Senate bill would make all students eligible for vouchers intended to help poor families pay for private schools

A senate bill filed Tuesday would remove income eligibility requirements for the state’s so-called “Opportunity Scholarships” created to help low-income families pay private school tuition.

Senate Bill 711 was filed by Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican. Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton and Sen. Norman W. Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, are co-sponsors.

Hise did not respond to an email message about the bill on Wednesday.

SB 711 was quickly denounced by Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County.

“It seems particularly callous right now to make this a priority,” Marcus said. “increasing funding for a program that is already over-funded, that’s taking money out of the coffers that will be needed in so many other places right now. It’s just not the right priority. Funding more private school vouchers is not a critical need right now.”

The program has never used its entire state allocation since launching in 2014.

Marcus noted that the state is facing an estimated $2 billion budget shortfall.

“At a time when our state revenues are taking a huge hit, and we didn’t even pass a state budget this year and we’re not going to, and we haven’t given teachers the much overdue raise that they deserve as well as all the COVID-19-related expenses we’re going to have, this is particularly egregious in my mind, to file a bill like this,” Marcus said.

She said the bill appears to be another attack on public schools and a blow against the mandate in the state’s constitution to provide all students with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

“This is part of a pattern for them [conservative lawmakers],” Marcus said. “They’d rather funnel money into these private schools that have very little accountability to the state about what they teach, who is teaching there and about any kind of outcomes for kids.”

Marcus said she’s not against private schools, only against spending “taxpayer money” to support them.

“I hope that people will see that this bill is an attempt to make North Carolina taxpayers bankroll private school education for an even greater number of families at a time when we’re taking a $2 billion hit in our budget,” she said.

SB 711 would pour millions more into the program that provides as much as $4,200 year for families to send children to private schools.

Hise’s bill would add an additional $2 million to the program’s budget each year beginning next school year through the 2026-27 school year.

The program, for example, is set to receive $74.8 million next school year. It would $76.8 million under SB 711.

State law mandates that the program’s budget increases by an additional $10 million each year. It would increase by $12 million next school year to incorporate the additional $2 million, then increase $10 million each subsequent year until the 2026-27 school year. The cummulative effect over seven years would be an additional $14 million above the amount originial authorized.

The program’s budget would jump another $10 million — from $136.8 million to $146.8 million — for the 2027-28 school year. The $146.8 million would establish a “base” budget for the program.

This school year, 12,283 students received $47. 7 million to attend 451 private schools.

The previous school year, 9,651 recipients received $38 million in private school vouchers.

Public school advocates contend the voucher program weakens public schools by shifting valuable resources to private schools. They also say there’s no evidence that students who received them perform better. They also complain the program fosters school segregation and lacks academic accountability.

Meanwhile, voucher proponents say the scholarship provide low-and moderate-income families with financial assistance to flee failing schools and to choose schools that better fit their children.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Here’s what he had to say about the scholarships in a PEFNC newsletter in February.

“These scholarships provide up to $4,200 each year for students from over 12,000 low-income and working-class families to flourish in the educational environment of their parent’s choice,” Long wrote. “That is a privilege that more fortunate North Carolina families already enjoy — those with the incomes high enough to buy a house in a good public school district or pay private school tuition on their own. Without Opportunity Scholarships, low-income families can remain stuck.”


Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center

$124 million of Extra Credit Grant Program would go to the top 20%

Image: Adobe Stock

Senate leader Phil Berger admitted yesterday that $335 isn’t enough to pay off a mortgage but could pay for a babysitter and a dinner out for parents.

His statement failed to recognize the reality of most parents in this state. When parents don’t have enough money to pay for rent, utilities or child care, they definitely don’t have enough money for a babysitter or a dinner out – even with an extra $335.

The proposed Extra Credit Grant Program within House Bill 1105 would use over $440 million of the state’s remaining coronavirus relief funds – most of the $552 million that remains in reserves.

Although direct cash payments are needed to help families make ends meet, this poorly designed program fails to target these grants to people who need them most. The primary mechanism for sending payments will be tax filings and, as North Carolinians learned after the Spring Economic Impact Payment rollout, more than 460,000 North Carolinians do not earn enough to file income taxes, even though they pay taxes in other ways. This means that this grant program would exclude many families who are most in need of cash support.

