The state Senate is poised to approve sweeping changes to public schools that would prevent most third-graders who don’t read well from being promoted, end teacher tenure and give schools A through F letter grades based on performance.
The proposal won tentative approval 31-15 along party lines Thursday. Democrats argued that new limits on job security would make teachers’ jobs vulnerable to complaining parents and vindictive principals, and that the letter grades stigmatize rural schools as failures. Republicans urged “bold action” to improve academic performance, specifically, to have children reading at grade level by the time they enter fourth grade.
Republicans said the bill wasn’t perfect, but moves to remedy problems of weak young readers and bad teachers.
About 40 percent of third-graders failed the state end-of-grade reading test last year, but less than 3 percent, or about 2,500 students repeated the grade. Under the Senate bill, most of those students would not be promoted.
If the rules had been in place last year, more than 45,000 third-graders would have faced the possibility of summer school and another round of third grade.
The bill allows some students who fail to go on to fourth grade under specific circumstances. The others would enroll in a summer reading camp. Students not reading at grade level by the end of summer would get intensive reading instruction in the next school year and get a chance at mid-year promotions.
The State Board of Education had a policy against social promotion that it recently dropped because it didn’t work. June Atkinson, superintendent of public instruction, suggested such meaty legislation be put on hold until the legislature’s “long session” in January, but Senate leaders are pressing ahead.
The bill’s fate in the House is uncertain, but the House lawmakers didn’t put money for the measure in the budget it approved Wednesday.
In an unusual move, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, has co-sponsored the measure and has taken the lead in shepherding it through legislative debates.
Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson Republican, said his children attend public schools with other kids who cannot read and cannot do math because they cannot read the problems.
“We cannot continue like we are,” Newton said. “We must change the dynamic. We must change the direction.”
Teacher firings easier
The bill would change teacher tenure rules so veteran teachers would be easier to fire. New teachers would work under one-year contracts. Districts could sign teachers with at least three years experience to contracts lasting up to four years.
The bill also tells local school districts to set up merit pay plans to reward good teachers.
“If you’re a good teacher, you’re going to get recognition and more money,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican. “If you’re not, you’re going to get a career change.”
The total plan is expected to cost roughly $45.6 million in its first year and rise to $82.3 million by fiscal year 2016-17.
Bill could be improved
The N.C. Association of Educators doesn’t like the change in teacher contracts and asked senators to give a new law that streamlines dismissal hearings a chance to work.
Senate Democrats said they’re worried about teachers losing their jobs for no reason.
Sen. Doug Berger, a Franklin Democrat, asked for the teacher contracts section to be cut out of the bill.
“Quit attacking teachers,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville said Republicans were demanding student gains at the same time they are cutting public education budgets.
“You just can’t keep taking the people out of the schools and expect them to fix the problem,” he said.
Sen. Phil Berger requested members hold off on a final vote so senators with suggestions for improvements will have more time to make them.
“I want this bill to be what’s best for our public education system,” he said.