As legislative session marches on, education bills aim to tweak past measures

As legislative session marches on, education bills aim to tweak past measures

- in Education

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Lawmakers have filed hundreds of bills well into the 2015 legislative session, many aimed at making changes to the governance of North Carolina’s public education system.

But so far, the most talked about bills of the year are attempts to tweak large-scale initiatives enacted in years past, including the controversial A-F school grading system, personal education plans for at-risk students, and teacher pay.

Read on for a recap of education-related legislation currently moving through the General Assembly.

A-F school grades

In an effort toward transparency and accountability, North Carolina unveiled A-F school grades earlier this year.

As with similar mechanisms in other states, the 2013-14 grades largely tracked the demographics of the schools’ students; those with students coming from higher income families tended toward higher grades while schools serving low-income populations received largely Ds and Fs.

Critics assailed the accountability system for its formula, which heavily emphasized students’ performance on standardized tests on a given day instead of how a school helped students grow in academic performance over time. Criticisms also pointed to the fact that the grading scale would dramatically change from this year to the next, going from a 15-point measure to a 10-point measure.

That means it will be much more difficult for schools to achieve higher grades in years following the inaugural one and many more schools will find themselves with Ds and Fs next year.

“For us to get consistent data in this time period where you’re comparing apples to apples…a switch of the actual scale itself will not give us the numbers that we need to compare the performance of our schools,” said Rep. Jeffrey Elmore (R-Alleghany), who introduced a bill Tuesday (HB 358) in a House education committee that would extend the 15-point scale for an additional two years.

“I think this bill is a simple way to get consistency over a three year period,” said Elmore.

Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland), who supports the bill to extend the 10-point grading scale for two more years, also said he’d like to see a fix for the A-F school grades’ formula.

Currently, 80 percent of a letter grade reflects students’ performance on standardized tests on one given day, while 20 percent factors in how students improve (or fail to improve) on those tests over time—often referred to as ‘growth’.

“I just want to make sure this isn’t to the exclusion [of looking at the formula]; that is that we’re still going to look at trying to get a little closer, perhaps, to the 50-50 mark that other states are using,” said Rep. Glazier on Tuesday.

While HB 358 passed the House on Tuesday and a companion bill is expected to be heard soon in the Senate, there are other bills filed in the General Assembly that would address Glazier’s hope for changing the A-F school grades formula.

Reps. Riddell, Whitmire, Bell and Ross filed a bill that would provide schools with two separate letter grades, one reflecting students’ performance on standardized tests and another reflecting growth over time.

Sen. Josh Stein (D-Wake) filed a bill that would change the formula so that 40 percent of a school’s letter grade would reflect student performance, and 60 percent would reflect student growth.

Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenburg) filed a bill that would change the formula to 20 percent performance, 80 percent growth.

Personal education plans

North Carolina developed personal education plans (PEPs) nearly 15 years ago as an accountability measure – a way of making sure public schools were doing their own due diligence in making sure at-risk students are on a path toward success. The plans require schools to identify students at risk of failing and ensure academic interventions are provided, free of cost.

But PEPs have become an unfunded mandate, many teachers say, resulting in loads of paperwork for already overworked educators.

PEPs were intended to direct students toward out-of-classroom academic interventions like tutoring and Saturday classes, but many districts don’t have the resources to provide them, so the plans simply are a record of what’s already happening in the classroom.

Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), chair of the Senate education committee, filed a bill to eliminate PEPs altogether.

“The good teachers are doing informal assessments all the time, and they already know what they’re doing. PEPs are just needless paperwork,” said Tillman.

Advocates for PEPs say it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“You can’t ask teachers to do [PEPs] with no compensation and no resources. These are only as effective as they are resourced,” said Duke University law professor Jane Wettach.

Wettach says instead of abandoning PEPs because they are too much work, lawmakers should adequately fund them in order to make them realistic strategies for improving student success.

“With the pressure on the school districts to have all their kids passing and meeting these grade level standards, there has to be something to address the needs of students who are unable to make that kind of progress in the regular school day in regular classes,” said Wettach.

A similar bipartisan bill to eliminate PEPs is in the House and scheduled to be heard in committee next week.

Teacher pay and politics

Last year saw lots of fanfare when lawmakers enacted an average 7 percent pay increase for teachers after years of frozen salaries.

Fanfare quickly faded to frustration—for veteran teachers, at least: the biggest pay bumps were actually designated for early career teachers. Those with more experience saw much smaller wage increases, some as little as 0.3 percent.

Lawmakers have faced numerous questions this year about whether or not they’ll enact a salary fix for more experienced teachers as concerns persist about how the state will attract and retain high quality teachers.

So far, GOP lawmakers seem intent on keeping their promise from last year to boost beginning teacher pay up to $35,000 – a move that Governor Pat McCrory also pushed for in his budget proposal last month.

Senator Joyce Waddell (D-Mecklenburg) filed a bill that would increase experienced teachers’ salaries by appropriating more than $20 million from the General Fund to the Department of Public Instruction to establish a new base salary schedule. The current schedule caps base teacher pay at $50,000 while Waddell’s would lift that up to $56,650:

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Speaking of teachers, Sens. Wells, Brock, Wade and Soucek have filed a bill that would limit school employees’ political activities — and while the legislation would only pertain to what teachers can and can’t do during working hours, some are concerned the bill could keep teachers from speaking out altogether on issues they care about.

Senate Bill 480 would disallow school employees from working on political campaigns during working hours, use the authority of his or her position to secure support or opposition for a political candidate, and use public funds to these ends.

More bills on the horizon

I’m tracking lots of other proposals in the General Assembly that affect education, from efforts to restore funding for driver’s education to changes that would make it easier for for-profit national charter management chains to infiltrate North Carolina.

Depending on the outcome of a much anticipated Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of school vouchers, lawmakers could drop a bill that would dramatically expand the program. Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) told reporters last week that he hopes to expand the school voucher program fourfold, pouring 30 million more dollars into Opportunity Scholarships that offer students the chance to attend private schools on the taxpayer’s dime.

Senate leader Phil Berger and House speaker Tim Moore have also signaled their support for the program’s expansion.

And stay tuned for news about lawmakers’ budget proposals, expected later on in the session. Often contained within these proposals are bills that saw debate earlier in session and are then slipped into the budget.

Tracking an education bill that I missed? Email me at lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460.

Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC

About the author

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation.
lawgner@ncforum.org