Improve Education

Ray Russell’s Statement on Education in North Carolina

Thank you teachers and principals! You have always been the life-blood of our communities. During the last 10 years, you have been our last line of defense for our children. We all know that it’s not just your skills but it’s your passion for children that makes our families, communities, and state better. We love our teachers!

I am honored to be endorsed by the NCAE. Educating young people well has been a life-long passion for Rhonda and me. Rhonda was an early childhood educator in Avery and Watauga Counties for 20 years. She is currently a Senior Lecturer at App State in the Department of Family and Child Studies. I have been a professor in Computer Science at App State for 27 years. Before coming to Appalachian State, I had 10 years of university teaching experience. We are proud to serve in North Carolina schools North Carolina has a tradition of excellence in education.

Not only have we served in public education in North Carolina, we have benefited from it. Our daughters both graduated from Watauga High School. Leah, our oldest, graduated from Appalachian State and went on to earn a Master’s Degree from East Carolina. Rhonda has a Master’s degree from App State.

All of us know that the benefits of a strong education system are not limited to our own families. We need an education system that values children regardless their family’s social and economic background. A good education is a right and a necessity for EVERY child in North Carolina. This right is guaranteed in our North Carolina Constitution.

A state truly seeking the best education for all citizens starts at birth. A recent economic study showed that for every $1 spent on high quality early childhood education the economy gets $7 in return. It’s well-known that birth through age 4 is critical for brain development. Rhonda is on the board for the Watauga Children’s Council—what a dedicated group of professionals dedicated to the success of children and families across our region.

Excellent schools are an economic driver for the state. A well-educated population is a must for new employers considering expansion into North Carolina and crucial for entrepreneurial efforts that drive innovation from within the state. Our Community Colleges and Universities stand on the frontline for economic expansion.

The ultimate goal of education is informed citizens who are healthy in mind and body living morally, creatively, and productively so that individually and collectively we are successful and fully engaged in “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Toward that goal, our young people deserve schools that are adequately funded and excellent teachers who are supported and valued. We must encourage best practices in our classrooms and seek innovation to prepare students for a changing and challenging future.

As your representative in Raleigh, I will address the issues in North Carolina’s educational system with innovative and caring approaches:

1) Early childhood education is essential.

As soon as my opponent landed in Raleigh, he slashed funding to the Smart Start program. Not only was Smart Start cut but the Republican’s failure to expand Medicaid has left hundreds of thousands of children without healthcare. Last year, the Federal Government in a rare stroke of good legislation funded expansion of early childhood education through block grants to states. The $50 million North Carolina received would have provided resources so that every child in the state would have access to High Quality Early Childhood Education. However, in a slight-of-hand move, the legislature shifted state money away from early childhood education, defying the intent of the Federal Block Grant and left thousands of children without the services they need. In essence, the $50 million intended for poor children was diverted to tax cuts for the wealthy.

I will do everything in my power to restore funding to the Smart Start program and provide care for all children in North Carolina.

2) Budget cuts have hurt our schools and our children.

The lodestar in comparing state’s investments in education is “Per Student Spending”. By that standard, NC ranks 39th in the country, behind Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, and South Carolina.

In the past 10 years, per student spending adjusted for inflation has been cut 8%. That’s a loss of $820 per student. Projected across the 93rd District (about 6750 students), we are losing $5.5 million per year. This is money that could be paying for teachers, teacher assistants, technology, building maintenance, supplies, nurses, councilors, and resource officers.

In 2016, NC DPI reported that the backlog of school constructions projects had reached $8.1 Billion, yes that’s a “B”.

Last summer, a proposal for a bond referendum to raise $1.9 Billion for school construction was squashed by Republicans in spite of a poll that showed 66% of North Carolinians favored the proposal.

In a recent mailer from my opponent, he took credit finding $241 million for school facilities. My question is, “Where’s the other $7.9 Billion?!”

Adequate funding is crucial to improving schools.  No longer will Republicans in Raleigh siphon away money from our children to line the pockets of the rich.

3) Budget cuts have hurt our teachers.

Teacher pay in North Carolina is currently 37th in the country, behind every one of our neighboring states. Average teacher pay from 2008 to 2018 adjusted for inflation has fallen $5684; that’s a loss of 12% in buying power.

Experienced teachers are being hurt the most. Teacher pay maxes out after 15 years; beyond that, teachers can expect no additional pay beyond small yearly increases that do not keep up with the pace of inflation.

Starting in 2020, new teachers will not receive health care once they retire.

New hires no longer get pay increases for Masters or Doctorate degrees because of a NC law passed in 2013.

Cutting the Teaching Fellows program in 2011 was a disaster. Almost 11,000 students participated, and more than 8,500 graduated and taught in schools in all 100 counties. Almost 80 percent of them stayed in the classroom after their four-year commitment was over, and almost two-thirds were still teaching six years later. By the way, Gov. Jim Martin started that program, a Republican!
Current Republicans will tell you that the program is back, but it’s only a shell of what existed serving only 160 students in NC.

I will do everything I can to support our teachers by reversing these destructive and demoralizing decisions.

Step one for all these problems will be to restore funding back to pre-recession levels.

4) Educational assessments must be fair and thoughtful.

