Local leaders contribute to talk of statewide education reform

Several notable Lee County residents involved in merit pay discussions
Dec. 13, 2012 @ 05:02 AM

While the battle over education reform is set to start up once more in Raleigh next month, several Lee County leaders have been engaging in behind-the-scenes talk with legislative leaders.

In June, the N.C. Senate passed a bill called the Excellent Public Schools Act (S795), endorsed by the Republican majority but opposed by Democrats, that called for ending teacher tenure, instituting merit-based pay and several other measures.

That bill passed along partisan lines and will go to the House of Representatives when the General Assembly convenes in January. In the meantime, the N.C. Association of Educators — an education lobbying group based in Raleigh — has formed committees to address different parts of the bill and meet with legislative leaders concerning the impending deliberations.

The group's committee on performance-based pay was led by Jeff Moss, the superintendent of Lee County Schools. Last month, Moss said, Speaker of the House Thom Tillis met with his committee to discuss the group's proposals in a conversation that apparently went well.

"We heard him out, heard all of what he had to say," Moss said. "... And I think he genuinely listened to what the superintendents had to say, and we really appreciated that."

The Senate bill only includes one type of performance pay — for individual teachers, using a rubric that rewards student performance, leadership and mentoring roles or being assigned to hard-to-staff schools or subjects like math and science — but Moss's committee suggested two systems.

One followed the Senate's guidance almost verbatim. The other proposed two slightly different options for bonuses given to all employees and which Moss said was largely based on The Head of Class project, a public-private partnership in Lee County that received widespread praise from current and former governors and other officials — including a former U.S. Secretary of Education — when it began in 2010. Moss said he would like to see the whole state follow the county's lead.

"We're trying to make the case that everyone on a school campus deserves credit for students’ success," he said.

Kirk Bradley, the chairman of the Lee County Education Foundation, which spearheaded the The Head of Class initiative, said he hadn't spoken with Moss's committee, but he'd also like to see the program grow beyond Lee County.

"The key is incentivizing the school unit more than the individual," Bradley said.

The Head of Class uses a tiered system to distribute awards to every employee and names the winning school based on academic performance, weighted by free and reduced lunch rates in order to level the playing field for schools serving high-poverty populations.

Moss's committee recommended a system that would reward all employees in successful schools with a set monetary bonus and also suggested that lawmakers consider using free and reduced lunch rates as an equalizing factor.

The committee's suggestions also differed from the existing Senate bill by including specific dollar amounts, whereas the current bill leaves that decision up to individual districts.

"The goal we have is — instead of having 115 different plans — is to have something the majority can agree on," Moss said. "... We don't want districts stealing from each other, using it to compete."

He explained that if every district had its own plan, districts could bump up the value of bonuses to try to lure employees away from one another — tactics he said would unduly harm small or rural school districts and put them at even more of a disadvantage than they already are.

The committee also requested that before any of these measures are taken, if they are at all, that the state implement pilot programs to test the results, reevaluate teacher salaries in general and identify a reliable funding source for potential bonuses.

Bradley noted that both he and Dennis Wicker, a former state representative and lieutenant governor from Sanford who is also on the foundation's board of directors, have spoken with Tillis and other officials about various education topics lately, including The Head of Class.

Bradley said he hoped that with that personal touch, plus lobbying efforts such as the NCAE committee reports, something like The Head of Class will be put into use around the state soon. Moss said he can't be sure if Tillis or some of the other lawmakers he's meeting with soon will take his committee's report to heart, but that it will become evident once January rolls around.