring innovations.” He appointed 25 members to his Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee in August. The members of the committee all teach or work in N.C.’s public schools. The only member not from a public school is the president of the teacher’s union, the N.C. Association of Educators, Mark Jewell.
There are no representatives on the governor’s advisory committee who come from public charter schools.
“That was disappointing,” said Tony Helton, a former member of the state’s Charter School Advisory Board. “Charter schools represent 10 percent of our students, maybe a bit more. I’d think it would be important to have on that board someone who had taught in a charter school.”
The legislature lifted the cap on charter schools last year. Since then, the number has nearly doubled to 173 public charters serving approximately 90,000 N.C. families. Part of the challenge in that growth has been to determine an oversight process and try to change some perceptions on the role of charter schools. Currently, public charters get a smaller percentage of the per pupil allotment of funds that public schools get. They also are allowed more flexibility to use new teaching techniques, different schedules and other ways of customizing the schools for their students.
“There are so many public school teachers and public charter school teachers who are working really hard with our kids,” said Helton. “All this sniping and fighting isn’t doing anyone any good. Charter schools are here to stay; they aren’t going to take over the public school system, they are just a viable option that parents want.”
The charter/traditional public school debate isn’t the only challenge facing Johnson in his first year. The Scholastic North Carolina Teacher & Principal School Report found that 83 percent of North Carolina teachers report having students in their classrooms who are coming to school hungry. The national average was 75 percent.
Johnson and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spent part of this week focused on the growing challenge of hunger and its relationship to academic success. In a series of four meetings across the state, Johnson and the N.C. School Nutrition Services met with nonprofits and community leaders to promote the system’s Summer Nutrition Programs for children. Sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and administered by DPI, the program provides funding for meals and snacks to kids during their summer vacation.
According to DPI, during 2016, nearly 1 million children in N.C. were eligible to receive free summer meals but fewer than 16 percent of those children received them through the program. DPI is trying to expand awareness of the program so more organizations will bring it to their communities this summer. There were almost 3,000 meal sites in 2017, but DPI says more are needed to fill the need.
“For families who count on school breakfast and lunch, the summer months can be stressful and a time of hunger,” said Dr. Lynn Harvey, School Nutrition Services section chief at DPI. “During the summer, children and teens also can experience learning loss and a lack of physical activity. Connecting them to food and fun through the Summer Nutrition Programs will help fill these gaps.”
DPI also announced this week that four grants totaling $30 million from the new Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund will be awarded to Camden, Clay, Gates and Jones counties. The grant awards go for school building improvements.
“Through these grants, we will begin to address the critical school infrastructure needs in less populated parts of our state through projects that will begin construction within 12 months,” said Johnson. “Students in outdated — and in some cases, unsafe — buildings will benefit soon from these new facilities.”