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Is the legislature helping K-12 education? Yes

YES: We put focus on students, not unions and special interests

By Sen. Phil Berger
Special to the Observer

There are some dishonest but powerful special interests in Raleigh who are forgetting what our public schools are all about. Instead of focusing on the kids, they’re focusing on one thing: money for their union members.

The way they talk, you’d think N.C. schools are not going to open this year because there is no money and all the teachers have been fired.

Let’s set the record straight: This year, Republican lawmakers voted to spend the most money on K-12 public education in state history. We appropriated $360 million more for our schools – a 5 percent increase over last year’s budget. The state spends close to $5 billion to provide our state’s teachers a package of salary and benefits worth an average of $55,264 for 10 months of employment.

As for claims there are fewer opportunities to teach? The N.C. Department of Public Instruction website currently lists nearly 1,000 open teaching positions.

Those are tough facts for unions and special interests to swallow. But education isn’t about lining their pockets.

So what is public education all about? We believe it’s about teaching our children and empowering them to be productive, successful members of society.

Last fall, voters overwhelmingly re-elected a Republican legislature to strengthen our schools. That’s a responsibility we take seriously. By passing the Excellent Public Schools Act, we’ve focused on three objectives to improve schools and opportunities for students:

• Strengthen student literacy to improve reading achievement and graduation rates.

• Provide parents tools to make better informed decisions about their children’s education.

• Increase classroom accountability and reward our most effective teachers.

Approximately two-thirds of our fourth graders read below grade level. If students aren’t reading by fourth grade, they won’t be prepared for later schooling – and they won’t develop the skills they need for a successful career.

That’s why we’ve focused on reading in the early grades. We’ve made it a priority to ensure our educators are well-equipped to teach students the reading skills they need to succeed in life.

In addition, we’ve recognized it is critical for parents to know how schools are performing. Under our plan, schools will be graded A-F. And the grade will be well-known to the public. This transparency will help school boards and, more importantly, parents identify underperforming schools and encourage improvements.

Finally, the single-most important factor in enhancing student achievement is a high-quality teacher. The overwhelming majority of our educators are top-notch, and they’re invaluable to children’s success. Those teachers should be recognized and rewarded. That’s why our budget includes $10.2 million to begin funding annual merit pay raises for the best educators. Beginning in 2014, the top 25 percent of teachers identified by their local school boards will receive four-year contracts with built-in annual pay increases. That means over the next four years, those highly effective teachers could earn an additional $5,000 through a permanent salary increase.

Unfortunately there are some bad teachers out there. In 2011-2012, just 17 of North Carolina’s 97,184 teachers were dismissed for cause. Clearly, our school administrators couldn’t remove underperforming teachers from classrooms. Why? Because of guaranteed lifetime employment offered through the outdated teacher tenure system. The new system allows teachers to work under contracts that are renewed based on performance – like nearly every other profession.

Change isn’t always easy. But it’s time to embrace this opportunity to empower our children to reach their full potential.

Sen. Phil Berger is president pro tempore of the N.C. Senate. He wrote this for The Charlotte Observer.
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