State Senate leaders seek to reform NC schools

North Carolina Senate Republicans are backing a package of public school initiatives they say would reward good teachers while making it easier to fire ineffective ones.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — State Senate Republicans are proposing big changes to North Carolina's public school system.

Students in first through third grade would get more reading help. The school year could start a little earlier and end a little later. Teachers would see employment tenure eliminated, but become eligible for performance bonuses under the education reform package rolled out Monday by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.  

The price tag for the package would require $45 million not currently set aside in the fiscal year budget starting July 1. Berger couldn't say where the additional money would come from. 

Republicans and Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue have battled over spending on education for two years. She has repeatedly asked for more, including a state tax hike, and they have resisted adding money to the pool.

"Until we get the policy right, I don't think the taxpayers of this state are prepared or should be asked to put more money into public schools than what we are presently," Berger said.

Berger said he knows that some of the proposals will be controversial — the tenure elimination likely to be one of them — but believes there should be an honest debate on the state's education policy. The debate on the "Excellent Public Schools Act" is likely to begin in earnest when the Legislature reconvenes May 16 for its budget-adjusting session.

"We've said for a long time that the policy needs to be right in order for us to expect the kinds of results the people of North Carolina and our kids deserve," Berger, R-Rockingham, said.

The proposal would do away with tenure for public school teachers who now receive a permanent teaching license after a four-year probationary period. The current policy makes it difficult to fire the tenured teachers when administrators determine they are ineffective, Berger's office said. Instead, the changes would allow local school boards to employ all teachers on an annual contract that doesn't have to be renewed each fall.

"If a system determines presently that a teacher is an ineffective teacher, it is very difficult if not impossible for them to discharge that teacher,' Berger said. "This would provide systems with tools that would allow a superintendent or a local school board to make decisions about hiring the best teachers for their kids."

The provision also directs each of the state's 115 local school districts to come up with a performance pay system for the 2013-14 school year. The budget approved last June set aside $121 million in part for merit pay for public employees, but didn't specify how it should be awarded. 

Berger said he also wants to revive an effort to discourage the social promotion of third graders who aren't reading at grade level. A similar program in Florida has generated improved scores, he said.

The reform package also would:

  • set aside $11 million for school districts for the operating costs of holding five additional instructional days each school year. Last year's budget mandated the increased but most districts have gotten exemptions.
  • change the state's current system of grading school districts based on their performance on end-of-grade and end-of-course scores to a traditional grading method from A's to F's. Berger said the current method is too vague and complicated.
  • establish a "North Carolina Teacher Corps" program modeled on the federal "Teach for America" program to help recent college graduates and older professional to more easily enter into the teaching field, particularly in low-performing schools.

The program could help deflect criticisms against Berger and other Republicans over the past several months from Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue and party colleagues at the Legislature for passing a budget that reduced overall spending on the public schools compared to their projected needs by $459 million.

NC Association of Educators' president Sheri Strickland said requiring annual contract renewal for all teachers, even excellent performers, would generate mountains of unneeded paperwork. "The focus of the administrators needs to be on those teachers who are having difficulties in some area, so that they can help them to improve," said Strickland. 

Strickland conceded the current system doesn't make it easy to fire a teacher, but argued it's not impossible to do so, either. "The tenure system exists for a reason: to protect teachers from unfair or capricious firing by administrators."

 Strickland also questioned Republican leaders' emphasis on problem teachers in North Carolina's schools. 

"It sounds to me like someone failed to listen to the superintendents" who recently addressed lawmakers about budget cuts, Strickland said. "They were talking about the need for resources. Not good or bad teachers." 

Superintendents from around the state have asked lawmakers to do away with hundreds of millions of dollars in "reversion" cuts this year. 

Berger said that's not likely. He says the state's schools are doing very well with less, despite Democrats' dire predictions, and many Republicans aren't sure more dollars are truly necessary.


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