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NC House panel sketches the future of education with broad strokes and few details

 Committee Chair John Torbett (center) and members of the House committee on the future of education listen to speakers in Stanley on Monday.
Ann Doss Helms
Committee Chair John Torbett (center) and members of the House committee on the future of education listen to speakers in Stanley on Monday.

After a year of traveling across the state to talk about the future of public education in North Carolina, a special House committee concluded its work Monday with a handful of broad recommendations to the General Assembly.

Those recommendations are less a blueprint for reinventing education than a general affirmation of work that’s already in progress. The committee called for high-quality education, better pay for teachers and calendar flexibility. But it didn’t weigh in on specifics, such as the $1.75 billion funding increase a judge has ordered in the Leandro case, a proposal to revamp teacher pay and licensure or changes to a state law on when the school year can start.

No cost estimates or specific legislative requests were included for any of the six proposals.

State Rep. John Torbett, who chaired the committee, noted that Monday’s meeting marked the end of his committee’s work, but “the beginning of a long course to build a better system for education for North Carolina’s children.”

Here are the six points the panel covered:

Academics: Focus on basics

The report says the General Assembly should focus on core academic subjects needed “to prepare students for the jobs of the future” and consider freeing up time for that by moving some electives to online classes or activities offered outside the school day.

Torbett said he thinks that should include creating room for students to advance at their own pace. “You may be a fifth grader but you may have improved your math skills up to a sixth or seventh grade math skill,” he said. “This is to allow them that flexibility to move forward at their pace.”

Rep. Rachel Hunt of Mecklenburg County suggested amending the recommendation to call for a longer school day and/or Saturday sessions to allow for electives and more time on basics. Torbett said, “I don’t disagree with you.” But amending the report would require extending the committee’s work, so Torbett wouldn’t take amendments.

Teacher pay: Raises and relief

The committee urged the General Assembly to “continue to review the current salary schedules” and look for ways to adjust duties to relieve teachers of non-instructional tasks.

But on one of the most consequential issues, the panel ran out the clock. Torbett said the panel had hoped to weigh in on a plan for licensure and pay changes that is slowly working its way through a series of advisory boards. Earlier this month, the state Board of Education asked for more details about how to make such a plan work and asked legislators to authorize a pilot program in 2023. Torbett said that didn’t allow enough time for his committee to take a stand.

Hunt said the group should also have requested money for more teacher assistants.

Safety: Let teachers do discipline

The committee recommended that the General Assembly keep trying to create safe learning environments and noted that teachers should have “authority to maintain order in their classrooms without fear of repercussion.”

“We need to let the teachers know that we do have their back and support in the classroom with disciplinary issues, and also let the administrators know that they are to have the backs of teachers in the classroom,” Torbett said. The recommendations didn’t include specifics.

Testing: Keep studying change

Torbett opened by saying the committee had discussed eliminating end-of-year testing. But the report simply calls for lawmakers to keep studying how students are assessed and look for opportunities to use data that can shape instruction during the year. Most schools are already doing that.

School calendars: Give flexibility

The current law limits how early most districts can begin classes. It’s unpopular and has inspired some open defiance. Some counties, including Gaston, started this school yearmore than a week earlier than the law allows, which allows them to give high school exams before winter break.

Rep. David Willis of Union County said he’d like to see districts be able to synchronize schedules with community colleges. “Calendar flexibility has long been talked about and is sorely overdue,” he said.

Torbett said he’d like to see the state mandate a more condensed calendar, starting around Labor Day and ending around Memorial Day. But he noted that would also require a change in the required classroom hours. That was not part of the committee’s report.

Leadership: Empower the state superintendent

The committee reports that the current division of powers between the elected North Carolina superintendent and the appointed Board of Education “creates a power struggle that causes more strife than support for North Carolina’s education system.” It said public comments favor more authority for the superintendent, but that would require a constitutional amendment. The recommendation calls for the General Assembly to approve an amendment — which would then require a referendum by the general public.

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Copyright 2022 WFAE. To see more, visit WFAE.

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.