Educators' Reaction Mixed to Reform Legislation
If state Sen. Jerry Tillman has his way, tenure for public school teachers will end, the school year will increase by a week, and third-graders will be held back until they attend summer reading camps if they fail to meet reading requirements.
Tillman is one of two senators co-sponsoring a bill filed last week by Senate President Phil Berger that would include those changes and more.
The proposed legislation involves significant alterations in the way the school system operates. Known as Senate Bill 795, the act passed its first reading last week and was referred to the committee on education and higher education. Tillman, a retired school administrator, is one of three co-chairmen on that committee.
“Our schools have been languishing for years,” said Tillman, an Archdale Republican who will represent Moore County in District 29 following redistricting if he wins the May 8 Republican primary election. “I don’t mean to blame any party, but for 140 years, Republicans didn’t have control and had no chance to put any real imprint into education. Those of us who sponsored the bill said that we have to do something, since for years we have not been doing anything different to improve our schools.”
Last year the state was 49th in spending, Tillman said, “and this year we managed to move up to 42nd in per pupil spending. I’m not bragging on being 42nd, but at least we are doing something.”
The proposed legislation is written to:
Improve K-3 literacy
Adjust the school calendar start and end dates
End tenure for teachers and establish plans for pay for excellence
Fund five additional instructional days within the existing school calendar.
Moore County Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence said he looks upon the bill with “cautious optimism.”
“There’s a lot to digest, but quite a bit about the K-3 literacy issue aligns with our goals for the reading ability of third-graders,” he said. “What concerns me most is funding. A summer camp for third-graders who have not achieved grade level literacy is a good idea, but will the county be required to cover the cost? There are still many questions I have about the process.”
On making changes to the procedure of hiring and retaining teachers, Spence said that while “a good teacher doesn’t worry about tenure,” he questioned the timing of the bill.
“In this difficult period when we are asking the teachers to do more with less, with no raises for the past four years and with the constant worry over the budget, this doesn’t seem like the right time to attack tenure,” he said. “It’s a process that many teachers hold dear for the job security it offers.”
Tracy Metcalf, Moore County Teacher of the Year for 2011-2012, said that dropping tenure wouldn’t bother her “all that much.”
“I worked in the New York school system for a couple of years, and it was sometimes im-possible to get rid of a tenured teacher,” she said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to a one-year renewable contract if it was based on the system in place now, but if that was changed to one based on standardized test scores, then that would be a real problem.”
The bill proposes that local school districts implement a merit-based pay system to replace tenure, but Spence takes issue with what he says could potentially create 115 different systems for employee pay if each district creates its own.
“First of all, to my knowledge there are no studies that show a merit-based pay system improves student performance whatsoever,” he said. “Second, the bill specifically requests that each local education agency develop its own system for merit pay. I can’t understand why 115 different districts should develop their own systems for paying when one that works well for all could be used. There is little clear guidance in the bill on this point.”
Metcalf said the merit-based pay system sounds good in theory but wondered how such a procedure would be evaluated.
“Education is not a business,” she said. “We’re not dealing with mechanical items, but with human beings. There are many variables to be considered, but sometimes I think the state fails to appreciate the complexity involved with being a classroom teacher.”
Use Days Better
Spence said that in regard to the addition of five days to the school year, the bill “did one thing” that made sense.
“Instead of having the school year begin and end on arbitrary days, it would start on a Monday and end on a Friday,” he said. “The flip side is that there would be less time for teacher professional development. We need more time for this, not less, and the extra five days would take away from that.”
Moore County has obtained a waiver for the past two years that has allowed for a 180-day school year rather than 185. The extra week off has enabled the system to avoid the financial burden of having to bear the costs of transportation, school lunches, and other expenses associated with the extra week.
But Tillman said that if funding can be procured to cover those costs, then waivers would be disallowed.
“Our students are being beaten by kids from foreign countries, so we need to use those days productively,” Tillman said. “We need to be fed up with the way things currently stand.”
The five extra school days would cost $11 to $15 million, Tillman said, with $40 to $50 million for the third-grade literacy program and reading coaches to assist the students.
If the bill passes the Senate and House and reaches the governor, Tillman said he was unsure of how the bill would be received by Gov. Bev Perdue.
“She has vetoed 17 bills, and we have overridden seven,” he said. “The Chamber of Commerce and the business committee are behind it, and other than the North Carolina Association of Educators we have had a good reception.”
NCAE President Sheri Strickland has spoken against the bill.
“While it attacks virtually every aspect of public education in North Carolina, it is woefully short on knowledge and comprehension,” she said.
Perdue’s office also criticized the bill in light of Republican-generated cuts in education.
In a statement issued by the governor’s office, Press Secretary Chris Mackey said that Republicans in the General Assembly “made deep and unnecessary education cuts that have cost our schools thousands of teachers and teacher assistants.
“One school superintendent even called those cuts ‘a huge cancer’ in our budget. It’s not surprising that some politicians are trying to distract attention from their harmful cuts by calling for ‘education reform,’ rather than restoring the state’s investments.”
Tillman said that he is “open to any suggestions to move forward. We’ve got to have a starting point, and it’s time to step up and do something.”
Contact John Lentz at (910) 693-2479 or email@example.com.
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