Keeping Up with the Kindergartners

In Feature Stories, November 2016 by Mandy HowardLeave a Comment

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Growth may be stretching school budgets but it’s also offering more educational approaches

Every single day in Wake County, the equivalent of a kindergarten classroom of kids is born. Add this to the continued influx of newcomers attracted to our vibrant professional, cultural and economic scene, and you have the makings of a thriving city. We’re always proud to see Raleigh at the top of so many lists, including best places to live and best places to raise a family; however, growth brings predicaments like traffic, construction and keeping up with the expanding student population.

Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) is already the largest school district in the state and the 16th largest in the nation. Our student population has grown from 114,000 in 2004 to 155,000 in 2015, a 36 percent increase in ten years.

Can Wake County Public Schools afford this growth?

This flood of new families and students requires WCPSS to grow in a way that is unprecedented. New schools, more teachers, more support staff and supplies, transportation, technology and educational materials will be critical in very short order; all of these things take funding.

Despite the recent political climate, 30-second sound bites and blame games to which we are accustomed, everyone who has ever handled a budget knows that there are complicated realities. When you are combining state, local and federal funds to support one of the largest and fastest growing educational systems in the nation, those complexities turn creating and keeping a budget into a science.

Wake County School Board Member, Christine Kushner highlights the budget constraints under which Wake County currently operates: “In the last 10 to 15 years while our population has grown, our budget is strapped,” she says. She illustrates cuts that WCPSS has had to make by sympathizing with her friend who teaches kindergarten and loses her assistant at 10:30 a.m., just a little over an hour after the day begins. “A classroom of over 20 kids with all different skill levels now has no assistant teacher in the classroom during the day,” Kushner laments. 

Cuts have also been felt in transportation, leading to some buses doubling up routes and forcing kids to wait, sometimes hours, before they can get home after school.

Teacher recruitment is another funding issue that requires attention. North Carolina has improved from the 42nd to 41st state in the nation in average teacher pay. With the constant recruitment of new teachers at entry-level salary position and the reality of cost-of-living differences between North Carolina and other states, that statistic may be a hard one to move much further. Low pay and the repetition of that statistic, without any context, will make it difficult to recruit good teachers.

Another statistic that deserves attention is the per-pupil expenditure, or PPE. Currently, North Carolina is 47th in the country in per-pupil spending.  “We are at the bottom in the nation for per-pupil spending. The taxpayers are getting a lot of value for their dollars, but the budget is getting strained,” Kushner says.

Currently our PPE is $8,227 per student. This number combines local, state and federal funding. It is, in part, the state and federal funds that drive our average down among North Carolina counties. Wake County is too big and wealthy to qualify for designated funds such as ‘small county’ and ‘low wealth’ state supplemental funding.

Also, according to Dr. Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation, “It (PPE) does not take into account capital expenditures and debt service payments made by county commissions on behalf of the school district. In a county such as Wake, these are critical parts of the equation.”

Federal allotments are also affected by our local economic success. Because our average income is higher in Wake County than in other counties, we don’t qualify for many of the need-based funding. 

“Federal funding must be used for food service, special needs studentsand low-income students. Wake receives comparatively little funding because it is a relatively affluent county that has a strong tax base and thus a relatively high local contribution,” Stoops says. 

In short, the federal and state funding allotments for Wake County are smaller than for our neighboring counties because of our growth and success; this factor, in part, drives down our PPE average.

If funding is tight, how are we affording all these new schools?

With continued growth in mind, Wake County voters approved a $970 million bond in 2006. That bond outlined the plans to construct 17 new schools, provide extensive renovation of 13 existing schools, purchase land for 13 future schools, and provide for upgrades throughout the district.

Also, the state lottery was approved specifically to help fund school facilities. However, Kushner notes, it does not make as big an impact as many people think. “The [lottery] funding goes to the county because our capital dollars come from county dollars. It ranges from $6 to $20 million a year, which is not enough to build one half of an elementary school. So, in Wake County, lottery dollars are typically used to pay down interest on our capital debt,” says Kushner.

Though growth creates obvious funding hurdles, Kushner insists there are positive indicators.

