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Talking reading and policy with President Pro Tem Senator Phil Berger

In 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Excellent Public Schools Act, which included Read To Achieve. The legislation was aimed at raising reading proficiency, which at the time was about 60%. As of last year, $150 million had been set aside under the law but reading scores, cumulatively, had dropped slightly. NC States Friday Institute even did a study in which it concluded Read To Achieve was not effectively producing its intended outcome. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, was the architect of that law. In spring 2019, in response to the continued lag in reading scores, Berger assembled a team to explore changes to Read To Achieve and he ultimately introduced a new bill — Senate Bill 438 — which would have considerably revised it. That bill was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper. On a rainy Thursday that saw Wake County Public School Systems close early due to threat of flood, EdNC sat down to talk with Berger in his office for over an hour — about education policy, reading, and what his grades were like when he was a kid.

Editor’s Note: Alex Granados and Mebane Rash edited this interview for length, clarity, and keeping it to policy.

I’d like to start, before we get into reading, with childhood. Danville, Virginia. What was Phil Berger, the student, like?

Disappointment. I mean, truly. I was not a particularly good student. I don’t think, looking back on it, I was in a position where I applied myself in ways that I probably should have. I don’t know that I have a particular reason for it other than school came fairly easy for me. Until it wasn’t easy. And by the time it wasn’t easy, I probably had some bad habits — in terms of, you know, I don’t really need to do my homework, I don’t really need to do this, I can write that paper tomorrow. That sort of thing. So I was not a particularly good student in terms of my grades and in terms of what potential I probably had. Just the truth. I finished in the middle of pack as far as my high school is concerned. I should have done much better than that. I had a fairly decent SAT score which indicated that, you know, maybe I was an underachiever in terms of how I was doing things. I was more interested in sports and extracurricular activities.

Did you enjoy school?

Oh yeah, I had a ball.

Did you have any special teachers as you were growing up?

My sixth-grade teacher, Miss Haskins. I still think about her. It’s kind of interesting, her daughter, I found out years later, is actually a constituent of mine now. You know, I grew up in Danville, and she lives in Reidsville now. So I know her and her husband. My high school teachers, primarily the history government teachers, are the ones that I probably remember best.

You had that government bug from an early age?

I read the newspaper every day: Current events, sports. Now if I read the paper, it’s obituaries.

You met your wife in high school, didn’t you?

Her brother and I were buddies and pretty good friends. So that’s how I met her.

Was she a better student than you?

Well, yes. No question, in terms of being responsible and in terms of if there were assignments that needed to be done, getting the assignments done. Much better. We actually make a pretty good team because she makes sure I do things I’m supposed to do.

I always ask this question whenever I’m talking to people about reading instruction. Less than half of the people I interview can answer because most of them don’t remember. Do you remember how you learned to read? And, really, how you were taught to read?

I don’t. I know I enjoyed reading. And I wasn’t somebody that enjoyed reading dense books, but I enjoyed losing myself, so to speak, in reading things whether it was comic books or newspaper articles or magazines or — in some instances — history, biography… that kind of stuff.

How about when you decided to run for office here in North Carolina. How big of a role did education and your education experiences and your attitudes on education play?

I don’t know that it played that big a role. I had for various reasons expressed some frustration with the local school board. But I don’t know that it was something that really motivated me to run for office. I was more interested, I think, in trying to be a voice for the community where I was involved, the county I lived in. And I felt like I had the background, the interest, and the aptitude to be someone who could speak for folks.

You’re called the architect of Read To Achieve, the primary sponsor of that bill. When did reading become a centerpiece agenda item for you?

I think it became more of a centerpiece when we got to the point where we had a majority at the General Assembly, because one of the things I learned really fast when I got here was that, as far as overarching policy for the state of North Carolina, if you’re in the minority, you’re not going to have a whole lot of influence on the direction. Particularly in education, when I was first here, Republicans were not listened to. And so early on, when we were in the minority, my primary focus was things like transportation and constituent service, places where I felt like I could contribute and my contributions would be listened to.

