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Accountability Tops N.C. Lawmakers' Agenda

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Resuming work on school-accountability measures is a top priority for North Carolina lawmakers as they open the state's legislative session.

Under a new assessment plan crafted by the state board of education, student performance would be measured annually in reading, writing, and mathematics at each of the state's nearly 2,000 schools.

Teachers and administrators in schools that saw dramatic boosts in test scores would win bonus money of between $500 and $1,000 each. But in schools where performance lagged, the state could assume control and dismiss the principal and teaching staff.

To give schools more flexibility to focus on the basics, the board is asking lawmakers to free schools from state prescriptions for class sizes, the school calendar, and textbook purchases.

The board's plan would begin in the next school year for grades 3-8 and start in 1997 for grades 9-12.

Meanwhile, Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. last week released his spending plan for the second year of the state's biennial budget and declared that it "put education first." The plan features the first of what would be a series of proposed teacher pay hikes to bring salaries in line with the national average by 2000.

"We know that we have to do more to recruit and retain good teachers," Gov. Hunt said. "Almost half our teachers are leaving the profession within 10 years."

Election-Year Politicking

With elections looming in November, both parties will use the legislative session to court voters.

Mr. Hunt, a Democrat, is touting his pay plan as he prepares to run against Robert C. Hayes, a second-term state representative who won the Republican gubernatorial primary last week. Mr. Hayes and Vernon Robinson, a former college professor and the GOP nominee for state superintendent of public instruction, both have championed proposals for publicly funded vouchers to help private school students pay tuition.

Meanwhile, Jay Robinson, the chairman of the state school board, wants to see lawmakers move quickly to pass the board's plan and streamline one of the most centralized education systems in the country. He contends that if the board's plan does not become law and take hold, people will lose confidence in the state's schools.

"People are looking for alternatives to public education, so we have to do something reasonably soon," said Chairman Robinson, who is not related to the Republican candidate for state superintendent.

Charter school bills cleared both chambers of the legislature last year, and the House spent considerable time debating a tax-credit proposal for parents with children in private school.

The accountability drive began last year when the board and legislature moved to rework the state education department.

The board chairman also wants the legislature to approve a yearlong review of the state education code with an eye toward gutting much of the 500 pages of school law.

"Most of those laws ought to be abolished," Mr. Robinson said. "It's ridiculous. We're micro-managing our schools to death."

School officials from the 10 districts that have been working under a pilot accountability program launched last year by the board praised the flexibility it has brought them.

"We're thinking differently about how to teach children," said E. Wayne Trogdon, the superintendent of the 4,700-student Asheville district. "We're questioning ourselves more, and if programs aren't working, we're discarding them."

But other school officials said the proposed statewide accountability plan raises tough questions about whether schools with large enrollments of poor and other disadvantaged students can improve fast enough to avoid intervention.

Compromises Sought

Others have argued that school performance should be measured based on three years' worth of testing rather than the year-to-year snapshot proposed.

The state board has already modified some of its proposals. Concerns about the quality of assessments aimed at high school students prompted the board earlier this year to delay the proposed implementation of the plan for grades 9-12 until 1997.

The board also appears to have answered criticisms that its proposals for firing staff members at poorly performing schools were unfair.

"At the outset, they talked about wholesale dismissal of staff" in schools targeted for state intervention, said Cecil S. Banks, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association. But the plan sent to the legislature preserves much of the state's tenure law.

Construction at Issue

Beyond the accountability measures, legislators are likely to question the $25 million that Gov. Hunt budgeted to pay the bonus awards to improving schools. But without those incentives, Mr. Robinson, the board chairman, said, "this plan won't get to first base."

"We're going to be mighty disappointed if the money's not in there," he said. "I told a friend the other day, 'It's like holding a bingo game without the prizes.'"

Sen. Leslie Winner, the co-chairwoman of her chamber's education committee, said the earmarked funds will compete with several other proposals angling for limited dollars--including the governor's proposed teacher pay raise.

"Money's tight," Ms. Winner, a Democrat, said.

In fact, tax cuts are likely, she said.

Lawmakers also will consider proposals to help districts pay the estimated $6.2 billion in school construction needed in the state over the next five years.

One bill calls for the state to issue a $950 million bond and set up a school-facilities trust fund.

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