“Growth is a better problem to have than contraction. A lot of our rural communities are facing [contraction of schools] and that’s a far more difficult problem. We’re not built out. There’s still a good amount of land and new developments so we’re going to continue to have growth, and growth makes a community dynamic and does great things for the economy.”

In June, the Wake County Board of Commissioners approved a 1.35-cent property tax increase. Despite the relatively small increase, (the average home value of $268,600 will have a $36 increase) this will generate nearly $18.8 million in new revenue for the county. Seventy Percent of all Wake County citizens do not have students in the public school system so growth will ultimately lead to increased tax revenue and more funds that the County Commission has available to distribute to the operating budget.

For the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the county budget granted $12 million less to the Wake County School Systems than it asked for; however, it did approve a request to fund a $1.98 billion, seven-year plan that includes building new schools and making major renovations. They are moving forward immediately with a plan to use both limited-obligation bonds, which don’t require a ballot vote, and general-obligation bonds which taxpayers will likely see on the May 2018 ballot.

A Product That Benefits Everyone 

Whenever a bond is up for a vote, the school board becomes even more keenly aware of that 70 percent that do not have children in public schools. They need to make sure that voters will approve measures to fund schools that they may never directly utilize.

Because of this issue, in addition to the apex goal of providing the best education to Wake County Children, school board officials want to make sure voters know that Wake County Schools are a great investment for everyone.

“We may not be educating your child, but we may be educating your next doctor, nurse, plumber or electrician!” says Kushner.

It is paramount for school officials to show voters that WCPSS is a good product and a good investment. Part of proving a product’s worth is showing that it can beat the competition. Home schools, private schools and, most notably, charter schools are vying to be the school choice for local parents and has created opportunities for WCPSS to grow and challenge itself to be better every year.

Between astronomical growth, funding woes and increased competition, it’s easy to focus on the obstacles that face Wake County Schools; but Christine Kushner wants parents of school-age children to know that this is truly the most exciting time for Wake County Public Schools.

“We are changing the culture, away from standardized testing and toward hands-on projects-based learning. We have a strategic plan and an academic vision that’s working together to bring energy and teacher agency and student agency into the classroom. I believe [assignment and competition complications] will take care of itself if we can have consistently fantastic learning environments where teachers and students are excited about coming to school,” says Kushner. 


Growth Promotes Competition

As our population increases, the demand for choices in education increases as well. Enrollment in private schools, home schools and, most notably, charter schools have significantly increased.

Public schools’ most direct competition is the charter school system, which has had a 42 percent increase in enrollment in Wake County over the last two years. “As with any product, competition promotes growth. As the education landscape has changed with the increase in charter schools, magnet schools have also had to add new programming to stay competitive,” says Tamani Anderson Powell, Marketing and Communications Director for the Office of Magnet and Curriculum Enhancement Programs.

The Wake County magnet system recently partnered with Clean Design, a Raleigh branding and advertising agency, to reinvigorate programming and rebrand their product. “They were great at helping us take a look at our own product in a different way,” Powell says.

A large part of that ‘rebranding’ involved rethinking how they communicate the extensive varieties of programs they offer to their target market through their website and media. “Since we target mostly pre-school families, we considered those ‘millennial’ parents who are drawn to our product. We are targeting families who want a diverse setting in preparation for a diverse world,” Powell says.

In addition to magnet and charter choices, Wake County boasts an incredible variety of private schools as well as the largest number of approved home schools in the state.

Private Schools

The private school umbrella, according to the North Carolina Department of Non-Public Education, encompasses anything that in not a public school or a home school.

Wake County has 79 private schools, which educate approximately 16,000 students. Nearly 50 percent of those schools are considered religiously affiliated.

The oldest and most well known private school in Raleigh is Ravenscroft. Originally opened in 1862, Ravenscroft boasts a 125-acre campus in North Raleigh and educates over 1,100 students in grades pre-kindergarten through high school.

The fastest growing private school in Wake is Thales Academy. Founded by Robert Luddy, this independent institution has grown from 30 students in 2007 in an office-style setting to over 2,100 students in six locations around Wake County.