And then you get in the majority, and you felt like you could have some more influence…

I understood that there was a responsibility to have influence. And so, in looking at things that needed to be tackled, and things that needed to be addressed as far as direction, probably the most glaring failure that we had, and unfortunately that in many respects we still have, is that the continuum that you hear from the education folks — that learn to read, read to learn continuum. We were failing miserably as far as that’s concerned.

And so you’re seeing this and you’re thinking, you know, well now we can do something about it?

Right, so I’m looking at 40% of our third graders are below grade level, and [I’m wondering] is that the case everywhere?

And I think back. Was that the case when I was coming along? I really don’t know whether it was. I know it wasn’t for me personally, and it didn’t appear to be for the friends that I had. I knew there was some folks in school who were slower than others but I never had the sense that, when I was in high school, that there were a lot of folks who just simply could not read. Now, they may have been there, and they were just invisible to me. But in looking at that, how do you solve a problem?

One way from personal experience that you solve the problem is, you look around and say, how’s that guy doing it or that gal doing it? And so, fortunately, when you’re in the majority, you have more staff than just somebody that’s answering the phone and trying to put your bill book together, and you have an opportunity to have people who have the intellectual ability and the time to look into things. So when we got to the majority, one of the things that I asked our staff to do, because I was interested in it, is you know, what can we do to address this problem?

It is a problem. It has apparently been a problem for a pretty good period of time. It has not been solved in North Carolina. Who’s moving the needle? What are they doing to move the needle? How is that different than what we’re doing? And what can we do at the state level to try to make positive changes to get ourselves in line with folks that seem to be achieving positive results? And so, in looking around, one of the places we looked at was Florida.

Jeb Bush had implemented a series of policy initiatives that had, as a primary focus, moving the needle on this whole question of literacy. And so we began, we reached out to Governor Bush, got in touch with folks in Florida at his foundation and in state education bureaucracy there, and just started trying to figure out, okay, what are you doing, what’s worked, and how do you know whether it’s working or not? What sort of headwinds did you run into in trying to implement? And so that was pretty much the genesis of the Excellent Public Schools Act, which was adopted in 2013, of which a cornerstone is Read To Achieve.

There is this term of art: the science of reading. Some people like the term, some people don’t. But really what we’re talking about is how cognitive science says people learn to read. Do you remember being exposed to that previous to or at that time?

Not with that terminology. There was a lot of talk about phonics. There was a lot of talk about the failure to emphasize phonics in reading instruction. There was this sense that I have, that I believe is consistent with the sense I had back then, that there had been a moving away from phonics instruction, and there was at least some argument as to that being one of the reasons that we were not making the kind of progress that we needed to make — that our students were not making the kind of progress we want them to make. I don’t know that you could say that I was totally sold on, we need to, you know, dive in with both feet on phonics.

What we were trying to do is, if that’s what’s working, if that’s how they’re doing things in places where they’re achieving results, then maybe that’s what we ought to do. But I don’t think we were wedded to that in particular.

And the thing that impressed me as much as anything about what was going on in Florida is that the outcomes and the positive improvements really cut across demographic lines. People will not acknowledge this — but, I think what people do and how they explain things would almost lead you to believe that there’s an expectation that you’re not going to get positive results within certain communities. I refuse to accept that. What I saw in the Florida results, as far as outcomes, is that there were positive outcomes in traditional white populations, in African-American populations, in Hispanic populations — even Hispanic populations where English was not their first language.

I said, let’s replicate, as much as possible, the things that are going on there. And let’s be prepared for the resistance because, human nature being what it is, folks who are on the front lines have a natural view that they’re doing things the right way. Because they would not intentionally do things the wrong way, you know. So if the way we’re doing things is not achieving results and we’re telling folks that they got to change, there’s going to be some resistance. I mean, you just got to expect that. And, we did meet resistance, and I think unfortunately with some of the resistance we did not design the program, or we had hurdles that we could not get over, that I think have, in some measure, frustrated the outcomes that we should have gotten.

