State senators working on details of education overhaul

Bill affects teacher tenure, length of school year and more

jfrank@newsobserver.comMay 29, 2012 

A plan to overhaul teacher tenure, the school calendar and school assessment is evolving in the state Senate as more questions and potential pitfalls emerge upon examination.

Senate leader Phil Berger presented the newest version of his legislation Tuesday in the Senate Education Committee, which approved it by voice vote roughly along party lines.

The amended language retreats on his original plan to eliminate teacher tenure and instead would allow school systems to give educators with more than three years of experience a contract for up to four years. The measure – Senate bill 795 – still would add five days to the school calendar, but a change gives districts the flexibility to meet a minimum number of hours of instruction (1,025) instead of days (185).

Teacher groups applauded the first change but still spoke against the broader measure. The alteration involving the calendar, however, sparked considerable concerns from Democrats and education groups who did the math: with longer school days, it’s possible for districts to reduce the school year by a few weeks.

Berger said after the meeting that he would support adding a provision to set a minimum limit on the number of school days, likely at 180. The current school year is 185 days, but all school districts have waivers that allow 180.

Another new provision changes the eligibility of the N.C. Pre-K program and reverses eligibility requirements and fees approved last year. The addition seeks to conform state law to a judge’s ruling striking limits on the state’s pre-kindergarten program.

Berger, an Eden Republican, is expending serious political capital pushing the bill, with Democrats swiping at his efforts at every turn. Teacher and school district groups are concerned about the effort, too, though public comment was limited Tuesday to roughly 20 minutes.

State Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, said the bill is part of a broader effort to “disparage public education” and boost private education.

“What I’m concerned about is the signal we are sending to the state – public schools are bad and they are failing and they are failing our students,” he said.

The push comes without promises the House will consider it. In an interview, Berger said he met with the House speaker’s office to pitch his bill but didn’t receive any commitment about its future.

The bill will next go to the Senate appropriations and finance committees, which will consider the cost. In the first year, legislative staff members estimate it will cost roughly $45.6 million, with the price rising to $82.3 million in five years. The House didn’t put the money in its budget proposal released Tuesday for the entire overhaul.

Frank: 919-829-4698

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