According to analysis by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, about $124 million of these grants will go to households in the top 20% of income earners. Sending $335 to household that make an average of $240,000 a year is a missed opportunity to invest this money elsewhere. Especially when many students still lack broadband access and parents are struggling to pay for the basics.

As the House convenes this morning, there is an opportunity to recognize that $124 million, or 26%, of the Extra Credit Grant Program would go to wealthy households and would be better invested elsewhere.

During debate on the House floor, legislative sponsors of the bill suggested that Extra Credit payments would phase out for high-income taxpayers, in accordance with the federal child tax credit design. However, the bill language does not reference federal or state statute language on income eligibility to ensure that payments will be phased out for high-income households.

Education, Higher Ed

After fourth COVID-19 cluster students, prominent faculty and medical experts call for UNC-Chapel Hill to go online

The push to close the campus is intensifying after a fourth cluster of COVID-19 infections was reported in student housing at UNC-Chapel Hill on Sunday.

A “cluster” is defined by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as five or more infections in a related area. Sunday’s cluster at the Hinton James residence hall makes four since classes began last week — three in residence halls and one in a fraternity house. The school is not releasing specific information on how many infections are in each cluster and had not, as of Monday morning, updated its COVID-19 dashboard to reflect information past the week of Aug. 3 through Aug. 9.

Students on campus and housing employees with direct knowledge of the mounting number of cases tell Policy Watch more clusters are likely to be announced soon as more tests come back positive.

The school is using its Parker Residence Hall to isolate students who test positive and its Craige North Residence Hall to quarantine those who are close contacts who have yet to test positive. There are 85 rooms in the isolation dorm and 63 for student quarantine.

The school has not updated the capacity at each of these dorms since Friday.

On Sunday Dr. Kurt Ribisl, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Health Behavior, took to Twitter to call for the school to take an “off-ramp” in its plan to return to on-campus housing and in-person instruction.

Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, is calling for the same action — and wrote Saturday to the UNC Board of Governors asking them to give Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz the power to make that decision.

The school’s board of governors and the UNC System chancellor have made it clear any such decision will be made by them, not by chancellors at the local level. The board and president have been silent in the last week on the mounting infections at UNC-Chapel Hill  East Carolina University and Appalachian State University. Calls for comment have been referred to the individual universities.

Guskiewicz has, to this point, resisted calls to end the return to on-campus instruction and has made no public statement that he would if so empowered. In interviews and faculty forums he has defended the school’s return plan as safe and cautious.

An increasing number of students are leaving campus on their own, saying they do not feel safe and believe the school has mismanaged the return.

The Daily Tar Heel, the campus’ independent student newspaper, published a scathing editorial Sunday calling out the school’s lack of transparency and failure to heed  both the warnings of the Orange County Health Department and the will of students, staff and faculty.

From that editorial:

The administration continues to prove they have no shame, and the bar for basic decency keeps getting lower.

They chose to ignore the Orange County Health Department, which recommended that the University restrict on-campus housing to at-risk students and implement online-only instruction for the first five weeks of the semester. They chose to ignore the guidance of the CDC, which placed the University’s housing plan in the “highest-risk” category.

Even faculty — though many of them continued to teach classes in-person — saw it coming.

Now, as we prepare for a second week of classes, many questions remain unanswered. What factors will trigger the so-called off-ramps, and what will they look like? How many positive cases will it take for the University to realize the danger they’ve put us in?

Particularly concerning is the fact that the University has refused to disclose any additional information, including the official number of positive cases, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

But, don’t we have a right to know? There is a significant difference between five positive cases and, say, 20 — and the potential for exposure extends far beyond those identified through contact tracing. Furthermore, many have expressed doubt as to whether FERPA actually prevents the University from disclosing case numbers. According to guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education, schools may release information regarding COVID-19 as long as “a student’s identity is not personally identifiable.”

But it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that UNC has used FERPA as an excuse to withhold relevant information from the campus community. For years, UNC refused to release disciplinary records of students found responsible for sexual assault on campus. Only after a long, expensive legal battle and a ruling from the North Carolina Supreme Court did the University finally turn over the information.