Just trying to understand a little better, but were there compromises that you had to make? Because I look at Read To Achieve and then I look at what some other states have done, and it seems like in Read to Achieve there’s still a lot of choice, it’s open to where we just say evidenced-based and there’s not as much specificity around the methods. Was that the product of compromise?

Everybody is an expert in education. Everybody. Particularly if you have an M.Ed after your name or an E.Ed after your name. And they can be just as wrong as anybody else. And I think have been. But, as importantly, everybody that sits on the education committee in the House and everybody that sits on the education committee in the Senate, is an expert, too. And I think, one of the things that I’ve learned, is that it’s easier to drive change from an executive position than it is to drive change from a legislative position. And so, if you have a strong governor, who has a working relationship with the legislature, that governor can probably move things along in a particular direction. Much more efficiently than if you are the leader of one body of a two-body legislature with a governor with a veto. So, there were a number of things that we, I think, needed to do to try to move the needle in the right direction. And that was the effort that we engaged and there’s still a lot of stuff in the Excellent Public Schools Act that, if folks had their druthers, they would change but that I think is very important.

There was a good bit of compromise. Trust me, if we could have written the original Excellent Public Schools Act with just some of our members, staff, and me, and our example from Florida and other places, it would have looked different. Not markedly different, but ultimately we were in a position of trying to move the needle in the right direction. And we got most of what we wanted, and most of what we needed, but not everything. The second round of problems we had is the question of, you know, the best legislation in the world, if it’s not implemented in the way that it was designed, it’s not going to give you the results that you thought you’d get when it was designed. So there were some implementation issues as well and probably the failure to have it as prescriptive as maybe some other states are is probably one of the reasons for that.

When the Excellent Public schools Act was signed into law in 2013, what were your expectations at that time?

Well, I felt like we had put in place policies that should provide us with positive results. So I felt pretty good about it and was optimistic that we were on the right track.

And I’m always curious, when legislators have these centerpiece agenda items and they become law, how do you then monitor it? How do you track whether it’s working or not?

You look at the EOG results, you look at the NAEP scores, you look at the SAS data that is out there. You talk to school board members, educators, and you ask them what they’re seeing. You do all of those things. But the other thing that you do is you think in terms of, are there things that need to be changed? What are other things that we need to do? What are the positives and what are the negatives? If there are negatives, why? What’s the reason for that? And then data, data, and more data. And, fortunately, I think the folks at SAS, with the development of EVAAS and the increased utilization of EVAAS, gives us an opportunity to make decisions based on not what my opinion is or what anybody else’s opinion is — except to the extent it’s an opinion as to what the data is telling us, and sometimes there’s a difference there.

When you look at the data between 2013 and 2019, scores will go up in some places, but overall scores were stagnant or going down. So you’re seeing that, then you’re also talking to educators. And what were you hearing from them?

Kind of mixed information. All the way from, “I know what I’m doing,” “It’s getting in my way,” “I can take care of things,” to, “I wish I had more information from either EVAAS or something else that helps me track how the students are doing on a regular basis,” to, in talking to some, “That I look at my EVAAS data all the time and there’s not a teacher in this school that is doing more to raise students’ scores than my class.” You know, that sort of thing. And there was a little bit of, how best to put this, “I don’t really need EVAAS;” “It’s taking up some of my time I could be doing something else that would help the students,” — you get a little bit of that too.

I think it’s rare, at least from my perspective, to have someone say, “Okay, you know, I pushed for this law, we’re looking at the data and it doesn’t look like it’s working. So let’s fix it.” I find that fascinating. And so I’m curious, you know, as an individual, as a human — was there any pride that was in the way of this?

