Raleigh, N.C. — The version of Sen. Phil Berger's Excellent Public Schools Act the House Education Committee took up Monday night would add in Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam's tax credit for companies that donate to a private school tuition program. In some respects, it reflects what a House-Senate compromise on education policy might look like, although Berger, R-Rockingham, said he would like to see portions of the Senate bill that were taken out restored in any final measure.
Committee members did not vote on the bill, which has already passed the Senate. It could come up again later this week. However, portions of the bill are caught up in budget negotiations between the House and the Senate, since both the tax credit provision and some of Berger's bill would require funding.
Here's what the House and Senate versions have in common:
- Children would still be required to pass the end-of-grade reading test in third grade or repeat the grade. There would be some exceptions that Berger estimated would cover "well over half" of the kids who don't pass EOGs currently.
- It would create a volunteer program for state employees to volunteer as literacy tutors.
- It fund five extra instructional days required by last year's budget.
- North Carolina would created its own teacher corps program to recruit college graduates and mid-career professionals. This would be based on the Teach for America model.
- Teachers would no longer be eligible for "career status" or tenure. Instead, teachers with more than three year's experience could be placed on contracts of up to four years. Teachers with less than three years experience would work on on year contracts.
Items that were in the Senate bill but that the House did not include in its proposed committee substitute include:
- School performance grades. Berger's bill would have graded schools on an A-through-F scale.
- Limits on end of course exams. Under Berger's original bill, such exams would have to be administered in the last 10 days of school. Exceptions would have been made for AP exams and other tests administered by national organizations.
- School calendar changes. The Senate bill would have allowed school systems more flexibility with their start and end dates.
- Pay for performance. The Senate bill would have required school systems to develop a pay-for-performance plan that rewarded more successful teachers.
The House added two provisions:
- Rep. Stam's tax credit. This credit would allow corporations to get a tax credit for up to $2 million in exchange for donations to a fund that helps low income students attend private schools. This has been attacked as a de facto school voucher program, but proponents say it helps give parents a choice.
- AP bonuses. Advance Placement teachers would be rewarded if their students perform well on AP exams that give students college course credit for classes taken during high school.
After hearing from Berger, the committee took public comments on the bill. Some members of the committee embraced the bill, while Democrats said that it was too broad of a policy rewrite to take up during the General Assembly's short session. Members of the public who showed up to speak were mainly critics of the two bill. The fiercest comments were aimed at three areas:
The tax credit: "It takes money away from public schools and gives it to private schools," said Christopher Hill of the NC Justice Center. He said that the $4,000 scholarship that low income families could get wouldn't offset the cost of attending most private schools. He also noted that the nonprofits that would handle giving out the grants could give them to students attending religious schools. That, he said, makes it a "constitutional money laundering scheme" to get around state funding of religious institutions.
Rodney Shotwell, superintendent of Rockingham County Schools, which is in Berger's district, said the bill appeared to be a "full scale assault on public education."
One parent spoke in favor of the bill, saying that her third grader needed more help in passing end of grade tests than public schools provide right now. The tax credit, she said, would help her send her son to a school that meets his needs.
Berger, R-Rockingham, said after the meeting that he does not oppose Stam's tax credit measure. However, he noted that while it might bring a few more lawmakers to support the bill, it also creates some opponents. Personally, Berger said, he though Stam's measure "does no harm to the public schools."
Tenure: Paige Sayles, a school board member from Franklin County, said removing tenure from teachers who have it now could create lawsuits that local systems could not afford. Bill Medlin, associate director of the Professional Educators of North Carolina, said schools can already get rid of bad teachers and said a new law passed last year was aimed at making that process easier for school districts.
Ending social promotion: Berger's bill would limit when schools could send a child on to fourth grade without passing their third grade EOG reading exam. Berger said that research showed students who couldn't read by the time they left third grade were at greater risk to drop out.
However, Medlin said that kids who are held back are also more likely to drop out before high school graduation. And Ann McColl, a lobbyist for the state board of education, called the decision to hold a student back "one of the most profound in a child's life" and was better made in the schools where that child is taught. She said North Carolina had a similar reading policy before. "We did this in the 1990s, and it didn't work."