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State lawmakers approve campus protest bill, rapid charter expansions

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

A  pair of GOP bills aimed at curtailing UNC campus protests and speeding charter school growth swept through the state House of Representatives Thursday.

With lawmakers hoping to wrap the session quickly, the chamber concurred with Senate versions of both bills, despite resistance from Democrats.

As Policy Watch reported in April, House Bill 527 emerged with the support of top Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who complained of noisy protests of conservative speakers on college campuses.

Officials with the ACLU of N.C. questioned the language of the bill in April, and the version approved Thursday strips at least one provision calling for individuals to bring a suit against universities to claim damages and court costs if they believe free speech rights have been violated.

As it is, the bill orders universities to discipline anyone who “substantially disrupts the functioning of the constituent institution or substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others, including protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity.”

It also authorizes the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors to create  a “Committee on Free Expression,” which would prepare annual reports on, among other things, “barriers to or disruptions of free expression within the constituent institutions.”

Meanwhile, House lawmakers also signed off on a significantly altered version of House Bill 800, which would, among other key provisions, clear faster enrollment growth for charter schools not deemed low-performing by the state. Under the bill, such charters this year would be able to boost their enrollment by up to 25 percent without the approval of the State Board of Education. Next year, that threshold would leap to 30 percent.

Yet, as Policy Watch reported in May, the nonpartisan National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which outlines best practices for charters, cautioned state leaders against such rapid growth without a thorough probe of a school’s finances and leadership.

Clearing a pathway for charters has been a clear priority this session for Republican lawmakers, who point to lengthy charter wait lists as reason for action. However, critics say the publicly-funded schools should require extensive vetting before they take on substantially more students.

A House bill this session sought to approve up to 40 percent enrollment growth for charters, even those that would be classified as low-performing, although that bill foundered after its passage in the House in April. The legislature’s moves earned rebukes from Bill Cobey, the Republican chair of the State Board of Education, and public school advocacy groups such as the N.C. Association of Educators.

House Bill 800 sponsor, Charlotte Republican John Bradford, argued Thursday that the bill’s most controversial component, allowing for corporate charter partners to claim up to half of a school’s enrollment, had been removed.

The legislation would also allow charters to apply for participation in the state’s pre-K program. And, notably, it would leave quality assessments of private companies seeking to offer online coursework to local school districts, rather than the state’s N.C. Virtual Public School program.

Both bills will now be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper. Even if Cooper vetoes the legislation, lawmakers are likely to override his actions.

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