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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.
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. The price tag for the package would require an additional $45 million in the fiscal year starting July 1.
But Berger said he knows that some of the proposals will be controversial â€” the tenure elimination likely to be one of them â€” 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 was to provide more details at a news conference and in legislation expected to be filed later Monday.
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."
The provision 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.
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 using electronic devices. 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 has generated improved scores for third-graders, he said.
The reform package also would:
â€¢ set aside $11 million for school districts for the operating costs of holding five additional instructional days each school year. Last year's budget mandated the increased but most districts have gotten exemptions.
â€¢ change the state's current system of grading school districts based on their performance on end-of-grade and end-of-course scores to a traditional grading method from A's to F's. Berger said the current method is too vague and complicated.
â€¢ establish a "North Carolina Teacher Corps" program modeled on the federal "Teach for America" program to help recent college graduates and older professional to more easily enter into the teaching field, particularly in low-performing schools.
The program could help deflect criticisms against Berger and other Republicans over the past several months from Democratic Gov. Beverly 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 teachers 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.
"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."