Charters, Merit Pay Top North Carolina Legislators’ Reform Agenda

Published May 31, 2016

New Republican majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly and state Senate plan some big changes in K-12 public education law and policy, and an education establishment that has long marched to the tune of Democratic priorities will have to learn a new step, lawmakers say.

State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Eden) laid out his top three priorities in K-12 education: Removing the cap on charter schools; instituting merit pay for teachers; and enhancing career and technical education in high schools.

“I think it’s important to put the best teachers where they are most needed,” said Berger.

Measuring by National Standards
Merit pay, which rewards the most effective teachers with bonuses, and differential pay (higher salaries for teachers who agree to work in hard-to-staff areas or who teach in fields with a shortage of instructors) are two measures often cited by education reformers as tools for attracting the right teacher to the right job. They also are controversial within the education establishment, especially with teacher unions.

Berger wants to see a merit pay plan based on student outcomes, but he would also like to see some changes to the way those outcomes are measured.

“We need to go to nationally normed tests,” he said, “rather than the [Department of Public Instruction] developed tests the state currently uses” as part of its ABCs of education program.

“I understand that some charter schools are using these in a very proactive fashion, and receiving instant feedback that is very useful,” he said.

Charter Cap Would Rise
Berger says he’s confident the current cap of 100 charter schools statewide also would be eliminated this year. Removing the cap was one of the 10 major points on the Republican agenda in the fall campaign. And unlike previous years, Berger is likely to find little opposition from the education establishment this time around.

Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison sound resigned to the removal of the cap, though with some caveats.

Atkinson stressed the need to have “appropriate accountability measures in place” once the cap is removed. Harrison said he expected the cap to be removed, or at least modified, and said he’s “not going to fight about it.”

“It’s better to focus on making sure that we have replication of the very successful charter schools, rather than replication of those that are not performing,” Harrison said.

Berger also pledged to “find ways to enhance career and technical education opportunities in secondary school.” Citing the increased focus the education establishment has placed on preparing students for college, he said career and technical education “has been de-emphasized too much.”

Excess Bureaucracy Targeted
Republicans campaigned on the need to cut bureaucracy and overhead from education while focusing resources on classroom instruction. With the GOP controlling the legislative agenda, new legislators will look for ways to fulfill that pledge.

Knowing that federal stimulus funds for education would run out this past summer, education leaders have been preparing for a steep drop-off in funding. At its November meeting, the State Board of Education approved one of the smallest budget requests in recent memory.

Board chairman Harrison said the board can’t yet see what the outcome is going to be, but expressed some concern over further efforts to cut “the bureaucracy.”

“Any central entity seems to be an automatic target,” he said. Harrison acknowledged that “the real work of educating young people happens in the classroom,” but added, “to think that it comes down to only a principal and a teacher without any central support, without any state support, to think that it can happen and happen well for all kids, I think is not really examining the overall picture and seeing what folks really do.”

Atkinson said officials in her department understand “this is not a year when we could ask for additional dollars.”

Calendar Changes Eyed
For Atkinson and Harrison, how the limited funds will be used is paramount.

“We’ve got a significant amount of federal dollars coming in” from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, and “we need to make sure we spend the money the way we told the feds we’re going to spend those dollars. It takes oversight to make sure that happens.”

“I would like for the General Assembly to take a really hard look at laws in education to define which ones are not really serving as well as they should,” Atkinson said.

She cited the school calendar law as an example of one statute in need of scrutiny. The law, forbidding local school districts from opening schools earlier than Aug. 25 or closing later than June 10, was pushed vigorously by the travel and tourism industry and often is cited as an example of over-centralized control that benefits some areas at the expense of others.

Atkinson acknowledged the law must be sensitive to the needs of businesses in the tourism industry, which depend on student labor. Even so, she asked, “Why shouldn’t students in Watagua County have a longer break in January when the ski slopes are open?”

Jim Stegall ([email protected])is a contributor to Carolina Journal, published by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC, where a version of this article first appeared. Reprinted by permission.