Lots of talk, not much movement on education

Legislative Republicans met privately in a retreat last winter, in advance of this year’s long General Assembly session, to talk about their ideas on education. A key goal was to establish where the House and Senate could agree on significant policy changes.

With lawmakers now done for 2015, the actions this year from the two chambers was more about tweaking and extended work on previous ideas than it was about forging common ground on substantially new efforts. Debate about teaching assistants and driver’s education dominated much of the time.

“We ended up getting distracted by status quo issues that didn’t allow the time and opportunity to think strategically,” said Brenda Berg, president and CEO of Best NC, a business-backed group advocating for what it sees as more public education advances.

Best NC supported a package of House bills that would have launched a college scholarship program for residents who want to teach; developed leadership roles for classroom teachers; and paid for a principal-training program.

All those initiatives were included in the House version of a budget but, in the end, only a $500,000 principal-preparation grant made it to final approval.

The state needs to address recruitment and training of talented teachers and principals, she said.

“Our most challenged kids have the least access to our highest performing teachers,” Berg said. “How do we recruit our best-performing teachers into the system and make sure that they’re in the classroom where they’re most needed and stay there? Pay is a part of that.”

Lawmakers did follow through with a promise to raise base pay for teachers who are early in their careers, bumping pay to $35,000 for teachers with none to four years of experience. Other teachers will receive what are known as “step increases,” a bump in pay as they move up on a tiered pay schedule, and all will receive a $750 bonus.

Sen. Jerry Tillman, an Archdale Republican, said these were important moves that should not be overlooked.

But the raises weren’t enough to boost North Carolina from the near-bottom in national average teacher pay and per-pupil spending, said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, an education think tank.

Poston called the legislative session “a real missed opportunity to reinvest in education at all levels.”

“When you look at what was funded, there really is nothing that is particularly innovative or transformative toward education overall,” he said.

Republicans in the legislature have driven education policy in the last few years. Previously, they moved to curb social promotion by having students read well by the time they reach fourth grade, and to assign letter grades to public schools based largely on test scores and student growth.

The legislature continued to work on those ideas this session.

In connection with the reading law, the legislature put $20 million toward opening summer reading camps to first and second graders. The reading camps were originally set up for third graders who did not pass the end-of-grade test.

The move in the lower grades is part of an effort to ensure that children are learning to read early enough that it will make a difference as they progress in school.

Under a new requirement, schools that received a D or F grade and did not have students exceed expected growth must tell parents it is a “low-performing school.” School districts where the majority of schools meet the definition of “low performing” must notify parents and submit improvement plans to the State Board of Education.

Most of the education discussion this year centered on the budget fight over paying for teacher assistants and supporting driver’s education.

For several budget cycles, Senate Republicans have proposed cutting teacher assistants and shifting money to lower class sizes in early grades. The proposal has triggered a fight with the House year after year. Funding for teacher assistants was maintained this year, with the caveat that school districts could not use that money for anything else.

Then, the last days of the session saw a debate over shifting more money from traditional public schools to charter schools. The bill didn’t pass. Tillman, a Senate leader on education issues, said that’s what he’ll be working on in the coming months in preparation for next year’s short session.

“We need to do heavy-duty work to get that one right,” he said.

Tillman said the importance of raises, maintaining teacher assistants, and fully funding the retirement system should not be discounted.

“Some of these things don’t seem to get above the radar, but they’re real important to the profession,” he said. “I think we’re going in a better direction.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner