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.”

 

Editorial calls out state superintendent for uninspired and inadequate education plan

Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt

Be sure to check out this morning’s lead Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com — “Truitt’s schools plan must embrace Leandro remedial order not dodge it” — and its powerful critique of state schools Superintendent Catherine Truitt’s new “Operation Polaris” plan for the state’s K-12 education system.

Truitt’s plan purports to chart a course for recovering from the pandemic and moving the state’s public education system boldly into the future, but as the editorial rightfully observes, it’s mostly a “glossy” “pablum of proposals” and a “gussied-up defense of the status quo” that ignores the elephant in the room: the Leandro court mandate that requires the state to meet its obligation to provide students with access to a sound basic education. This is from the editorial:

Its vision is severely limited and fails to take in the brightest guides so clearly present. There is mere passing reference to the landmark 1997 state Supreme Court decision that declared the state’s Constitution demands a “quality education for every child;” as well as the 2004 high court decision that declared the state had failed to provide adequate resources for “the opportunity for a sound basic education.” That 2004 decision also directed the assignment of a special superior court judge to monitor compliance.

Similarly there’s an isolated mention of “Wested” without any detailed reference to implementation of the consensus court-ordered plan, a comprehensive multi-year program to deliver on the state’s pledge.

Truitt’s vision doesn’t see Leandro. It doesn’t encompass the carefully crafted program top educators and advocates worked to develop. It ignores the quarter of a century that the state has failed to deliver its promise to our children, despite the findings and court orders.

As the editorial notes, Truitt needs to decide if she’s really going to champion change and reform or merely serve as a flack for the legislature’s do-nothing conservative majority. Here’s the conclusion:

Truitt needs to choose.

Is she going to stand with the partisan politicians who neglect public schools and those who work for them?
OR
Is she going to take a strong and courageous stand in support of implementing the 7-year remedial plan that the court has adopted?

That is that plan that should be the map, the guiding light, of any program “navigating students toward a brighter future.”

If Truitt wants to demonstrate her first priority is the children and those who help them learn in public school classrooms, she will:

  • State unequivocally she backs the program Judge Lee has ordered.
  • Call on the General Assembly and the governor to fund it.
  • Revise her “Operation Polaris” plan into her program for implementation and going beyond.

That would be a real blast off for North Carolina education.

Click here to tread the entire editorial.

How U.S. House Democrats would expand Medicare and Medicaid and lower prescription drug costs

U.S. House Democrats add more mass transit, high-speed rail in second shot at infrastructure bill

Image: Federal Transit Administration

The U.S. House transportation panel early Wednesday passed along party lines the panel’s $60 billion slice of Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget plan, adding nearly $20 billion for a new transit program and high-speed rail development in the states.

Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon had considered these and other items underfunded in the Senate-led bipartisan infrastructure bill, passed there last month.

DeFazio opened the marathon Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting Tuesday morning by blasting the two-track plan to pass a $1.2 trillion bill to improve physical infrastructure alongside the broader $3.5 trillion package.

President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress have said the larger plan is meant to address “human infrastructure” like health care and education.

That approach did not adequately address crucial priorities, especially related to climate change, DeFazio said, as the $1.2 trillion bill that was written without House input.

The larger bill, which Democrats are trying to pass without any Republican support through a legislative process known as budget reconciliation, affords the opportunity to address issues not covered in the Senate bill.

The panel’s allotment is just under $60 billion, though it could end up with less if the Senate reduces the $3.5 trillion topline.

“Unfortunately, we have been told that the bipartisan infrastructure plan is sacrosanct, and it just has to be voted on as-is in the House of Representatives,” DeFazio said.

“And we are going to be marking up a bill to try and fix some of the issues with the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan, which we will not be allowed otherwise to deal with. This was a torturous negotiation, to put it mildly.”

Among those fixes in the bill the panel approved early Wednesday morning 37-29 was an additional $9.9 billion for transit grants, which would increase access for residents of low-income housing.

To avoid duplication with the Senate bill—a condition with which the White House agreed to win Republican support—the transit funding would not go toward existing Federal Transit Administration formula or grant programs. It would be jointly administered by the FTA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

DeFazio framed the transit program as a climate issue because mass transit provides a greener alternative to single-occupancy vehicles.

The bill would also provide $10 billion for grants to develop high-speed rail routes, which could provide a lower-emission alternative to plane travel.

Another climate item would create a $4 billion incentive program to give extra federal funding to states that achieve greenhouse gas reductions. That is a weaker version of a proposed mandate that was part of a DeFazio-written surface transportation authorization bill the House passed earlier this year.

The provision was not included in the bipartisan Senate infrastructure bill, DeFazio said, because the Senate-passed bill “was written by climate-denying Republicans and a couple of Democratic collaborators.”

Five Republicans and five Democrats led months-long negotiations on the Senate bill, and all 50 Senate Democrats voted for it last month.

The bill also includes $350 million for a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker in the Great Lakes. The ship, meant to keep shipping lanes clear in winter, was sought by U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, (D-Ohio).

Republican opposition

Committee Republicans still accused Democrats of violating the agreement to reopen pieces of the bipartisan infrastructure bill by including the greenhouse gas incentives program, and transit and high-speed rail funding. Read more

Putting on pandemic pounds: State obesity rates hit all-time highs