‘Reform’ keeps schools in limbo

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 23, 2013

One of the problems with public education in North Carolina is that too many people tinker with it without looking at the big picture.
That seemed to be what state Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, was saying as he discussed education legislation Friday during his final town hall meeting of the year.
About a dozen people came to the county commissioners’ meeting room to hear and talk to the man who represents the upper half of Rowan County in the state House of Representatives in Raleigh.
If he could change anything about the legislature, Warren said, it would be the way it approaches finding a solution to a challenge.
Before he joined the legislature, Warren thought lawmakers got together to come up with a plan.
When it comes to education, though, it’s more like a bunch of people throwing legislative darts, according to Warren.
“I think education is being stymied from improvement because we’re always improving it,” Warren said.
He’d like to see a moratorium on further “improvements” until a joint committee of senators and representatives, Republicans and Democrats could develop a consensus. It should include people who have an education background, he said — people who understand the classroom of today is not like the classrooms we knew as children.
Taking the time to develop a plan that way makes sense. Why doesn’t that happen?

Warren has done some tinkering himself. He was a primary sponsor of the bill to require instruction in cursive writing and multiplication tables — an eye-opener for those of us who didn’t realize technology had pushed those things out. Cursive writing and multiplication tables won bipartisan support and the governor’s signature. Elementary schools will be adding those items to their curriculum ASAP.
Warren was also primary sponsor of a bill to give the Rowan-Salisbury School System more flexibility with its calendar. Lawmakers filed similar bills for Kannapolis, Cabarrus and other systems. And there’s a statewide bill to that effect. They haven’t gotten anywhere.

The House Education Committee still has 53 bills on its plate; the Senate Education Committee has 48. It’s hard to figure out how this legislature is reshaping public education with so much still undecided.
The House proposes vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools. The Senate plan ends teacher tenure and class-size limits for kindergarten through third grade.
And then there’s the budget. Classes resume in about 10 weeks. Yet the jobs of thousands of teachers and teaching assistants are up in the air.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners is poised to pass a budget that cuts the local allocation to schools by about $250,000 in anticipation of a drop in enrollment. Commissioners say those unhappy with the anticipated $4 million to $5 million drop in overall school funding need to talk to the state, not them.
At the town hall meeting, retired minister Geoffrey Hoy said two states he has lived in gave school boards their own taxing authority. Even though the Rowan-Salisbury school board is elected to run the schools, the budgeting power seems to lie with “those five guys,” he said, pointing toward the commissioners’ chairs. Can that be changed?
Warren referred to North Carolina’s structure as a system of checks and balances that draws constituents out to take a stand and participate in the process.

Salisbury High teacher Maureen Mensing asked about the end of the salary supplement for teachers who earn advanced degrees. Under the Senate budget bill, only those receiving the supplement before 2014-15 will continue to receive them. If you earn it after that, you’ll still have your degree, but no boost from the state.
Mensing said she is working on her master’s and will finish right after the cutoff
Warren said “the thinking behind that” was that another sheepskin on the wall doesn’t necessarily make someone a better educator. The state has put money in lots of programs to improve teacher training, he said. The money thrown at it hasn’t really reaped the results hoped for.

“No one wants to get rid of public education,” Warren said, but there’s disagreement about what it’s going to take to make it better.
Whatever the General Assembly decides this summer, more reform is guaranteed. Gov. Pat McCrory has given his Education Cabinet a list of initiatives to study.
If state leaders really want to change the culture of public education in North Carolina, they need to find an approach that does not make teachers feel as though there’s a bull’s eye on their backs. To say they are beleaguered and defensive is an understatement.
But teachers have to anticipate and move along with the tides of reform. Every business and institution in the state has been through the riptide of the recession and come out transformed.
We’d all feel better if, as Warren suggests, we could hold off on the tinkering until elected leaders and educators can reach consensus and come up with a grand plan. As it is, we’re all learning why passing laws is likened to making sausage. A lot of things get chopped up and thrown together — and we struggle to digest the end result.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.