News: Charlotte Exclusives

Here Comes the Judge

Spending by CMS deserves a close, impartial look

Even as warning shots go, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr.’s blast at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was unusually blunt.

“Your crowd in Mecklenburg better start figuring out some way to get that thing straight,” Manning told a CMS lawyer while announcing his intention to hold hearings in March. The operation of low-performing high schools in urban school districts like Wake and Mecklenburg will be Manning’s focus.

And so the ongoing Leandro public school funding saga enters a new phase. Local educators were buzzing that CMS superintendent Dr. James Pughsley brought Manning down on himself by responding to a critical November memo from Manning with vapid spin rather than serious dialog.

Manning had questioned CMS spending priorities which essentially got a “You don’t understand” from Pughsley. Do that to judge who has spent a decade on school spending issues in North Carolina and don’t be surprised to find yourself in his courtroom for couple weeks.

Manning’s interest in shining some light into the inner workings of CMS is certainly welcome and his motives are clearly positive, to improve the education of at-risk students. But his investigation needs to proceed without presuming the outcome, which right now sounds like a mandate to increase spending at low-performing schools.

In fact, the relevant question is far broader than the question of whether the state or the county should spend more on low-scoring schools in Charlotte because that question embodies several conclusions that are not support by the facts. One, is that we actually know how resources are spent at these schools and two, that those resources somehow trail those of better performing schools.

CMS already routes additional resources to low-performing schools via its Equity Plus program. Schools in the program receive 30 percent more general supplies, more teaching staff, many of whom can claim bonuses for teaching at the schools.

Veteran teachers who have worked in multiple high schools across the county know what all this means. They use words like “amazed” and “flabbergasted” at all the expensive perks already found in low-scoring CMS high schools. Fully stocked libraries and computers in most classrooms and no shortage of basic supplies like paper for the copier, a new one that works.

Given this fact, what can CMS tell Judge Manning about per pupil spending at low-performing schools? That just a little more will make a difference and suddenly get the students up to grade level? Or is it a lot more spending? How would CMS know this? Or would the system have to admit that additional spending at low-performing schools has not closed the achievement gap. What then? Either way CMS has a lot of explaining to do.

CMS officials might try to blame short-comings in outcomes on the various school principals, an ignoble approach that would nonetheless essentially embrace Manning’s criticism of CMS school administration several months after the fact. Principals are, after all, given a great deal of latitude in spending decision for their schools, pick the staff, and set the educational tone.

For this reason Judge Manning needs to be prepared to drill down past CMS system-wide data and look closely at how money is actually spent at the schools he wants to improve. This degree of granularity may not be what the judge would like to do, but there is really no hope of getting a meaningful dialog on the topic of school spending and performance without some reference to actual spending in the classrooms.

And this, finally, might get us to the crux of the matter, which is what goes on in classrooms. Even the most precisely vetted, well-researched, fair and equitable, and constitutional funding formula will not produce the intended results if the classrooms are not the focus of the spending. From there the spending must support an effective instructional program, not the fad-of-the-month and teachers must be well-trained, respected, and safe.

CMS has much to tell Judge Manning on all these fronts. Should school system officials falter, March in Charlotte will have an entirely new kind of madness quite apart from basketball.