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NC Senate Leader's Education Bill Has Similarities To Other States

The General Assembly is back in session for the next few weeks. One of the big topics will be education. Republicans have rolled out what they call a major education reform bill. For one, it calls for schools to be graded on a scale of A to F. It would also end teacher tenure, require districts to come up with their own merit pay plans and put more emphasis on reading. Many other states have passed similar measures. TERRY: So, Lisa, where else have we seen some of these ideas? MILLER: Well, the state that got a lot of this started is Florida. Starting in 1999, then-Governor Jeb Bush pushed through a whole list of reforms. They included some of the things you see in North Carolina's bill. For example, the A-F school grades. There's also extra instruction time for reading and those kids who aren't reading at grade-level by the end of 3rd grade, are held back a year. Now, in Florida fourth-grade grade reading scores are up substantially over the past several years and achievement gaps have narrowed too. But fourth grade reading is now the only area that Florida ranks above average. Several other states have taken notice of the boost in the reading scores. Indiana, Oklahoma and Arizona are among those who have passed similar measures. TERRY: So is this a cookie-cutter bill? MILLER: Not exactly, it's kind of a pick and choose sort-of thing. For example, Florida did a lot to encourage charter schools and give parents state vouchers for private schools. None of that's in North Carolina's bill. Senate President Pro-Tem Phil Berger says he wants to focus on ways to improve traditional public schools. He doesn't want other initiatives to sidetrack that. He says he looked to Florida for inspiration, but also to other states like Tennessee and Indiana. BERGER: What we're interested in more than anything else is what has shown success and what has worked in other places. You don't have to continually re-invent the wheel. MILLER: Now, a lot of these ideas do come from Republican governors or, in North Carolina's case, Republican-led state legislatures. TERRY: Doesn't North Carolina already have a grading system for schools? MILLER: It does. You might recognize these categories "school of distinction", "school of progress", "priority school." But it's not so easy to sort out what they actually mean just by that label. The A through F grading system tries to simplify that for parents. Jacob Vigdor researches education policy and economics at Duke University. He says the grading scale the bill proposes is too simple. It only factors in a school's test scores, not how much improvement they've seen in students. VIGDOR: The information that we're giving out with these school ratings is generally not sophisticated enough to give schools credit for accomplishing great things with challenging students. MILLER: He says the result is schools with a lot of low-income students may unfairly receive F grades. TERRY: There's the American Legislative Exchange Council. Do you see their mark on this? MILLER: Right, so ALEC as it's called, is a group of state lawmakers and corporations that come up with free market, limited government policies. And they push several education measures too. They do have model legislation based on the Florida set of reforms. And some of those are certainly in North Carolina's version. Berger is a member and he says lawmakers factored in what many groups including ALEC had to say. ALEC had a conference here in Charlotte last week and the conference drew a couple dozen protesters last week and one of them was Pamela Grundy. She's with a group called MeckACTs that's against high-stakes testing. She doesn't like the ALEC connection. GRUNDY: It's not tailored to NC, it doesn't arise out of the concerns of North Carolinians. In fact, I think it goes counter to what a lot of North Carolinians would like to see in their schools and yet it ends up introduced in the state legislature. TERRY: Now, you hear quite a lot about merit pay for teachers. Isn't that something North Carolina is already working on? MILLER: It is. Several education foundations like the Gates Foundation push this and so does the Obama administration. North Carolina won millions in federal Race to the Top funds. And as part of that, it agreed to put together a plan that paid teachers partly based on student's performance on standardized tests. The way this bill would tackle that is by asking all of the state's districts to come up with their own performance pay plans. Now doing that in a big district like CMS is one thing where you have researchers on staff, but in a small, rural district that could be a huge challenge. TERRY: Now, how much would these changes cost? LM: Well, Berger has said it would require an extra $45 million. A lot of that money would go into providing extra reading instruction for kids. A lot of people like the focus on reading. It's just holding kids back that's controversial. Now, Berger wants to pass this during the short session. But Republicans in the House haven't said too much about it. Of course, Bev Perdue's plan is also on the table which calls for a 3-quarter sales tax increase. But Republicans have been quick to dismiss that. MT: Thanks, Lisa. LM: Thank you, Marshall.