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Republican lawmakers will face resistance to education changes

RALEIGH — Legislative Republicans will come into power in January with some interesting ideas about public education.

Some of the ideas, like raising or removing the 100-school cap on charter schools, may not cause much of a stir outside the educational establishment in Raleigh.

Republicans also are signaling that they’ll put more emphasis on career and technical education. That move could push more resources into the community colleges and mean less for the universities.

If the change happens, it won’t sit too well with folks at the universities.

But a former state legislator, Fred Smith, during a run for governor in 2008, made a good point about dismissive attitudes regarding vocational and technical education. Smith, a developer, talked about how he paid bulldozer operators more than many people earn with a four-year degree in hand.

Some of his old friends at the General Assembly were listening.

More interesting and controversial will be Republicans’ ideas about merit pay for public school teachers.

Phil Berger, the presumptive leader of the state Senate, recently told the conservative Carolina Journal that he wants to pay teachers based on student achievement.

“I think it’s important to put the best teachers where they are most needed,” Berger added, indicating that Republicans might want to pay teachers more to work in subject areas that are difficult to staff.

In North Carolina, as in most states, pay for public school teachers is mainly based on seniority and educational attainment. Twenty-year teachers are paid significantly more than those with two years of experience. Those with master’s degrees or who are nationally board certified are paid more, too.

In the late 1990s, North Carolina did begin providing bonuses to teachers at schools where students, on average, reached achievement goals. But the bonuses haven’t been offered the past two years because of tight budgets. They’ve also fallen out of favor because the overwhelming majority of schools met their goals in most years, meaning most teachers got the bonuses.

Merit pay advocates want to reach down to the classroom level to examine teacher performance and student achievement and base individual pay on student improvement.

Berger favors dropping North Carolina’s standardized tests for nationally normed tests that can then be used as one measure of teacher effectiveness.

He’ll find resistance from teachers.

A lot of them don’t like the idea of merit pay because they worry that they’ll end up being judged based on the students who walk in their classroom doors rather than their teaching abilities. Some opponents of merit pay also fear that a system that bases some component of pay on in-person, classroom evaluations could be unfair and lead to cronyism.

But the push is on in other states. Georgia, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado and Louisiana are among the states that have either approved or are considering significant merit pay-based systems.

If Legislative Republicans here follow suit, they better get the details right. Replacing a teacher pay system that rewards mediocrity with one that rewards bootlicking is no accomplishment.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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