Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — The 2012 short session of the General Assembly saw some proposed reforms to the public schools move forward, while others lacked the political support to advance.
Leaders in the Republican-controlled General Assembly suggest that more changes to state public school policy will make headway once lawmakers return to Raleigh next year.
“Ultimately, what we’ve got to be looking at is what’s best for our students and what’s best for our parents,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said of legislative reform efforts.
Part of Berger’s Excellent Public Schools Act became law during the 2012 session. “We got the new reading program in, which is fairly substantial,” Berger said. That reading program seeks to identify children with reading deficiencies and provide them with remedial instruction in kindergarten through third grade. It also requires that youngsters not reading on a third-grade level be retained at the end of the school year, unless a “good-cause exemption” can be demonstrated.
William Harrison, who chairs the State Board of Education, said that he agrees “100 percent that having all children at grade level by the end of third grade is key.” Otherwise, they’re not likely to achieve well in school later on.
Harrison, however, said he’s not all that keen over the retention policy now written into state law. “I’m not sure it’s as simple as we think sometimes,” Harrison said.
He did say he was glad to see the budget put $27 million into providing intervention for youngsters having difficulty reading in early grades.
Berger also touted a new “report card” method for grading schools, assigning each school a letter grade (A, B, C, D, or F) to give parents a better picture on how a school is performing. Berger said the method was geared at providing more transparency for schools.
Harrison, however, said he wondered how much the grading system would reveal since there is a strong correlation between a school’s performance and the economical demographics of the area served by the school.
Another piece of Berger’s proposal that passed would allow school systems to add five instructional days or provide instruction for at least 1,025 hours over nine calendar months.
A couple of Berger’s proposals, ending teacher tenure and providing a merit pay system for teachers, did not make it into law this year.
Brian Lewis, a lobbyist for the N.C. Association of Educators, said he was glad to see lawmakers slow down and take a harder look at those issues before writing them into law.
Lewis said NCAE representatives expressed their concerns about how to measure teacher performance.
“Merit pay sounds really good,” Lewis said. “And there’s probably not one person on this planet that’d be against if one does a great job he should get paid more.”
But simple measurements of teacher performance might be complex, Lewis said, noting that school system demographics vary widely in the state.
The budget bill passed by the General Assembly, which includes the education reform provisions, asks school systems to submit their own plans for a merit pay system. Lewis said that the NCAE plans to submit a plan also.
A proposal by House Majority Leader Skip Stam, R-Wake, to provide a tax credit for businesses that funded school scholarships for lower-income students garnered some support during the 2012 short session, but not enough to get it out of committee and onto the House floor.
Stam said he hopes to revive the issue, or something like it, when lawmakers return for the 2013 session.
Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, backed the tuition tax credit proposal.
“Time ran out,” Allison said. “We think we’ve laid the groundwork for a really strong approach for 2013.”
The bill would have allowed businesses to get tax credits for contributions that they made to scholarship funds for private schools. The scholarships would go to help children who come from families with incomes at or below 225 percent of the poverty level. For a family of four, 225 percent of the poverty level is $51,863.
The maximum scholarship amount would be $4,000 per year.
Stam said that the law would place a limit of $40 million in tax credits during the first year. Businesses would first get prior authorization from the N.C. Department of Revenue before qualifying for the credit.
“It was modeled after about eight other states that have this kind of thing,” Stam said.
Allison said that by and large, the traditional public school model works for most children, but not for all. He said the bill would put measures in place to address academic accountability.
“We don’t just want another choice option,” Allison said. “We want a quality option.”
Rodney Shotwell, superintendent of the Rockingham County Schools, spoke in opposition to the tuition credit when the bill was before committee last month. Shotwell said Tuesday that he isn’t opposed philosophically to the concept of tuition tax credits. He thinks a proposal should be well thought out if it is put in place.
“Whether it’s a Democratic-controlled legislature or a Republican-controlled [legislature], we always feel like we’re the last ones to know,” Shotwell said. “But we’re the ones that are impacted.”
Shotwell said that he understands that “competition is good” in education, he just believes there should be a lot of dialogue on the front end.
Harrison, the state school board chairman, doesn’t agree.
“I just have real, real problems with any tuition tax credit, voucher or tax credit, where we send public dollars to private schools,” Harrison said. “Where’s the accountability if there are public dollars involved?”
Lewis, the NCAE advocate, agrees with Harrison.
“Philosophically, we’re just opposed to vouchers and tax credits,” Lewis said.
Allison, the educational choice advocate, feels optimistic about future prospects of the tax credit bill.
“We think we have momentum,” Allison said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Barry Smith is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.