Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — While Republican Senate leader Phil Berger introduced a comprehensive education reform package at the opening of this year’s short legislative session, his GOP House colleagues are offering more limited, targeted changes in school policy.
It’s unclear what, if anything, could survive a vote in both houses and a possible veto by Gov. Bev Perdue. And under pressure from state education officials, Berger’s initial proposal is continuing to evolve.
Berger, from Rockingham County, rolled out his Excellent Public Schools Act in late April. It includes prickly issues such as eliminating all teacher tenure, establishing a teacher bonus and merit pay system, and issuing an A-F report card to schools.
Enhancing literacy, extending and funding the school year five days, creating a Teacher Corps Program modeled on Teach for America, curtailing social promotions, and allowing state employees to volunteer five hours monthly in public school literacy programs are included.
“In order to fix our state’s broken education system, we must stop constantly reaching for our checkbook and focus on reforming our playbook,” Berger said on the Senate Republican Caucus website. “If bigger budgets could buy positive results, then North Carolina’s achievement scores and graduation rates would have improved years ago.”
North Carolina’s graduation rates are at an all-time high at 78 percent, and the dropout rate has declined four consecutive years, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said.
“We are in the middle of remodeling public education, and I think that some of the work we are doing with Race to the Top will really be a game changer when it comes to public education outcomes,” Atkinson said of the federal initiative to spark innovation and reform in K-12 education.
“This is going to be an interesting session” for education policy, in part because temporary federal edu-jobs money is ending, said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.
Some 5,400 teachers were paid with that money. Berger’s bill does not fund the shortfall. Perdue’s budget would impose a three-quarter-cent sales tax to make up that gap and cover separate discretionary education cuts of $74 million, which are in addition to a $429 million reduction this year.
The House budget could eliminate funding the additional five days. In addition, House Majority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, launched a proposal allowing a tax credit for corporations that funded scholarships for students who wanted to move from public schools to private or home schools.
Aside from those provisions, “the House doesn’t have much of a plan for public schools,” Stoops said.
“It suggests that the House is waiting for 2013 to unveil some large-scale education reform effort ... with the hope that there will be a Gov. [Pat] McCrory in the governor’s mansion,” he said.
“You don’t have to have bills in both houses to move things,” Stam said. “If [Berger] passes his, we’ve got all of that ... to consider.”
“My guess,” Stoops said, “is the bill that was filed by the Senate probably won’t get passed in the short session” for lack of time to go through the committee process.
“I think their merit pay plan is a good one because right now there is no one merit pay system that has been proven to be wildly successful,” Stoops said. It makes sense to allow individual school districts to set it up.
Ending tenure “makes it easier for school systems to remove poorly performing teachers from the classroom,” Stoops said. Performance pay allows schools to reward high-performing teachers, who don’t need tenure. Poor teachers are protected by tenure, Stoops said.
“There’s going to be staunch resistance to this from the North Carolina Association of Educators and other groups,” he said.
That pressure may have led to some changes May 29, when the bill went to the Senate Education Committee. The big one: Berger modified the tenure provision, allowing school systems to give teachers with at least three years’ experience renewable contracts of up to four years. Additional changes may be made.
Altering the tenure provision is more in line with concerns Atkinson expressed to Carolina Journal when Berger introduced the proposal. If the intent of the legislation is to get rid of underperforming teachers, she said, lawmakers should streamline existing policy while preserving due process. Extending contracts to four or five years “would certainly be something to consider.”
The North Carolina School Board Association’s Leanne Winner says the association supports ending tenure for future teachers, but retaining tenure for those who have attained it or are on track to obtain it. It advocates longer contracts to avoid costs and the work load of one-year contracts.
Atkinson is skeptical of the merit pay component. “I have yet to see a merit pay system in the United States work,” she said. “Now, my mind is open to our being able to reward teachers who are doing a better job and award schools doing a better job.”
But not all teachers have end-of-grade tests. Some teach in more difficult subject areas. Some co-instruct across curriculums for special projects or tackle additional duties such as mentoring younger colleagues, and others teach in troubled schools. Atkinson questioned how such divergent circumstances could be considered fairly in a merit pay setting.
NCSBA supports performance pay but believes it would be best left to individual school boards’ discretion and to phase it in with pilot projects rather than launch it in all 115 school districts.
Dan Way is a contributor to Carolina Journal.