By Emily Walkenhorst, WRAL education reporter
N.C. — Could North Carolina soon have more early childhood education programs, more support for college students, and high quality teachers in high-needs classrooms?
A group of North Carolina political and education leaders Monday outlined 16 ways to improve children’s lives that they believe have bipartisan support.
The Hunt-Lee Commission, comprised of 35 leaders across the state, released a report on “consensus opportunities” for improving education.
The Hunt Institute, founded by former Gov. Jim Hunt, partnered with current state Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, and former State Board of Education Chairman and state Sen. Howard Lee to create the commission.
The commission met just four times over the course of the past year while members discussed their priorities, finding common ground and building relationships with one another.
Notably, the commission’s report doesn’t include mentions of equity, school choice nor the long-running Leandro school funding and quality lawsuit. Those topics — often debated among politicians and advocacy groups — weren’t necessarily a part of the mission.
Finding the space where there was less debate was what the Lees in the Hunt-Lee Commission wanted to do. They asked for, and received, the blessing of state executive and legislative branch leadership and included a handful of current lawmakers on the commission.
That sets up the potential for progress over partisanship, Howard Lee said.
“I’m thinking because of the committee’s work and the environment… it created through its work, that many of the barriers that we would expect to pop up won’t pop up moving forward.”
The commission’s report focuses largely on problems to solve and recommends some ways to solve them.
The commission’s report also recommends many changes to try, versus recommending permanent changes to implement.
The report makes no mention of the Leandro lawsuit, in which courts found the state was not providing a sound, basic education to North Carolina schoolchildren.
Many of the goals and programs laid out in the court case’s comprehensive remedial plan are similar to those in the Hunt-Lee Commission’s report, though the comprehensive remedial plan calls for permanent solutions.
Many of the comprehensive remedial plan items have been non-starters in the General Assembly, which showed more agreed-upon favor to salary increases than most items in the plan.
What’s in the report
The Hunt-Lee report calls for 16 solutions:
- 5 focus on expanding services for newborn children through pre-kindergarten, including paying early childhood educators more
- 4 are centered on higher education, namely making it more affordable for more students
- 3 concern educators, including recruitment, quality and leadership
- 2 are related to student needs: Giving schools more flexibility to decide how best to serve their students and helping students transition more smoothly from middle school to high school
- 1 suggests expanding use of data and analysis
- 1 urges the state to simplify its finance model to be easier to understand and easier for policymakers to work with
The report also includes recommendations for certain pilot programs.
For example, the commission emphasizes pilot programs in early childhood education need to focus on compensation and benefits, as child care teachers earn an average of only $10.62 per hour. In the same vein, pilot efforts to expand early childhood offerings should look at increasing the subsidy rate for infant and toddler slots to make expansion more feasible.
In some instances, the report notes the state is already doing some things well but in a limited capacity.
For example, NC Pre-K has shown success, the commission wrote, but most eligible students can’t participate in it because of a lack of available seats. Reimbursement rates to providers are insufficient, and leaders should increase them, the report states.
Lawmakers included some expanded early childhood subsidies and a 2% increase to the reimbursement rate for NC Pre-K in the new state budget, though below what many had been asking for. The budget did not include raises for early childhood educators.
State Board of Education Chairman Eric Davis called the report the “initial report,” as opposed to the “final report,” billed by the Hunt-Lee Commission.
Davis is both a member of the commission and a member of the state board that has signed onto the comprehensive remedial plan in the Leandro lawsuit, commonly referred to as the Leandro Plan.
After the news conference Monday, Davis said the state needs to focus on other things not in the commission’s report, too, like increasing support services for students struggling with their mental health.
That’s called for in the Leandro Plan and has had some recent backing from lawmakers.
The commission didn’t tackle every topic, but commissioners now know one another well enough to call one one another when they need help on a new issue, Michael Lee said.
“We didn’t come into it trying to boil the ocean,” Michael Lee said. “We came into it with certain topics and parameters that we felt like we could move the ball forward in a relatively short period of time, gain consensus, build relationships and then continue to move forward in these discussion.”
Davis sees his next step as taking the commission’s report to the State Board and asking board members what they should act on first.
Much of what’s in the plan would require General Assembly approval, but not all of it.
Davis said the executive branch can work with school districts to help them understand the flexibility they already have to make changes to how they serve their students.
School system leaders have often asking for more flexibility in deciding how to spend their state funds but have cited the state’s funding system as a barrier; the state uses allotments that earmark funds for only certain uses.
But more flexibility, such implementing reform models to improve student outcomes, are only a legal option for schools that are low-performing. Davis said he’d like to see that change.