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Berger announces major education package

By Craig Jarvis and T. Keung Hui
cjarvis@newsobserver.comkhui@newsobserver.com

More Information

  • Senate Bill 361 – Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013

    • Strengthen teacher education programs, licensing requirements and professional development with more focus on improving reading.

    • Limit the amount of class time that can be spent on end-of-grade or end-of-year tests.

    • Phase in the elimination of teacher tenure, which would be abolished on June 30, 2014. After that, teachers who have worked for three or more years could receive contracts of up to four years. Teachers with fewer than three years’ experience would have annual contracts.

    • Develop a “pay for excellence” system to reward the most effective teachers.

    • Grade schools based on how they exceed, meet or fail student achievement goals.



RALEIGH The state Senate leader on Tuesday unveiled a second wave of measures he said would serve to hold schools and teachers more accountable for students’ progress.

He proposed ending teacher tenure, limiting the amount of time spent on testing for final exams, grading entire schools and an emphasis on literacy.

“The days of accepting a broken education system in North Carolina are over,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said at a news conference at which he was flanked by several Republican senators who signed onto the bill as sponsors. “We must continue to demand better and positive change for our kids.”

With Berger, the Senate leader, as one of three primary sponsors, the bill has a strong likelihood of success. The other primary sponsors are Sen. Jerry Tillman of Randolph County and Sen. Dan Soucek of Watauga County. The two are co-chairmen of the Senate Education Committee.

Tillman also filed a bill Tuesday that would allow school boards to use their financial resources as they see fit, including increasing or decreasing class sizes, with some limitations. Berger’s far-reaching Senate Bill 361 upstaged the other education news of the day – Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s school safety initiative, which he kicked off at Apex Middle School.

Berger introduced a similar bill last year, but with Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, in office and Republicans not yet holding a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly, only some portions with compromises were included in the final state budget. All that has changed this session.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville, criticized the proposal.

“Simply put, this legislation adds insult to injury for teachers and will harm public education in North Carolina,” Nesbitt said in a statement. “The Republicans have already cut average teacher salaries to 48th in the nation; now they want to be able to fire good teachers at will? Communities across this state are already struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers, and now Republicans in Raleigh are making that task even tougher.”

Democrats respond

N.C. Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller said the school grading system would disenfranchise low-performing schools in struggling communities.

“It’s sad to see a state leader assault our public education system as ‘broken,’ ” Voller said in a statement. “A decade ago, such a person would have been laughed out of the halls of the General Assembly.”

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, called Berger’s education plan unhelpful rhetoric. Education and school board representatives withheld reaction until they could study the 33-page bill more closely.

A key provision represents Berger’s latest effort to end tenure for teachers. Under current state law, teachers who have completed four years of service can receive tenure, meaning they can only be fired for a specific cause. Teachers with less experience can be fired for any reason.

“Our current system, in many respects, rewards mediocrity, punishes excellence by granting unlimited job security to all who teach a few years,” Berger said Tuesday.

Berger said he thought there were only a small number of poor teachers in North Carolina. “But if it’s one teacher and it’s a teacher that’s teaching your child, it’s a huge problem,” he said.

After June 30, 2014, tenure would no longer be awarded, and teachers could be offered contracts of between one and three years. Teachers would only be offered multiyear contracts if they met requirements under a state program for assessing teacher performance.

Berger said he doesn’t anticipate lowering the amount of money teachers make. He said the bill includes some funding requirements, but he said those details haven’t been worked out.

The bill also calls for exploring ways to reward especially talented teachers with extra salary or bonuses.

School grading system

Schools would be graded, earning an A, B, C, D or F based on student performance on state tests, national exams and graduation rates. A performance grade point of 90 or above earns an A, while a grade lower than 60 points earns the school an F, according to the bill.

The grading program is modeled on a similar program used in Florida. Supporters say it will better let parents know how well their children’s schools are doing.

The grading system was adopted as part of the budget last year. But as part of the budget compromises, it was left up to the State Board of Education to develop the standards for the grading system. The new bill has legislators setting the standards.

Critics, including many educators, have said the grading system will unfairly result in many schools being shown as being low-performing, and argue that the grades should reflect how much progress the school is making toward improving passing rates.

The new bill says that the State Board of Education can list growth on the report cards but that it can’t be used to change a school’s letter grade.

Another change in the bill would limit when state tests could be given. The bill says that, depending on the course, the exam can only be offered in either the last week or last two weeks of the school year.

Currently, state exams can be offered as much as three weeks before the end of the school year. Parents complain the period after the tests are given are a waste of time as teachers do things such as show movies to pass the time.

Jarvis: 919-829-4576
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