The Editorial Board recognizes that the decision to transition away from in-person classes is one that ultimately lies with the Board of Governors — not the administration. However, Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin and the rest of the administration are far too eager to attribute blame to parties other than themselves. Matters are rarely as complex as UNC makes them seem. The chancellor of a public university with a multi-billion dollar endowment is hardly powerless — not now, not ever.

We’re angry — and we’re scared. We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives.

UNC is often recognized for the ambition demonstrated by its students and faculty, and the administration’s insistence to maintain an on-campus presence amid a pandemic can definitely fall under that.

One thing’s for sure — this roadmap leads straight to hell.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee meets in a special session at 4 p.m. Monday.

The Appalachian State University faculty will meet Monday at 3:15 p.m., at which time they will consider a vote of “no confidence” in  that school’s chancellor.

On Wednesday Wake County Superior Court Judge W. David Lee will hold the first hearing in the lawsuit by UNC System employees over what they say are unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. The employees are seeking a temporary restraining order preventing the reopening of schools under the current conditions.


House Democrats back two bills they contend will move state closer to Leandro promise

Democrats meet Tuesday, June 16, to discuss House Bill 1129 and House Bill 1130.

With permission from her teacher, Daisy Almonte took an Advanced Placement English course, not in the classroom, but in the hallway of her Sampson County high school.

“The four of us would sit in the hallway and read books and articles [teacher Jason Rinka] would assign to us while he taught the other [Honors English] class inside the classroom,” said Almonte, a recent Duke University graduate who’s headed to Harvard Law School in the fall. “He would step out to discuss the material with us, assign another passage and go back inside the classroom.”

Daisy Almonte

Almonte made her remarks during a virtual meeting called Tuesday by a group of House Democrats who support two bills  — House Bill 1129 and House Bill 1130 – they contend would help North Carolina live up to its constitutional obligation to provide children of the state with a sound basic education.

The remarks shine a light on the inequity that exists in the state’s public schools. There’s a dearth of resources available to students in rural parts of the state when compared to what’s available in wealthier, urban districts. The wealthier districts can afford to supplment state education money becasue they have larger tax bases.

Generally, HB 1129 and HB 1130  would increase supplemental funding for low-wealth school districts and eliminate the A-F grading system, which lawmakers contend harm high poverty schools and low wealth communities.

Rep. Raymond Smith, (D-Wayne), said the A-F grading system “devastates” poor communities.

“When a school is labeled an F, regardless of the education that’s going on inside that school, the school becomes stigmatized, the students becomes stigmatized, the parents of those students and the teachers of that school all wear a stigma because of a grade that does not reflect what is going on inside that school,” Smith said.

The bills would also allow high-performing teachers to receive raises to keep them in the classroom instead of opting for more lucrative administration jobs or leaving the state for better=paying teaching positions. It also allocates funds to train and keep educators through expanded early childhood educator pipeline and Teaching Fellows programs.

“We must fight to ensure that all children are given a great education and that our teachers are respected as professionals,” said Rep Rosa Gill, (D-Wake), a sponsor of HB1130. “As an educator, a mother and a legislator, I know the value of highly qualified teachers and a good education. Public education plays a vital role in creating a well-trained workforce that will help recruit and retain new businesses and give our children their best chance at success.”

Gill and several other Democratic lawmakers intend to vote against a teacher pay raise approved by the Senate on Monday. Senate Bill 818 would give teachers and instructional support personnel one-time $350 bonuses and $1,000 a year step-raises.

“We should at least give them what other state employees have been getting in the budget,” Gill said.

More than a quarter century ago, the courts ruled in Leandro vs. North Carolina that the state has an obligation provide childen with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

After 25 years, many families, especially those in rural counties such as the one in which Almonte attended school, continue to wait for North Carolina to live up to that constitutional obligation.

“The biggest problem facing our community schools is a lack of resources and support from the state,” said Julie von Haefen, (D-Wake). “We must fund public education to ensure every child gets the instruction and attention they need to be fully prepared for success in life.”

In 2017, Wake County Superior Court Judge David Lee hired West Ed, an independent consultant, to conduct a comprehensive study of North Carolina’s public school system and to make recommendations for improvement.

