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Gary Pearce: Roy and Phil’s ‘Excellent’ school adventure

By Gary Pearce

Bipartisanship, like pollen, has been in the air in Raleigh lately.

Both will be gone soon.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed the “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” championed by Phil Berger, the Republican Senate president pro tem. Democrats and Republicans voted overwhelmingly for the bill; it passed the Senate 48-0 and the House 113-5.

But when he signed the law, Governor Cooper said, “Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading. But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

In other words, “I’m supporting your bill, but you’d better support my education budget.”

Cooper’s and Berger’s viewpoints will frame the education debate during the rest of the legislative session.

The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 builds on the Excellent Public Schools Acts of 2013 and 2019. Those acts established Read to Achieve, Berger’s signature education program, which aims to get students reading by the end of the third grade.

But the Associated Press reported that “a 2018 North Carolina State University study found no benefit on reading scores from ‘Read to Achieve.’ Key test results on fourth-grade reading in North Carolina have been flat in recent years.”

This year’s “Excellent” act mandates that teaching be based on the “Science of Reading,” defined as “evidence-based reading instruction practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican, put it this way when she endorsed Berger’s bill: “The science is in. The science of reading won the reading war. Phonics won.”

Governor Cooper and Democratic legislators apparently accept her verdict. But Cooper is saying that “ultimate success” requires better pay for teachers and more money spent in classroom and schools.

He titled his proposed education budget, released in March, “Ensuring a Sound Basic Education for All Students.”

It includes:

• A 10% increase over two years in “average pay for existing educators.”

• Hiring more teacher assistants to support early-grades literacy and math.

• More money for disadvantaged and at-risk students, for children with disabilities and for Limited English Proficiency services.

• Increased support for low-wealth school systems and more help for low-performing and high-poverty schools and districts.

• Money to recruit, retain, and support teachers, including programs like Teaching Fellows, Principals Fellows and National Board Certification.

• More support and mentoring for first-year teachers.

• More nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers.

• More money for early childhood education.

Conservative groups like the John Locke Foundation dismiss this as “teachers unions” and Democrats “throwing money” at problems.

But I remember an earlier “Excellent Schools Act” that had bipartisan support in North Carolina.

That was Gov. Jim Hunt’s education bill in 1997, which then-Republican Speaker Harold Brubaker endorsed. It passed, even though it had a billion-dollar-plus price tag.

It raised teacher pay to the national average; North Carolina went from 43rd among the states in teacher pay to the top 20.

The result? Average SAT scores rose 40 points. Our students made more gains in math and reading scores than any other state’s students. Then-President Bush’s National Education Goals Panel said North Carolina made more progress in education during the 1990s than any state.

This year, Democrats and Republicans say they want excellent public schools. Will they pay for excellence?

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.

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