Ask any teacher and they’ll tell you the spending cuts are bad, but assessment and the school evaluation process are worse and out of control. While I am not against assessment per se, I am FOR assessment that is valid, reliable, fair, sustainable, and used to improve our schools (not punish teachers and students). As one school leader said to me, “I want to be held accountable, but give me the resources to do the job and evaluate me fairly.”

For example, a third grade reading teacher gets a “bonus” if their student’s test results rank in the top 25% of the state. What about the Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade teacher who got those kids ready for 3rd grade? What about the Reading Specialist who worked with the kids who were below grade level and gave them the help they needed to catch up? What about the Exceptional Children Teacher who worked with families and children to overcome special needs to get them ready for the test?  It’s a failed system based on a failed model of how to make schools better. We must change it!

Not only are teachers evaluated unfairly, whole schools are given a single letter grade based on student competency on tests and growth over a year. This divides schools within a district and paints an artificial picture to the public about how any single school is functioning.

My wife recently spoke to an early childhood educator, a graduate of Appalachian State. After just four years of teaching, she decided to change careers. My wife asked her, “was it the money?” Here’s what the teacher said:

“Not at all. It was working in a Title 1 school where the district and state were more concerned with test scores than whether my kids had food when they left school or a stable environment to live in. This became extremely frustrating quickly. Everyone was just concerned about numbers, not the students. I understand that meeting growth is important, but I think meeting their needs and shaping a whole child is more important. The school system doesn’t feel the same way.”

Teachers are on the front lines and know the decisions in Raleigh are hurting children. The entire system of testing and evaluation of teachers and schools must be reformed, rethought from the ground up where teachers and principals are in the conversation, not just a bunch of bureaucrats sitting in an office in Raleigh.

5) Public funds should support better public education.

The funding of private schools through vouchers paid for by NC tax payers is another serious issue in NC education. Unlike all public schools in NC, private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools for their curriculum and accountability. In 2013, my opponent voted to approve the NC Opportunity Scholarship Program which provides private school vouchers. In 2015, he doubled down on this bad idea by raising the amount the state would set aside for this program to over a billion dollars. But the story is worse than that, because a disproportionate amount of this money is going to wealthy private schools in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Durham. But wait, it’s worse than that; the state continues to certify two online charter schools with provably abysmal results.

When I arrive in Raleigh, I will ensure that public money goes to public schools for quality public education for all, not just the elite.

6) Children that feel safe perform better.

School safety has become a crucial topic for North Carolina Schools. We already have a team of dedicated individuals working tirelessly to keep our children safe, but we must do more. We must address both root causes and strengthen the last line of defense. We need more school psychologists, nurses, and resource officers. Every school must redouble their efforts to make sure the school buildings are as safe as possible.

7) Innovative education creates innovative students.

One innovative and successful program has been Cooperative Innovative High Schools. These schools allow students to simultaneously work toward a high school diploma and an associate’s degree earning credits that are transferrable to universities. Innovative High Schools have been seriously undermined by the legislative choices since the Republicans took control of the North Carolina House and Senate.  The program has been successful in increasing high school graduation across the state. However, in 2017, Republican legislators slashed funding for these projects. Kudos to the administrators who kept these programs going in spite of the legislature.

I will support fully funding all of these cooperative Innovative High Schools.

8) Our children’s future success isn’t based on a lottery.

The North Carolina Education Lottery was originally touted as a way to increase funding for schools, it is now a part of a shell game played in the back rooms of the legislature. They divert state funding previously used for education to other projects and in the process schools keep getting less and less.

Under my watch, lottery money will supplement school funding, not replace it.

9) Community colleges are vital to healthy communities.

Funding for our community colleges has been cut by roughly 17% since 2008. Community college administrators can’t pay their instructors fair wages and can’t buy the equipment they need for 21st century job training. I have talked with dozens of business leaders in the past 6 months. At the end of each conversation, I ask, “What is the biggest challenge you have that keeps you from growing your business?” 80% answered “the shortage of skilled labor”. Our Communities colleges could be the engines of economic development in rural NC. North Carolina must invest in job skills through the community college system.

As your representative I will champion a Trade Skill Triangle in Western NC mirroring the Research Triangle in the East to focus on job training and economic development in Rural NC.

Just this month, we received a sad but predictable result after years of short-changing children and their teachers. Outcomes from NC Schools were released September 5th:

  • The state’s 12-year streak of rising high school graduation rates has ended.
  • Fewer North Carolina public school students passed state exams.
  • This decline in test results has accelerated over time for students in third grade I mention earlier.

For NC to once again be a state that leads in education, we need a change in Raleigh. We need legislators who understand the value of education for all and the realities our students and teachers are facing in currently underfunded schools. As an educator myself, and as a husband of an educator, I do understand the issues we face in NC schools. In the North Carolina House, I will always vote for our children’s education by supporting their teachers and properly funding their schools.

Budgets are statements of values and morality. If we value, something we fund it. The last 8 years have been a “trail of tears” for children, teachers, and our schools. Under the thin disguise of “reinventing education” they are slowly starving education. The Republican Supermajority will say, “You’re going to break the budget!”. I tell you, the question is NOT “What does a great education cost?” The question is “What is the cost of NOT having a great education system?”

We must Break the Supermajority before they Break North Carolina. With your support, I will take my passion for educating all of our children to Raleigh and push relentlessly to make that happen. And because of your support, we’ll reverse these trends and instead…

I predict a bright future for Ashe and Watauga County Children and their Teachers.