Schools have their say at state Capitol

'No one believes that anyone's mind was changed'
Mar. 01, 2013 @ 08:10 AM

The idea was to assemble hundreds of the state’s top public school educators at the General Assembly this week so legislators could hear what were the top issues in the 115 school districts in the state. About 100 showed up, and they got their say.

Much of it ran counter to House leaders' stated education agenda, however.

Superintendents addressed the assembly on Tuesday, followed by principals and teachers on Wednesday and Thursday, during Education Week at the General Assembly. Tillis and other lawmakers wanted to pick their brains about what’s working back home and whether it can be used elsewhere. Tillis has said he hoped that listening to the nearly 350 educators would create “buy-in” among the educators to try new things to improve K-12 education.

Caldwell Schools Superintendent Steve Stone, who was among those who attended, said legislators paid attention to what the superintendents had to say, but he doubts opinions on the House floor were swayed.

“No one believes that anyone’s mind was changed, but it did open up a process for dialogue,” Stone said.

The House is seeking sweeping education reforms in the state, including introducing a merit-pay system for teachers, changes to teacher tenure, providing tax credits to help offset private school tuition, and new charter school initiatives.

Stone said superintendents told the House their first priority is for the state to adequately fund public education to help reduce class sizes and restore funding for counselors, nurses, social workers, teacher assistants and office staff.  Tax credits and vouchers that let people use taxpayer money to help send their children to private schools were vehemently opposed by the superintendents, Stone said, because they take scarce money from the public schools.

“This has the potential of eroding 70 years of social progress, resegregates our schools and creates two education systems, one for the haves and one for the have-nots in the state,” Stone said.  

Also under consideration by the House this session is a grading system where schools' performance is measured on an A-to-F scale. Tillis said the House supports the concept but is considering year-to-year growth and other measures that superintendents and principals say are important indicators of school performance.

Superintendents also discussed such things as tenure reforms, contracts for teachers and administrators, and accountability for charter schools. Districts pleaded for more calendar flexibility and less control by Raleigh.

Overall, the superintendents were pleased with Tillis for hosting the meeting and listening to concerns, Stone said.  

“The Speaker did suggest that we get involved with our legislators and let them know how we feel about a bill early when the bill is filed,” he added. “It is his (Tillis) intent to move bills along quickly.

“He suggested we use a red, yellow and green system to communicate: red, worst idea ever; yellow, slow down and review, but it has merits; and green, we agree, full speed ahead.”

State Superintendent June Atkinson said in a phone interview that the House proposal to issue vouchers and tax credits for private school tuition is a particular fly in the ointment.

"I am extremely concerned for vouchers and tax credits to send a child to a private school," she said. "I respect a parent's decision to do it, but the money comes from state funds, which can take away from needed resources from public schools. That's a huge concern for our superintendents."

Atkinson said she thought that the superintendents delivered an impassioned message, and that the General Assembly listened.

"I believe the way our superintendents spoke with the General Assembly demonstrated the passion and concerns about public education," she said. "I think it is good the General Assembly acknowledged the need for technology in public education, and that House members were willing to listen. We are moving forward to what we have been directed to do."