So, if you’re in sales, one of the things that you’re constantly doing is thinking about what can be done to increase sales, and the reason I think this is important is you’re always thinking about adjusting how you do things to improve your outcomes. And so I’ve got a client in my law practice who’s a car dealer. And I just remember one time, we’re talking about things and he was telling me about some of the things that he tries to do to make sure that cars are selling because the economy, sometimes it really doesn’t matter what you do, folks are going to come on a lot, they’re gonna buy cars. You know, but other times, things are slow and he’s still got to pay his employees and pay for the lights and all that sort of stuff, and he just said to me, “You know, well, you try something and if that doesn’t work then try something else and if that doesn’t work, you try something else.” So I think that’s the way policy ought to work as far as the government is concerned.

The world is not a perfect world. People don’t necessarily respond to things as you think they will or as you hope they will. And so I think, no matter what it is, you’ve got to look at if you’re trying to achieve a particular result and you’re not achieving that result, maybe you ought to try something different. And I mean, there is, I think just naturally, a certain pride of authorship as far as the law is concerned, but it seems to me that there’s less pride of authorship if it’s not working than if it is working. So it’s fairly simple for me. Why are we not moving the needle? Were we wrong? Are there some things we need to do differently?

And so, this time, as opposed to spending a lot of time going out of state looking for help, we felt like we had built up enough within the state of folks that also had been looking at reading, and also had been thinking about what can we do within the context of Read To Achieve that we could get some feedback in state. But we could also look at what some other states are doing and make some changes.

So let’s look in state. It’s working here, here, here. What are they doing that’s different from where it’s not working, there, there and there? And maybe we ought to be a little more prescriptive. And I think we were able to develop some consensus that there is now more of a body of research and data that allows us to be more specific as to what we ought to do. There’s still a good bit of resistance to, “Why is the state telling us to do it this way? We know what we’re doing.” Well, I’m sorry. You don’t know what you’re doing, because, well at least you’re not achieving the results that you need to be achieving.

When we talk about being more prescriptive, would it be fair to say we’re talking specifically around this body of research that we’re calling science of reading?

I don’t know that when we were putting together the 2019 bill, I don’t know that we talked that much about “the science of reading.” At least for me it was more, what’s working, why is it working, and more importantly, what did they do?

I want to get into a little bit more of what Senate Bill 438 had in it. You’re looking at revising Read To Achieve and you talk to the experts again. You look at what other states are doing. But you also decided to work with someone who was an education advisor to a Democratic governor and then an State Board of Education appointee of another Democratic governor. What led to inviting JB Buxton into the discussions?

We had had some conversations. Some of our members had had some conversations. There was a good bit of consensus around JB as someone who took seriously the importance of policy and the importance of policy irrespective of politics. Now that’s not to say that he or anyone else — they still put the jersey on for their team. But he is someone that we felt like we could have a good intellectual discussion about what’s the right policy. Everyone acknowledges, I think regardless of whether you’re on the left or the right, that our scores were unacceptable. Everyone acknowledges that the learn-to-read, read-to-learn continuum is something where that third grade line is critically important. So there was a lot of consensus around those things. And because of the technology and the data that’s out there, it’s a lot more difficult to have disagreements based on opinion that will withstand scrutiny. My goal is to get the right policy in place. I think we can work with other people who have the same goal, and I have felt that we could come to some agreement. The reality at this point is that because we have a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, that if we were to allow policy dealing with literacy to get enmeshed in partisan politics, no one would win politically, in my view. And the folks that would lose would be the folks that everybody wants to help.

I think, unfortunately, politics still rears its head in education. It’s 60% of the budget. As far as state government is concerned, it’s the number one issue. So, that can be difficult. But I think, fortunately, we were able to find folks who felt very strongly that we can fight our political battles, but this is one that we ought to be able to find a way to move policy forward without getting sidetracked.

So Senate Bill 438 is drafted. And I read that, as well as Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act, and it tracked well together. One of the things that both Senate Bill 438 and Mississippi’s Act seem to do is to say, “We’re not going to ask you to do something you don’t know how to do; we’re going to train you first. And then, We’re not going to just leave you out on an island. We’re going to continue to give you supports in the form of coaching and professional development.” How much was that because these are things that weren’t in the original North Carolina law?

