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National group seeks N.C. teacher reform

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    • N.C. Campaign for Achievement Now: carolinacan.org or 919-260-1570. Website includes a report on teacher quality.

    • 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now: www.50can.org



Former presidential adviser and CNN political analyst David Gergen will lead a push for changes in teacher pay, evaluations and tenure in North Carolina.

A national group known as 50CAN, for the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, on Tuesday unveiled a branch called CarolinaCAN. Executive director Julie Kowal, recruited from a Chapel Hill education consulting firm, says one of her first tasks is finding N.C. residents to serve on the board (Gergen, a Tar Heel native, no longer lives in the state).

Kowal said she has conferred with N.C. education groups, including several based in Charlotte, to craft an agenda that promotes high-quality teaching. The new group will be nonpartisan and focus on research, she said.

“North Carolina’s prosperity as a state depends on cultivating a highly educated workforce,” Gergen said in a statement sent Tuesday. “CarolinaCAN is leading the charge, using innovative research and bipartisan policy work to support the growth of high-quality public school options.”

Kowal said the recent Republican sweep of the N.C. legislature and governor’s office created an opportunity because other statewide education groups tended to be affiliated with Democratic leadership. But she said CarolinaCAN avoided jumping into policy debate during the 2013 legislative session to avoid being associated with a “pendulum swing” to the far right.

Eric Guckian, recently named Gov. Pat McCrory’s education adviser, said Tuesday that CarolinaCAN has already provided him “unbiased and nonpartisan” data with a national perspective. “I think they’re a critical cog in the wheel,” he said.

North Carolina is one of seven states targeted for education policy campaigns by 50CAN, which originated in Connecticut. The group’s website says it expects to spend $6.7 million nationwide, with funders including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Those affiliations, along with the national group’s record for pumping money into state and local political campaigns, raised some early skepticism.

“I’m distressed that they’re coming and at the influence they may put on elections,” said Carol Sawyer of Mecklenburg ACTS, a local education advocacy group that has been critical of the reform agenda promoted by Gates, Walton and philanthropist Eli Broad.

“If they were campaigning to get teachers paid more, I’d be interested,” Sawyer said. “But they’re not. They’re all about pay for performance, which hasn’t worked anywhere.”

Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said he hadn’t heard about CarolinaCAN until a reporter contacted him Tuesday. But he said he’s wary of people who have never taught trying to set policy for teachers.

“Until you walk in my shoes, don’t attempt to tell me what’s best for the children I teach,” Ellis said.

Kowal said she is interested in recruiting teachers “who are focused on excellence” to work with her group. And she said North Carolina does need to boost base pay for teachers, along with creating a sustainable system for rewarding those who excel.

Among the groups listed as early consultants in the formation of CarolinaCAN are the Charlotte Teach For America office; KIPP Charlotte, a local charter school that’s part of a national chain; the Charlotte office of New Leaders, a group that recruits and trains urban principals; Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a group that promotes charter schools and vouchers; and Project LIFT, a group of Charlotte philanthropists who have pledged $55 million to turn around performance at nine west Charlotte schools.

Anna Nelson, co-chair of the Project LIFT board, said members of her group spoke with Kowal and may have common interests with CarolinaCAN. But Project LIFT has not formally endorsed the new group, she said.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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