With the increase in Catholics coming to Raleigh from around the country, the Raleigh Diocese Catholic School System educates close to 5,400 students in Wake County and over 9,000 throughout the diocese.

Despite the tuition (on average private schools in Wake County cost $6,000 and $14,000 a year for grade schools and high schools, respectively,) parents continue to find reasons to open their wallets and choose private school. The most common reasons include the desire for religious education and to gain access to more diverse and challenging educational opportunities.

Charter Schools

Though officially public schools that use state and local tax dollars for primary funding, charter schools operate very differently than schools under the WCPSS umbrella. Each charter school must be authorized by the State Board of Education; and they are each governed by an independent non-profit board of directors.

Like public schools, charter schools have open enrollment and cannot discriminate in admissions, associate with any religion or religious group or charge tuition.

There are currently 20 charter schools in Wake County; six of those have been opened in the last three years. The Republican led North Carolina legislature plays a large role in the expansion of the charter school system. In 2011, they lifted the 100 school cap for charter schools, which allowed for new schools to be opened; a trend that can be vexing for traditional public school proponents.

As Dr. Terry Stoops from the John Locke Foundation states: “It’s competition, after all, and the district would like as little of that as possible. While a portion of local and state funding will go to the charter school, rather than the district, the student also goes. Depending on the school and the demographics of their enrollment, it can be a net gain or a net loss for the district [funding-wise.]”

Also, traditional public school advocates point out that though charter schools can’t officially discriminate, they also do not have to accommodate all students the way traditional public school must. For example, they do not need to provide transportation, and may not provide hot lunches, which makes this option not possible for those in the community with greater need.

Advocates for Charter Schools punctuate their support by pointing to the reasons that charter schools were approved in first place: encouraging the use of different and innovative teaching methods, creating new professional opportunities for teachers including the opportunity to be fully responsible for the learning program at the school site and, most importantly, provide parents and students with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available.

Magnet Schools

The Magnet System objectives are to reduce high concentrations of poverty, promote diverse populations, maximize use of school facilities, and provide innovative and/or expanded educational opportunities.

Magnet Schools help WCPSS fulfill both the utilization and student achievement goals in its four pillars of student achievement (sidebar) by having parents voluntarily move children to schools with concentrated programming, such as creative arts and science, engineering and world languages. Most often, these magnet schools function to draw high performing students to underpopulated schools.

According to Powell, the system has succeeded. “Magnet schools have kept our downtown schools wonderfully diverse and full,” she says.

Parents can attend Magnet School Fairs in the fall or learn about the close to 50 different magnet options in elementary, middle and high school in Wake County on the WCPSS website. If parents find a field such as science and math or foreign languages that appeals to them, they can apply to that magnet choice.

Selection for placement in magnet schools is determined by many factors. Your base school, the demographics and achievement statistics of your base as well as the magnet and how many seats are available. Some magnet schools, such as the leadership academies and early college high schools require additional applications to determine placement.

Unlike charter schools, once you get into a magnet school, that is your school. When they assign your child to the magnet, they simultaneously give that seat at your base school to another child. At the time of a natural school transition, such as from grade school to middle school or middle school to high school, a parent can choose to stay on their magnet path or go back to the base as decided by their address. 

Home Schools

You’ll often hear homeschoolers refer to their educational choice as a ‘movement.’ That may be because for so long ‘home school’ was relegated to the outskirts of society, and homeschooled kids were often archetypal tropes in television and movies as weird nerds or religious ‘nuts.’ But despite the stereotypes, this school choice has continued to grow.   

According to North Carolinians for Home Education, the rate of growth in the United States is 8 percent a year. In North Carolina, homeschooling has grown at an annual compound rate of 16 percent in the last three decades. In the 2015-2016 school year, North Carolina recognized nearly 7,000 home schools in Wake County, which is the most in the state. 

As numbers increase, so do resources. Homeschoolers in Wake County have the choice of nearly 50 recognized groups that they can join to do field trips, share educational materials and promote discussion amongst students.

Though the most commonly cited reason for homeschooling still trends toward religious reasons, parents are finding that they can educate their children more efficiently at home while integrating both family togetherness and more time for extracurricular activities that interest the child.

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