State Superintendent Catherine Truitt discusses learning loss before congressional committee

By: - July 27, 2023 6:00 am

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt addresses the House Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education. (Screenshot: stream)

State Superintendent Truitt’s office reached out to NC Newsline on Thursday to say that Truitt misspoke in her congressional testimony about the amount of pandemic relief funds the state retains to aid in combating student learning loss. This story has been updated to reflect that the correct figure is $1.5 billion. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt on Wednesday told a U.S. House committee that North Carolina’s school districts have $1.5 million remaining in federal money to help school children recovering from learning loss incurred because of the global pandemic.

Truitt shared that information with the House Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, which is examining the impact of the pandemic on student learning.

Democratic Congressman Robert Scott (D-Virginia) asked Truitt if North Carolina had enough money to continue providing students with summer remedial support and other services they need to catchup academically. Truitt responded, “Yes, sir.”

The congressional hearing was held as House Republicans weigh dramatic cuts to the federal Title I program. Under the Title I, school districts receive funding based on the number of low-income families whose children are enrolled. A proposal earlier this month would cut Title I grants by 80% or nearly $15 billion.

Although the committee hearing was convened to discuss pandemic learning loss, the proposed education spending cuts and Democrats’ and Republicans’ disagreement over them became a prevailing theme throughout the nearly two hour-long session.

Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) asked Truitt whether schools are adequately funded.

Virginia Foxx (Screenshot/Youtube)

U.S. Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (Screenshot/Youtube)

“One argument that we hear frequently from the left is that the federal government must spend more money and yet we see states like North Carolina be remarkably successful with existing resources,” Foxx said. “What do you say to Democrats who claim that learning loss can’t be fixed without billions of dollars in new taxpayer dollars at the federal level?”

Truitt, a Republican, delicately tap danced around the question, choosing to focus on how North Carolina spent its federal relief money.

“The premise of the Office of Learning Recovery that I created in February of 2021 was to ensure that our resources that we were getting from the federal government — that we would be able to be good stewards of that money,” Truitt said. “Ninety percent of that money went straight to districts.”

Federal officials shelled out nearly $122 billion through the American Rescue Plan and Elementary and Secondary Schools and Emergency Relief Fund to help the nation’s schools recover from the pandemic. North Carolina’s share was $3.6 billion.

Progressive lawmakers and organizations in North Carolina have been critical of Truitt’s reluctance to publicly support a state court-ordered remedial plan in the longstanding Leandro case that requires the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years on expansive statewide school improvements.

The Leandro case began nearly three decades ago when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson and Vance counties joined Halifax County in the lawsuit.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

Truitt was invited to Washington to discuss the state’s Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration she created to provide school districts with data and research to guide decision-making as they help children recover from learning loss experienced during the pandemic.

“This was vital because many of our 115 school districts and more than 200 charter schools did not have central office bandwidth or support to take on the massive exercise in planning and compliance with ESSER III” — the Elementary and Secondary Schools Relief Fund, Truitt said.

She told the committee that a report detailing the extent of learning loss in North Carolina helped school districts to better target resources and to prioritize funding for students and regions most affected by the pandemic.

After meeting with Learning Recovery and Acceleration staff, many district leaders implemented summer “bridge academies” to help students transition from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school, Truitt said.

North Carolina paid particular attention to middle school math because it was one of the areas in which students experienced the most learning loss, Truitt said. Many districts created to math “boot camps” to help students catch up, she said.

“Middle grades math suffered the worst in our population study,” Truitt said. “We also invested a lot of money into teacher professional development, and we also stood up a high dosage statewide tutoring effort.”

Truitt noted that the state conducted a population study to determine the academic needs and learning loss of each of the state’s nearly 1.6 million students. That data was used to make recommendations to districts about how to use their federal dollars, she said.

“Kind of taking a scattershot approach and investing in programs that may or may not improve learning outcomes for students, in my opinion, was not an option,” Truitt said.

The state’s efforts are paying off, the superintendent said.

“Our schools and districts have made incredible strides in helping so many of our students get back on track to their pre pandemic performance,” Truitt said. “And while there is more work to be done, we are on the path to recovery.”

The hearing grew contentious at times with Democrats and Republicans refighting the battle over whether schools remained closed too long during the pandemic.

Many conservatives blame learning loss on progressive leaders and teacher unions that lobbied to keep schools closed during the pandemic. Supporters of the closures argue that they were needed to keep students and teachers safe. Education Week documented 1,308 active and retired educator deaths due to the COVID-19 virus.

Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (D-Connecticut) said rehashing the policies about school closures doesn’t help students.

“We don’t need Brookings [Institution] data to tells us that if kids are not in school, they won’t learn. That’s pretty basic, pretty simple,” Hayes said. “But we also know, if they are dead they don’t learn.”

This post has been updated to correct the name of the committee at which Superintendent Truitt testified. 

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.