North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCroy signed into law last week a sweeping set of free market-inspired education reforms, including a $20 million school voucher program and an end to teacher tenure, that are being watched by budget-minded policymakers nationwide.
The legislation cuts spending on education by $482 million over the next two years amid a series of tax cuts designed to spur business growth, and it puts an end to mandatory pay step-increases for teachers who earn master's degrees.
Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., told Newsmax that the state's new education changes are a "compelling package of reforms that collectively would bring North Carolina back into the frontier of education-minded states."
McCrory signed the measure on Friday as part of a $21 billion state budget bill, after it passed the Republican-led General Assembly.
The reforms also include expanding charter schools, eliminating about 3,800 jobs for teacher assistants, and increasing the state's investment in the Teach for America program, which hires prospective teachers who may not hold education degrees that are seen as a traditional pipeline to the classroom.
Those bold moves have upset teachers and union supporters who argue that the traditional benchmarks, employed by most school districts around the nation, are essential to retaining high-quality educators. The legislation has been decried by outraged public-school advocates as a dismantling of public education.
Thousands of members of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and their supporters turned out at the statehouse in Raleigh to "wear red for public-ed" in a series of "Moral Monday" protests.
But their fury, which includes outrage over no raises for teachers for the sixth year in a row, seems unlikely to turn the tide in a state where school competition advocates have found strong support for large-scale reforms.
Finn said in an interview with Newsmax that vouchers, while always unpopular with unions, have come back to life in the past decade, growing in places like Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin, along with tax-credit scholarship programs, which continue in about eight states.
"Vouchers have certainly staged a comeback," said Finn, an education scholar and senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, who was formerly a U.S. assistant secretary of education.
"Vouchers are no longer novel or seen as eccentric around the country. It's really now just a question of which state is going to have vouchers next," he said.
Under the North Carolina bill, $10 million will go to low-income students who will receive $4,200 each year in vouchers to attend private schools.
Finn noted that ending teacher tenure, as is happening in North Carolina, is slowly being adopted around the country as lawmakers and others question the value of offering workers lifetime jobs.
"Tenure is an obsolete notion in almost all of America these days except for educational institutions and sometimes other civil service jobs with the government. I personally think it's just insane for anybody at age 25 or 26 to be given a lifetime job unrelated to their future performance," Finn said
"People deserve due process, multi-year contracts if they are good at what they do. If they aren't, why does the state have an obligation to keep handing them a paycheck?" he said.
Some teachers in North Carolina call the new spending bill disrespectful to their professional practice. They were joined by supporters from the North Carolina NAACP, which pledged to support teacher efforts by continuing rallies around the state.
"Educators are sick and tired of being demoralized," said Rodney Ellis, president of the NCAE, at a news conference held before Monday's protest rally. "We're sick and tired of being unappreciated. We're sick and tired of being disrespected. Public educators and public schools are not failing our students, politicians are."
In addition to the budget overhaul in public education, state lawmakers approved a heightened school-safety measure that would allow concealed weapons to be carried by permit-holders in locked cars on the campus of schools and public universities.
The bill also offers a small increase in state education funding — 1 percent — but offers very little else for the state's public school teachers.
It also includes $6 million to be spent over two years to expand the Teach for America program, which is a national corps of recent graduates who dedicate two years to teach in mostly low-income or struggling schools around the nation where teacher hiring remains difficult.
"In the public schools it's a shift in philosophy," said Ran Coble, the director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, in a video blog posted on his progressive group's website discussing the new bill. "I've heard the Republicans say often this session, 'Well, elections have consequences,' and I think people will agree with that."
He added: "From the public schools you are taking almost 4,000 teaching assistants. There's no raise for teachers. You’ve got cuts to the Department of Public Instruction, cuts to things that get people into the teaching profession, which I worry about long-term."
The NCAE said in a letter from Ellis sent to lawmakers on Monday, that it plans to take the state to court over the new voucher provision.
Supporters of the measure say it's in line with a new era of accountability in public education as public coffers and budgets shrink, arguing that achievement must be a bottom-line priority — and one that is tied to teachers and schools.
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Wake County, N.C., who worked on the new budget, defended lawmakers' actions on education reform, noting that it is tied to the economy.
"We can no longer have a state with high unemployment. We can no longer have a state with low expectations for our students. Republicans simply will not accept that. We believe that our economy can grow. We believe that our students can achieve," Dollar told the Associated Press.
Finn noted that broad-scale education reform packages have occurred mainly in red states, but he added that at least one blue state, Massachusetts, has been successful in making such changes. Those, however, came with a big price.
Finn said that reforms in Massachusetts were "enacted by putting a bunch of money on the table. Buying the will of the unions to go along with these changes. I don't think any state, however, can afford to do that anymore."
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