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The week in education: charters, vouchers, prayers…oh my!

Pre-K

The week started off with somewhat good news: on its third reading, the bill that would limit access to the state’s award winning pre-K programs for at-risk students passed with slightly better terms than expected.

Lawmakers modified HB 935 at the last minute to fund pre-K classes for children whose familiChartersVouchersandprayerses make 130 percent of the federal poverty level — roughly $31,000 a year for a family of four. A previous version of the bill set the threshold at 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The amended version also delays the date the bill would become law by one year, because the operation of roughly half of all pre-K programs that are currently located in local public school districts must be turned over to private pre-K providers, a significant logistical hurdle.

The pre-K bill now heads to the Senate.

Charter schools

After winding its way through several committee hearings, the full Senate finally got to debate Sen. Jerry Tillman’s SB 337, a bill that would create a new independent charter school oversight board and set what has turned out to be contentious policies for public charter schools.

Opposed by State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey, the legislation faces steep backlash from those who call into question its constitutionality, asserting that the bill sidesteps the current governance structure and undermines the State Board of Ed’s authority to oversee the public charter school system.

Standing in opposition of SB 337, Sen. Malcolm Graham said, “we don’t need two public school systems in North Carolina.”

Amendments to the bill put forth on the Senate floor, all of which failed, included: Sen. Stein’s to require charters to provide food and transportation; Sen. Bryant’s to bar appointments of those who have a financial interest in the success of charters and to enact measurable standards for awarding charters; Sen. Blue’s to require that LEAs lease buildings to charters at fair market value; and Sen. Robinson’s amendment to require that charter school teachers have licensure.

SB 337 passed the Senate and now moves on to the House.

HB 273, a charter school funding bill, was on the schedule for the House Education Committee meeting but was displaced at the last minute. As it turns out, this was due to a proposed committee substitute of the bill that would have automatically opened a K12, Inc. virtual charter school this fall, sidestepping current litigation addressing its opening. NC Policy Watch’s investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska has that story here.

Education Innovation

House Speaker Thom Tillis made some noise in a press conference this week for HB 902, Education and Workforce Innovation Act, which is scheduled to be heard in committee next week. Superintendents from around the state came to Raleigh to show their support for the bill, which would create a grant program to fund public-private partnerships between local school districts, community colleges and businesses that would prepare students to be career and college ready by the time they leave high school.

Curiously, the bill would also create a new independent body, the “North Carolina Education and Workforce Innovation Commission.” The commission would be “located administratively in the Department of Public Instruction but shall exercise all its prescribed powers independently of the Department of Public Instruction.” Sound a little familiar?

The commission would be tasked with managing the new grant program and selecting award recipients. Members would include the Secretary of Commerce, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Chair of the State Board of Education, the president of the UNC system, the president of the NC Community College system, two gubernatorial appointees, two appointees made by the House Speaker, and two appointees made by the President Pro Tem of the Senate.

Increased AP participation

House Education Committee members approved legislation that would increase student participation in AP courses. HB 969 would eliminate financial barriers for students wishing to take AP examinations and provide bonuses to AP course teachers whose students score above a 3 on AP exams. The bill also passed the full House, but a specific funding appropriation was removed from the bill, replacing it with language that indicated funding would be provided as it became available.

A similar bill for increased participation in career and technical education (CTE) was also approved.

Student prayer

A bill that seeks to clarify how and when students can lead prayers in school passed the full Senate this week. SB 370 came about thanks to an incident in a McDowell county school teacher required a student to remove religious references from a poem about her father.

Opponents of the bill expressed concern about the removal of language explicitly forbidding the schools from establishing an official religion.

The bill now moves on to the House.

Higher education

HB 239 would have repealed the law that requires out-of-state scholarship students to pay in-state tuition. The bill faced quite a bit of opposition in the House Education Committee. Rep. Rick Glazier spoke against the bill, emphasizing the importance of attracting high quality talent to the state of North Carolina and noting that many of those students stay in the state and contribute their skills to the economy.

HB 239 died in committee.

The Senate Education Committee took up SB 719, which would allow college student organizations to kick out members who do not subscribe to their own belief systems.

Sen. Dan Soucek, who introduced the bill, said he had spoken with student groups that felt they did not have the freedom to associate according to their own core values and missions.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, spoke in support of the bill, explaining that, “Universities and community colleges are routinely promoting bigotry against Christian groups.”

Some Senate Ed committee members expressed concern that the legislation would allow student organizations to exclude gay and lesbian students.

SB 719 passed through committee and the full Senate. It now moves on to the House.

The Senate Ed committee also took up SB 444, which would require UNC universities to accept the Cherokee language as a language that would satisfy the foreign language requirement. That bill passed through committee without opposition and faces its third reading on the Senate floor next week.

Next week…vouchers?

Word on the street is that next week Rep. Paul Stam’s voucher bill will be heard in the House Education Committee. In case you missed it, last week the USDOJ ruled that state voucher programs must not discriminate against students with disabilities. As it stands now, there’s no language in Stam’s bill addressing students with disabilities.

This week, the Louisiana state Supreme Court ruled funding vouchers with public funds is unconstitutional.

And Action NC released new poll findings that indicate the majority of North Carolinians do not support school vouchers.

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