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N.C. Schools Draft Reform Plans To Gain Flexibility

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Educators in most North Carolina school districts are hard at work this fall drawing up plans to improve student achievement to take advantage of a new state law that offers districts financial flexibility in return for accountability.

Backers of the School Improvement and Accountability Act, which was approved by the legislature in August, say it provides an unprecedented opportunity to break free of the bureaucratic constraints that have limited schools in the past.

The plan represents the first time such sweeping deregulation has been tried on a statewide level, according to W. Glenn Keever, director of communications for the state education department.

School districts that choose to participate in the program will have greater leeway in spending state money, and can request waivers from state regulations and policies in order to reach their goals. They also can elect to develop their own merit-pay systems for teachers, support staff, and administrators.

"There is no excuse now for everything that people have ever complained about in the faculty room," said John Dornan, executive director of the North Carolina Public School Forum.

"It really almost freezes people initially when you realize how much potential there is in this," he added.

The legislation grew out of a 1988 report calling for deregulation, which was issued by a study group of business, educational, and political leaders organized by the forum.

North Carolina's efforts parallel those under way in South Carolina, where lawmakers are expected in January to adopt final rules giving regulatory relief to approximately 100 top-performing schools. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1989.)

The difference between the two states' programs, Mr. Dornan explained, is that South Carolina plans to use deregulation as a reward for schools that have already attained high levels of achievement. Its northern neighbor, on the other hand, sees deregulation as an incentive for most or all districts to improve.

All school districts participating in North Carolina's performance-based accountability program will receive money for instructional materials, supplies and equipment, textbooks, testing support, and driver education in a lump sum, to be spent as each wishes.

In addition, the state board of education may waive regulations concerning class size, teacher certification, assignment of teacher assistants, use of state-adopted textbooks, and "the purposes for which state funds may be used."

For example, a school that wanted to buy computer software instead of mathematics textbooks would be free to do so under the new regulations. And teacher assistants, who are now assigned only to grades K-3, could be distributed throughout the school system, observers said.

"The real key to the whole process is going to be the waivers granted by the state board of education," said G. Thomas Houlihan, superintendent of the Granville County schools. "That's probably the one wild card in all of this--what the state board will and will not allow."

The state board last month approved guidelines for implementing the legislation, which will take effect for the 1990-91 school year. Participating school systems will spend this year planning.

As of last week, 122 of the state's 134 school districts had indicated that they will take part, Mr. Dornan said.

The districts have until March 1 to submit a local school-improvement plan to the state for approval. To encourage decentralized decisionmaking, the law requires the involvement of a "substantial" number of teachers and administrators.

The plans must include three- to five-year goals for student performance and annual milestones the districts will use to measure progress in meeting them.

In its guidelines, the state board included a list of 30 indicators of student performance--primarily end-of-grade and end-of-course tests--against which districts will be judged. To be found satisfactory, a district must meet 75 percent of its goals.

All districts in the state, including those who are not in the program, will be required to give the tests. The results will be compiled in an annual statewide report card.

The new program's heavy reliance on standardized tests to gauge student performance has concerned educators, Mr. Dornan said.

"I wish they hadn't confined [the indicators] simply to that which can be measured in end-of-course or attendance terms," he said.

He added, however, that districts are free to set their own goals as well, which might include "softer" measures such as student and parent satisfaction.

The deadline for developing the plans has set off a frenzy of activity, particularly in districts that want to devise merit-pay programs.

"A lot of folks may not be as creative or as risk-taking as they one day will be, because the initial time line is pretty tight," Mr. Houlihan noted.

Lawmakers have indicated that they intend to offer districts that decide to implement differentiated-pay plans an additional 2 percent to 7 percent of teacher and administrator salaries to cover costs over a four-year period. Funds have not yet been allocated for that purpose, however.

For a proposed merit-pay plan to go into effect, the majority of teachers, support staff, and administrators in a district must approve it. A plan may include some schools and not others.

Julia Kron, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teachers' union, said the association supports giving teachers the option of participating in a merit-pay program.

"If teachers choose a certain type of differentiated-pay plan and have the opportunity to vote on that," Ms. Kron noted, "we should not be telling them they don't want it."

During the legislature's 1989 session, the union successfully opposed implementing a pilot career-ladder program on a statewide basis.

The union has taken issue, however, with the state board's decision to give principals the final say over the awarding of bonuses.

Each plan should instead specify how the money is to be allocated, Ms. Kron argued.

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