While teacher pay raises headlined education issues during North Carolina’s 2016-17 legislative session, several other key policy changes were packed into the K-12 agenda, including measures that will provide performance-based bonuses for top educators across the state.
In addition to raising teacher pay by an average of 4.7 percent — boosting average annual salaries to $50,186 by next year, and to nearly $55,000 within the next three years — legislators included in the state’s $22.3 billion General Fund budget a plan to provide bonuses to high-performing third grade teachers who help students develop top-flight reading skills.
The Third Grade Reading Teacher Performance Pilot Program, the largest of several pilot programs enacted to test models for performance-based pay, allocates $10 million in funding to be divided between the top 25 percent of teachers statewide, and the top 25 percent of teachers within each school district.
“We as a legislature believe in incentives for teachers to award outstanding performance,” Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, chairman of the House Committee on K-12 Education, told Carolina Journal. “You reward people for success, it acts as an incentive as well as a reward. It encourages people to do more and to reach beyond themselves. And we believe that it does work as a way to approach teacher pay.”
Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the bonuses may not serve as an actual incentive for teachers, but believes the measure will boost overall classroom performance.
“I think what’s going to happen here is that this actually won’t make the kids work harder, or the teachers work harder. Performance pay rarely does that,” Stoops said. “But what it will do is encourage principals to put their very best teachers in third-grade [positions].”
The program is set to be implemented this fall by the Department of Public Instruction, a move some members of the General Assembly see as problematic, said Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Moore, chairman of the Senate Committee for Education and Higher Education.
“We’ve had some concern about how [DPI has] administered [previous] programs, and I am hopeful that they will follow the law, because this is the law now,” Tillman said. “So we will closely monitor it, and do what we need to do to see that it’s fully implemented.”
State Superintendent June Atkinson said DPI has a strong track record of working with the legislature.
“My friend Senator Tillman … knows that we have always, during my time as superintendent, administered the law of North Carolina to the best of our ability, and according to the requirements of the legislation,” Atkinson said.
“We are an arm of the General Assembly to carry out its directives and its laws,” she continued. “And we intend to do that with this law, and have in the past. I’m sure that Senator Tillman would be hard-pressed to find any time we have not administered the law according to what has been passed by the General Assembly.”
Atkinson added that she is pleased with the legislature’s commitment to across-the-board teacher pay raises, and applauded pilot programs like the reading plan for third-grade teachers, more should be done to increase teacher compensation in the future, through regular pay raises and special bonus programs.
The legislature is likely to enact further legislation to provide performance-based bonuses for other early-childhood educators, Stoops said.
“The overwhelming question that this is going to raise is about the efforts of teachers in grades K-2,” Stoops said. “They are just as responsible — as much as the third-grade teacher — of getting that student to grade level. That’s a legitimate point. My guess is that the legislature is going to start at third grade and work its way down.”
In addition to forming performance-based teacher pay pilot programs, lawmakers added funding to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program to address a growing list of applicants. The program, which gives children in low-income families vouchers of up to $4,200 to attend private school, would see $10 million added to the program’s existing $34.8 million fund each year for the next 10 years, boosting it to a total of $144.8 million.
Special-needs vouchers also will see a $10 million increase in scholarship funding over the next year.
“We’ll continue to provide scholarship money for those students that can avail themselves of that program,” said Tillman. “Special-needs scholarships, opportunity scholarships, it’s all money to help kids who are not having great success in school.”
In an effort to rehabilitate five of the state’s lowest-performing schools, lawmakers passed a bill that would remove them from district control, instead placing them under charter school management as part of an Achievement School District.
House Bill 1080, “Achievement School District,” also includes a measure that would allow any local school district with a school in the ASD to place up to three other low-performing schools in an “Innovation Zone,” providing those schools with more charter-like flexibility and privileges.
H.B. 1080 faced opposition in both House and Senate debates, with critics raising concerns about using public money to fund charter school operators. Supporters, however, said the measure was necessary for continually failing schools to reverse course.
“Let’s try something, and have a good and strong consistent oversight to what we’re trying,” Horn said. “Let’s learn from how others approached this, and look at what didn’t work and solve those problems so that we’re not doing that here in North Carolina. It’s only reasonable.”
Charter school advocates supported a bill that would have clarified funding streams from the state, which was ultimately struck down. Their consolation prize came in the form of House Bill 242, the charter school “clean-up bill.” Most notable among the changes is a provision that would allow low-performing charter schools to remain open, providing they show progress on state student achievement tests, according to Stoops.
“Not all low-performing charter schools are low-performing for the same reasons,” Stoops said. “Some may be low-performing due to the population from which it draws students. Some of it may be due to the fact that the charter school has only been in operation for a year or two.”
Under old rules, the State Board of Education would be compelled to begin the revocation process for a low-performing charter immediately, but the new language allows more flexibility in the State Board of Education’s charter school review process, Stoops said.