If you’re interested in education reform, you having a hard time keeping up with the changes coming out of the General Assembly. Last week Sen. Phil Berger’s (R-Rockingham) Excellent Public Schools Act (SB 795) — which among other things ends social promotion and does away with teacher tenure — was approved by the Senate and then had most of its provisions rolled into the budget bill. The bill (SB 795) was also sent to the House for consideration. The House then added to SB 795 the recently-approved Opportunity Tax Credit Scholarship, (HB 1104) which provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits for companies that make contributions to scholarship programs for needy students. Students from families at or below 225 percent of the federal poverty level, approximately $48,000 for a family of four, are eligible to apply for a scholarship up to $4,000 to attend private schools. In addition to the adding the tax credit scholarships, the House version of SB 795 also replaced merit pay with teacher bonuses for students who perform well on Advanced Placement tests and removed the A-F school grading system aimed at giving parents a better sense of how schools are doing.
Yesterday afternoon the House Education committee held a hearing on its version of SB 795. After Sen. Berger explained the bill’s provisions and various versions, the public had two minutes to share views on the subject. Objections center around to ideas 1) the legislation – no matter how it is defined — is too ambitious to be considered in the short session and 2) public school dollars shouldn’t be given to private schools.
hough far from perfect, The Excellent Public Schools Act offers workable solutions to two pressing problems lack of grade level reading skills and improving teacher performance. The problems – and solutions – have existed for some time. So what reason is there to wait? Some criticize the Opportunity Tax Credit Scholarship because it takes money from the public schools and gives it to private schools which have no accountability. Such statements are fallacious. I would argue private schools have the ultimate accountability. If students are dissatisfied with private schools, they leave. Few students in public schools enjoy such leverage. Critics contend that school choice programs like the tax credit scholarship have drained resources from the public schools. Not so. There is a growing body of research that opposes this contention. Earlier this year the Friedman Foundation published a report by Benjamin Scafidi that found “all forms of school choice tried in the United States have led to improvement in academic outcomes for students who remain in public schools or have led to no effect on academic outcomes for students who remain in public schools.” The tax credit scholarship is targeted on children who are often trapped in failing schools and whose opportunity is limited simply by where they live. For those who oppose the scholarship, it makes you wonder if they are committed to expanding educational opportunity for children or to perpetuating failing schools?
The Excellent Public Schools Act and the The Tax Credit Opportunity Scholarship are both significant pieces of legislation, both of which would advance the cause of education reform in North Carolina. However, the House and Senate obviously have differing views and priorities. It will make for interesting sessions during the conference committee.