West Ed released its report in December with these recommendations:

  • Develop a teacher development and recruitment system that ensures each classroom is staffed with a high-quality teacher who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.
  • Develop a system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.
  • Create a finance system that provides adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts and, importantly, adequate resources to address the needs of all North Carolina schools and students, especially at-risk students as defined by the Leandro decisions.
  • Develop an assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses multiple measures of student performance against the Leandro standard and provides accountability consistent with the Leandro standard.
  • Create an assistance and turnaround function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts.
  • Provide a system of early education that provides access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure that all students at risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the State, enter kindergarten on track for school success.
  • Develop an alignment of high school to postsecondary and career expectations, as well as the provision of early postsecondary and workforce learning opportunities, to ensure student readiness to all students in the State.

Lee signed a court order in January ordering state leaders to “work expeditiously and without delay to take all necessary actions” to improve North Carolina’s public schools.

Lawmakers said HB 1129 and HB 1130 can move the state closer to meeting the recommendations in the West Ed report .

“The commonsense actions outlined in this legislation ensure that our schools and communities work together to prepare each child for success in life,” von Haefen said. “When our students and teachers have the resources that they need, North Carolina will have an educational system that we can be even more proud of.”

Meeting the state’s constitutional obligation will cost billions of dollars. West Ed put it at approximately $8 billion over 10 years.

But the state, recently flush with cash, is now expecting a $4 billion shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senate leader Phil Berger warned in May that money will be tight.

“Our Constitution does not provide for judges to appropriate dollars,” Berger said. “We’ve said on multiple occasions that if judges want to get into the field of appropriating, they need to run for the legislature.

Berger added: “We’ll see what the order is, but again we cannot spend money that we don’t have.”

Gill said Tuesday that she believes the state can find the money to pay for  the items in the bills.

“If we can put this together, and all of us buy into it, and we decide we want to make it a priority, I think we can find the funds,” Gill said.


Lawmakers file bills to add school nurses, require mental health plans

Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake

Every school would have a permanent, full-time nurse on duty under House Bill 1203 and a companion bill, Senate Bill 850.

The bill follows two filed Tuesday that would increase the number of school social workers, counselors and psychologists.

School mental health officials expect a greater number of students, teachers and other staff members will return to campuses needing their services.

Schools closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis. They could reopen in mid-August.

“School nurses contribute to the health, well-being, and educational success of our public school children, and in many NC communities they are the only health care professional a child sees,” Ball said in a statement. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be especially vigilant about monitoring the spread of the disease, particularly in a high-contact environment such as a school.”

N.C. School Boards Association President Brenda Stephens added that providing schools with nurses is an essential first step to reopening schools. “This is a critical investment knowing how quickly COVID-19 can spread and given the growing need for healthcare professionals in our schools even before this pandemic,” Stephens said.

Jennifer Sharpe, president of the School Nurse Association of North Carolina, said schools need more nurses to ensure students have access to an “appropriate education.”

Bill co-sponsors include Reps. Donna White (R-Johnston), Gale Adcock (D-Wake) and Josh Dobson (R- Avery, McDowell, Mitchell.) Sen. Wiley Nickel (D-Wake) filed the companion bill, SB 850.

Ball also sponsored House Bill 1206, which would increase the number of school counselors, school social workers, and school psychologists serving public schools. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 844.

Mental health plans

In a related matter Wednesday, the Senate Standing Committee on Education/Higher Education revived Senate Bill 476 that would require the State Board of Education to adopt a school-based mental health policy.

The policy would require school districts to adopt and to implement a mental health plan. The plan would include a mental health training program and suicide risk referral protocol.

There is no funding attached to the bill, so Sen. Chuck Edwards, (R-Buncombe), asked if school districts would have to pay for training programs.

Bill co-sponsor Deanna Ballard, (R-Wataugua), said the SBE and districts would have flexibility in deciding how to provide training.

But Sen. Jerry Tillman, (R-Guilford), school districts will be hit with an unfunded mandate if the bill is approved.

“That cost will not be minimum,” Tillman said. “When you undertake training of this nature and this magnitude, there will be quite a bit of cost, which is an unfunded mandate on the school boards unless we can find some COVID-19 money to help with this.”