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An exploration of conservative education reforms



In the Republican vision of education reform, the free market solves all problems.

Parents can choose from public schools and charter schools, or even receive money to send their children to private school. Each school will provide a different educational focus and parents can choose what is best for their children.

Republicans call it school choice. Democrats call it privatizing education. But in both cases, simplifying the message obscures the complex changes that await public education.

When the Legislature reconvenes later this month, sweeping educational changes, along the lines of a voucher system and charter school oversight, will follow tax reform, lawmakers indicate. But smaller revisions could come quickly.

Gutting tenure and installing performance-based pay—to "increase teacher accountability," GOP lawmakers say—are both vestiges from the last two years. A career and technical education track would also add to the school choice agenda.

"Probably right off the bat, Gov. McCrory will act on the idea of a dual track diploma, one for college bound and one for career bound," says Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation. JLF is funded by the Pope Foundation. Newly installed State Deputy Budget Director Art Pope sits on its board.

"Tenure will either be eliminated or reserved for only the highest-performing teachers," Stoops says.

North Carolina currently offers "career status" to teachers with at least four years of experience and proper qualifications, but career status merely guarantees a right to due process in the case of dismissals.

A proposal last summer from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who led much of the education reforms, would have dismantled tenure by putting all teachers on a one-year contract.

And then there's merit pay. Berger's Excellent Public Schools Act opened the door for merit pay but left the details vague and the onus on local school districts to implement it.

"It may not be ready for 2013, but a strengthened performance pay system definitely seems to be the direction we're headed," says Stoops. "I'm not sure on what basis it will be calculated, but it's inevitable."

Representatives from the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's teachers' union, hope they'll have a seat at the table as the new legislation gets crafted.

"If there is a merit pay plan, we want to hear it out," says NCAE President Rodney Ellis. "But there has been no merit pay plan that we have seen or anyone can show us that has proven successful."

The Republican reform agenda as a whole is largely untested. Legislators are looking to states like Florida, Indiana and Louisiana, Stoops says, as models of conservative innovation.

"I've heard from the governor and other leaders that those are the states they look to," says Stoops. But, he admits, "some of the reforms are too new to see whether they have been successful."

Among the big reform states, Stoops believes Florida has had the most time to see effects play out, and they've been positive. Others, such as Matthew Di Carlo of the nonprofit Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C., have argued the reforms have had a neutral to slightly positive effect.

Florida ranked 11th last year in Education Week's annual states' report card, which considers national and international test scores as well as graduation rates. North Carolina ranked 17th.

The "Florida Formula," as it is sometimes called, relies on charter schools and tax credit scholarships to provide choice.

It also uses an A–F grading system of schools, which will be implemented this year in North Carolina as part of the Excellent Public Schools Act. The Wake County Board of Education recently voiced its disapproval over the new stipulation.

The tax credit scholarship portion of Florida's law allows tax-free donations that pay for low-income families to opt out of the public system. Such a provision was floated, but ultimately wiped from the Excellent Public Schools Act.

Tax-free scholarships might be considered on the mild end of the choice spectrum. Moving further to the right are state-funded vouchers, which use taxpayer money to allow students to opt out of the public education system.

Florida had such a provision, but it was struck down by that state's supreme court in 2006. The voucher system was successfully challenged on grounds that it violated the state's constitutional obligation to provide a "uniform" education. North Carolina's constitution has a similar provision, which would likely be used in a challenge to school choice reform.

On the far end of the choice spectrum are educational savings accounts, like those recently enacted by Arizona. The savings account allows state money to be deposited directly into a bank account for parents of children who attend a school that scores a D or an F.

That money can be used for a private school, online school or even homeschooling. Parents can use leftover funds to pay for their children's college education.

Stoops says savings accounts will definitely be part of the conversation in North Carolina, as well.

Reforms in Indiana and Louisiana have significantly streamlined the process for allowing new charter schools. In 2011, Stanford University released a study showing Indiana charter school students significantly outperformed their public school peers.

But while charter schools may nurture innovative education, they also can open the door for snake oil salesmen and ideologues. For example, one of Louisiana's charter schools was recently outed for requiring students suspected of being pregnant to receive a pregnancy test.

Virtual charter schools are also on the rise in conservative education states. The Center for Public Education, a research arm of the National School Boards Association, reports "a troubling overall picture of poor performance and low graduation rates for full-time online students."

After being re-elected speaker of the House last week, Rep. Thom Tillis talked about grand plans for education reform. "We must encourage cost-efficient innovation in our schools by focusing on new technologies such as digital learning."

K-12 Inc., one of the country's biggest virtual school companies, applied for a license in North Carolina last year, but it was blocked by former Superior Court Judge Abe Jones. However, the application was denied on process only, leaving the door open for virtual schools.

"Ultimately, I see school choice in a holding pattern until the tax reform debate is finished," Stoops says. "It might be a problem for those of us who want to see more school choice, because when they get to the end of the legislative session, there will be rushing to get something out."

And in that rush, it's anybody's guess just how far to the right education reform will go.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Free market, public education."

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