RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina's public school teachers would see employment tenure eliminated, but become eligible for performance bonuses under an education reform package rolled out Monday by Senate Republicans that also seeks to improve early reading skills.
The public school initiatives were unveiled by Senate leader Phil Berger, who said most of the ideas should draw broad support because they are designed to make students better equipped to graduate from high school and avoid costly remedial classes at universities and community colleges. Berger expects lawmakers can find an additional $45 million -- the package's price tag for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Republicans sought to aim Monday's focus upon the "Read to Achieve" program at the front of the legislation, in which students at risk of falling behind in reading would get more intensive instruction. Thirty-nine percent of third-graders didn't meet grade-level reading requirements on standardized test in the last school year, state data show.
But Berger said he knows that some of the proposals will be controversial -- the tenure elimination likely to be one of them -- but believes there should be an honest debate on the state's education policy. The debate on the so-called "Excellent Public Schools Act" is likely to begin in earnest when the Legislature reconvenes May 16 for its budget-adjusting session.
"We've said for a long time that the policy needs to be right in order for us to expect the kinds of results the people of North Carolina and our kids deserve," Berger, R-Rockingham, said in an interview with The Associated Press. Berger and two of his top lieutenants filed the legislation as he held a news conference on the effort.
The proposal would do away with tenure to veteran public schools teachers who now receive their permanent teaching license after a four-year probationary period. The current policy makes it difficult to fire the tenured teachers when administrators determine they are ineffective, Berger's office said. Instead, the changes would allow local school boards to employ all teachers on an annual contract that doesn't have to be renewed each fall.
"If a system determines presently that a teacher is an ineffective teacher, it is very difficult if not impossible for them to discharge that teacher," Berger said. "This would provide systems with tools that would allow a superintendent or a local school board to make decisions about hiring the best teachers for their kids."
Several states are weakening tenure protections or essentially doing away with them altogether, including Florida. Berger cited the state as an example where similar measures succeeded at improving reading scores and reducing the achievement gap between students of different races.
The bill also would direct the state's 115 local school districts to come up with a performance pay system for license personnel starting with the 2013-14 school year. The two-year budget approved last June set aside $121 million in part for performance pay for public employees in the next fiscal year, but a methodology to do so has yet to be created.
Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and the North Carolina Association of Educators, both critics of Republican budget cuts for the public schools last year, didn't immediately comment on the Senate proposal. Perdue would have asked to sign any changes into law.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a prepared statement his chamber is "open to ideas that promote public education and produce positive outcomes for students and teachers."
Berger's efforts contain several ideas that have been discussed for years and research supports, according to Terry Stoops, an education expert with the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. "It's a solid plan that seems to have one goal in mind, which is raising student achievement," he said.
The "Read to Achieve" program could help deflect criticisms against Berger and other Republicans over the past several months from Perdue and party colleagues at the Legislature for passing a budget that reduced overall spending on the public schools compared to their projected needs by $459 million.
The two parties and their allies have been in a verbal tug-of-war over the effect the cuts have had on the number of teaching positions eliminated and quality of the public schools. Berger said the Democrats' "rhetoric was overblown substantially" and that speaking out on these items should be a positive in the fall elections. He said
"Good policy makes good politics," Berger said, adding that "to the extent that we are seen as the initiators of the discussion and the initiators of the change in policy, I think that's going to be good for us."
Additional funds needed for the coming year would be used to expand the process of using electronic devices for K-3 teachers to assess students reading skills. The state also would provide $9.25 million to help implement a new assessment program for incoming kindergarten
students in 65 of the state's lowest performing elementary schools.
Berger said he also wants to revive an effort to discourage promoting students to the fourth grade if they are not reading at grade-level. A similar program in Florida to end so-called "social promotion" has generated improved scores for third-graders, he said. The North Carolina State Board of Education ended a hardline approach for promotions after critics said there were too many exceptions and it didn't appear to be effective.
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