Commentary

Hidden policies in General Assembly “technical corrections” bill should be rejected

Legislative leaders have used December’s lame duck session as a last-gasp effort to pass a number of regressive policy measures that will move the state backwards. General Assembly leaders are in a rush to pass these bills before they lose their veto-proof majorities on January 1. Bills related to implementing the new voter ID requirement and the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement have understandably generated the most press coverage. But legislators are also trying to sneak through several changes to education policy that should be rejected.

SB 469, inaccurately titled as a “Technical Corrections” bill, creates several substantive changes to the state’s education policies. Notably, the bill would grease the rails for school segregation by making it easier for wealthy suburban communities to create “municipal charter schools” that would exacerbate gross inequities within North Carolina’s school system. Additionally, the bill would needlessly funnel $8,000 a year to certain families of private school students. Both are moves in the wrong direction.

Unfortunately, the bill is bundled with a few good education policy changes that should be passed, making the Governor’s veto decision more difficult. Specifically, the bill would allow Carver Heights Elementary in Wayne County to avoid being placed in the unproven, undemocratic, and unpopular Innovative School District program. Another section would protect pay for principals whose schools have lost enrollment due to Hurricane Florence.

Both of these are good ideas, embraced by leaders of both parties, that could easily be addressed this month in a clean bill or passed when the new General Assembly is seated in January. Lawmakers broadly support allowing Wayne County school leaders to continue its reform efforts at Carver Heights. Similarly, nobody thinks principals should face pay cuts due to a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence.

If Governor Cooper were to veto SB 469, he’d have strong bipartisan support for the measures related to Carver Heights and principal pay (as well as the number of other truly technical corrections included in the bill). The delay created by a veto might extend a period of policy uncertainty, but the issues would be addressed in due time – a small price to pay to prevent the further segregation of our public schools and the straining of public school budgets for school voucher programs.

Below are additional details on the deleterious changes proposed by SB 469. If the bill becomes law, legislators should focus on repealing these sections in the 2019 legislative session.

Facilitating creation of segregationist municipal charter schools

One of the most contentious legislative battles in 2018 centered on HB 514, a bill that permits four Charlotte suburbs  – Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, and Mint Hill –  to create and operate their own charter schools. These suburbs can then limit enrollment in these schools to municipal residents. Cornelius is 85 percent white. Huntersville is 77 percent white. Matthews is 78 percent white. Mint Hill is 73 percent white. Students in these majority-white suburbs are assigned to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), where white students comprise just 29 percent of enrollment. If any of these suburbs were to create their own charter schools, it would further segregate CMS, already the state’s most racially and economically segregated school district.

HB 514 was passed as a “local bill” based on the argument that the legislation only impacts Mecklenburg County. That designation was important because local bills cannot be vetoed by the governor. In order to qualify as a local bill, sponsors had to remove language that would allow teachers at municipal charter schools to participate in the state’s retirement system and health plans. Municipal charters would have a difficult time recruiting staff without offering participation in state benefit programs.

Section 20 of SB 469 eliminates this barrier to creating municipal charters by allowing municipal charters to participate in the state’s retirement and health plans. The move increases the likelihood that Cornelius, Huntersville, Matthews, or Mint Hill will create municipal charters to effectively secede from CMS.

Additionally, the move would make it easier for lawmakers to expand the municipal charter model to other counties. If Section 20 of SB 469 were to become law, other wealthy suburbs could be authorized to operate municipal charters via veto-proof local bills. As in CMS, such tools would most likely be seized upon by wealthy, majority-white suburbs to effectively secede from diverse, inclusive public school systems.

Draining public school budgets to needlessly subsidize private school tuition

Section 1 modifies one of the state’s three private school voucher programs – the Disabilities Grant – to ensure that even more state money will be used to subsidize private school students who are already enrolled in private schools.

One of the purported benefits of school voucher programs is that they can potentially save a state money if the size of the voucher is less than what the state would be spending on that student in public schools. In practice, however, eligibility loopholes end up providing vouchers to many students who would have gone to a private school anyways. For example, researchers from NC State found that nearly half of all families who applied for, but failed to receive the Opportunity Scholarship voucher, ended up sending their child to a private school anyway.

The “technical corrections” would expand the Disabilities Grant enrollment loophole to provide vouchers to students who are already enrolled in a private school, so long as they were in a public school in the year prior to applying for the voucher. As a result, more taxpayer money will be paying families to attend private schools that they were already attending. While such a move does nothing to benefit the public at large, it will be a boon to the private school families who will receive $8,000 to do something they were already doing.

The move is clearly an attempt to prop up demand for the unpopular voucher program. In FY 17-18, the program was over-funded by $1.1 million. The state appropriated $9.6 million for the program, but just $8.5 million was distributed. Despite the lack of demand, lawmakers boosted funding by over $3 million in the 2018 budget. Instead of subsidizing private programs that might be harmful to students, these funds could be used to boost support for students with disabilities in our under-funded public school system.

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