Well, they were. In a different way. In the original law we required literacy background in order to get licensed as an elementary educator. We provided, if I recall correctly, some provisions that would allow for continuing education credits to be required in literacy for elementary educators. So we did some of that, but not to the extent that the 2019 bill does.

When that bill was filed and moved through both chambers, what were your expectations at that point? Did you believe it was going to become law?

Yes. I felt like, and I think our staff and our members felt like, we were negotiating with the governor’s people on the policy — people he had appointed to the Board of Education. We were working with folks in the education schools and the universities. We were looking at programs in various parts of the state. The program Read Charlotte, which is not a Republican area. I felt like we had tried to give everybody a seat at the table. And, yeah, it surprised me. But even more than that, it disappointed me because I did feel like we had something that was as free from partisanship as anything that I’ve seen in the time I’ve been in the General Assembly. Especially in the field of education. Especially there.

Did you ever talk with the governor or his people about it after the veto?

Well the simple answer is I’ve not talked to the governor specifically about his veto. We have reached out and tried to get an explanation. I have yet to hear an explanation for why he vetoed it. I did see in one of your articles that JB said that DPI was unable to implement it. But that was not in his veto message. That’s not the reason he gave in his veto message. The only conclusion I can draw is that he was wanting to make a political point.

The reason he gave in his veto message is that Read To Achieve was a failing program and that the state needed more than a Band-Aid. When you look at what Senate Bill 438 was to be, did it feel like a Band-Aid?

No, I don’t think it was a Band-Aid. And if it was a Band-Aid, then what was the more comprehensive program that he proposed?

So, in the wake of that, we got another round of EOG scores and reading proficiency hadn’t improved. And then we get the NAEP scores. And as that’s going on. There are people at the State Board of Education and at the Department of Public Instruction, and they’re trying to get done what was in Senate Bill 438 in other ways.

I asked them to try to do that. I said, “Look for ways to administratively get this done.” We’re being told by the Board of Education that they want this. We’re being told by DPI that they want this. We’re being told by folks in the schools of education that they want this. I personally, philosophically, have a real problem with the administrative state overstepping. But, in this instance, if we can get these things done, see if there’s a way for them to do it.

And how can the General Assembly then support them, because so far there’s no new money allocated for Read To Achieve but, you know, putting coaches out in the field in schools, paying for training, it’s going to cost money.

Right. We need to pass a budget, which we’ve tried to do.

But even that budget doesn’t really contemplate, you know, some of these changes.

You know, one of the complaints that has been voiced about Read To Achieve is that it costs too much money. And so I think there’s an ability to re-purpose some of those dollars in ways that would further advance what needs to happen.

How do you think the way we teach reading in North Carolina schools will change?

I think it’s going to have to happen from the top down, in many respects. First of all, the state in North Carolina is more involved in the funding of schools than in other states. You go to places like New Jersey, Connecticut, they get a lot more of their money for their schools from their local property taxes whereas in North Carolina the bulk of the funding comes from the state. I think, if the funding is coming from the state, then the state naturally needs to be involved in the policy. Otherwise, I think the potential is you’re going to get more of the uneven results. We have a state constitution that guarantees the opportunity for basic education, not just in Wake County, not just in Guilford County, but all of North Carolina. So I think for that reason, our system is set up to be more top-down than otherwise. And I’m a Republican and I believe in local control. And I think that’s important, but I just think if the money is coming from the state, the state’s going to be held responsible. And if the state’s going to be held responsible, I think the state needs to have a big say in what the policy is.

Behind the Story

Alex Granados and Mebane Rash edited this interview for length, clarity, and keeping it to policy.

Before the interview, EdNC agreed to run the edits by Sen. Berger prior to publication.

EdNC made two changes to the article in response to Sen. Berger’s feedback.

We addressed a transcription error, changing “Excellence in Public Schools Act” to “Excellent Public Schools Act.”

We addressed a second transcription error, changing “proscriptive” to “prescriptive.”


Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.