N.C. Consensus Pushes for New Set of Reforms

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In North Carolina, where critics have decried the plethora of stop-and-start education reforms over the past two decades, a confluence of previous initiatives and uncommon agreement among officials and educators may be leading to the strongest and most effective round of reforms yet.

Student-achievement gains on national tests, the most dramatic of any state's, have moved North Carolina from among the bottom performers to the middle of the pack. Schools are demanding higher standards, students are performing better on state tests, and districts have acquired more local control. And, now, lawmakers are showing bipartisan support for a bill to increase teacher pay and accountability as another means of improving classroom instruction.

"I think our focus now on standards, safe schools, excellent teaching, and a good start for every child are what we are going to stick with," Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. said in a recent interview. "All kinds of folks are coming together on education issues, many people who have never stood together before. Education is something that is so important, so fundamental, that it ought to transcend partisan politics."

Targeting Attrition

The newest piece in the reform package is the proposed Excellent Schools Act, Gov. Hunt's plan to address the state's high teacher-attrition rate. Last month, GOP Speaker of the House Harold Brubaker and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Democrat, stood with the Democratic governor to announce their co-sponsorship of the bill, which would raise starting teachers' salaries from $21,330 to $25,000. It would also offer raises and bonuses to teachers who earn extra credentials, who teach at high-performing schools, or who take on mentoring duties.

In return, teachers would be expected to meet higher standards. The proposal directs the state school board to compel teacher education institutions to administer tougher entrance exams, to create a more rigorous certification test, and to make teachers get their licenses renewed every five years.

The Senate passed the bill 43-3 late last month and sent it to the House, where the major point of contention appears to be the $285 million price tag.

The governor has several other legislative initiatives he is also pushing: continuing development of rigorous student standards, doubling the Smart Start program--the state's version of Head Start--to reach youngsters in each of North Carolina's 100 counties, and proceeding with the transformation of the state board from a regulatory to a service agency.

Gov. Hunt said that efforts to raise standards have contributed to a 17-point jump in 8th graders' performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress mathematics test since 1990. And his latest quest to improve teaching, he said, is the capstone of his efforts. "If you get the teaching right, most of the rest will follow."

Many credit the leadership and determination of the governor, who has built his career on education reform. Not only is Mr. Hunt in his fourth nonconsecutive term as North Carolina's governor; he has a prominent national role as chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

"To call Jim Hunt an education governor is to understate the case," said Mike Ward, the state superintendent for public instruction. "He has a remarkable capacity to generate buy-in. There is a better spirit of collaboration than we've experienced in a long time."

Educators and lawmakers say the governor's focus on education, combined with a strong state board, a new state superintendent, and cooperation from lawmakers, educators, and the business community, has created a feeling of cautious optimism that the current reforms will take hold.

"There are a lot of people, including myself, entering the new administration of Governor Hunt with optimism," said John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research center. "We have had a terrible history of lack of consensus among key state leaders on the direction of our schools."

The recent cooperation has been unprecedented, many North Carolinians say, and not just between the legislature and the governor. The state school boards' association and the North Carolina Association of Educators, though often at odds, collaborated recently to draft new teacher-tenure and-dismissal policies, which will be turned into legislation.

But some observers are not so willing to give Mr. Hunt the credit. Instead, they say the gains have been pushed by the legislature, which last year passed a plan calling for higher academic standards and accountability measures, and the state school board, which has dismantled a highly centralized state system to give more control to districts and schools.

"Real efforts in education reform, in my opinion, began last term when the state House became majority Republican," said Sen. Austin M. Allran, the ranking Republican on the education committee. "That's when most of the reform efforts were initiated by the legislature, and the effort was quite bipartisan."

Others agree that the legislature has played a strong role. "I think a lot of legislators came into office in the last few years already believing that education reform was the direction we needed to go in," said Sen. Leslie Winner, a Democrat who co-chairs the education committee. "But I think Governor Hunt has kept it front and center."

Looking at Links

A nonpartisan education research group, which has been trying to track the cause of school improvements, links some of the progress to Mr. Hunt. For the past year, the Raleigh-based Center for Research in Education has been analyzing state education policies and their impact on test scores.

"It's pretty clear to me that we've moved out of the cellar," said Suzanne E. Triplett, the senior program manager who is conducting the study. "North Carolina in the early 1990s on every measure was one of the lowest-performing states. In a very short period, North Carolina is beginning to perform at the national average.

"There is almost a direct line between the changes and Governor Hunt's initiatives," she said. "Governor Hunt has been the leader and the direction for the reforms. I'm not sure you can link [Gov. Hunt and higher achievement] directly, but they sure do parallel each other."

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