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.”

 

Bill requiring phonics-based approach to teaching reading becomes law

Photo: Adobe Stock

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law a controversial bill requiring a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.

Despite his veto of similar legislation in 2019, Cooper said in a statement that Senate Bill 387 will help students and teachers.

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading,” the governor said. “But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham County) sponsored SB 387. It is supposed to fix deficiencies in the state’s “Read to Achieve” law he championed in 2012 to ensure all students read on grade level by the end of third grade.

But after spending more than $150 million on the initiative, reading scores have not improved.

“I’m skeptical of any approach from Phil Berger after his first Read to Achieve bill resulted in third grade reading being the only EOG [end-of-grade] subject where test scores have actually fallen,” said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with NC Justice Center’s Education Law Project. “We know that depriving schools of resources and just threatening 8 and 9-year-old children with retention is a failed strategy. Yet this bill retains those core, failed strategies.”

Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.

The new law requires teachers to receive training in the “science of reading,” which is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

Teaching reading requires phonics, associating sounds with letters, in addition to  phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension, some experts agree.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said last month that the data show that North Carolina must change its approach to reading instruction.

“Before COVID, our data show that two-thirds of eighth graders in North Carolina do not read proficiently when they start high school,” Truitt said. “We know already that the slide will have occurred post-COVID. We’ve seen it already with our third-grade data.”

Other experts are critical of relying heavily on phonics to teach reading.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Editorial Board.

Cooper also signed House Bill 82 into law. The Summer Learning Choice for NC Families law requires school districts to create summer learning recovery and enrichment programs to address learning loss students experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic has challenged students and teachers like never before,” Cooper said. “Providing a summer opportunity for academic growth plus mental and physical health will help schools begin to address those challenges.”

Forced ICE cooperation bill would shift costs to already hard-hit local governments

A proposal moving through the North Carolina General Assembly would further shift costs to local governments to score ideological points with those seeking stricter immigration enforcement even as the evidence shows that forced cooperation with ICE doesn’t make communities safer.  

Senate Bill 101, which passed the Senate last week, is modeled after bills introduced in previous sessions, with only some modifications that won’t protect local governments from the likelihood of lawsuits, nor reduce the pressure on local budgets.  

In 2019, the Budget & Tax Center analyzed then House Bill 370 to assess the impact on local budgets of forced ICE cooperation. The cumulative cost of ICE cooperation over a decade at that time was estimated at nearly $82 million. Under a proposal that would seek to increase the number of detainers issued, a forward-looking estimate of what local governments could expect is likely higher.  

That is even more so the case during COVID-19.    

Forced cooperation with ICE raises grave concerns about overcrowding and pushes against recommendation to reduce jail admissions during a pandemic. Analysis of local jail populations by the UNC School of Government found that in 2019, 41 percent of jails exceed capacity in one month, while 56 percent exceed 90 percent of jail capacity. National research has found that many people are held in jail pre-trial and that increasing jail populations are in part a result of agreements that local jails make with federal and state agencies. During COVID-19, public health and criminal justice experts have recommended reducing jail admissions because they have been documented to spread infectious diseases. Yet forcing cooperation with federal immigration agencies would increase the number of people entering local jails and could impact the global fight to end the pandemic. ICE has been connected to spreading the coronavirus, not just in the United States but across the globe.  

COVID-19 raises the costs of holding a person on an ICE detainer.  The costs of holding someone in jail have been underestimated in normal times and are likely to be much higher during the pandemic. Direct health care costs, along with the cost of staffing, maintaining social distancing and implementing other CDC guidelines, cost taxpayers.  These costs could, in part, be covered by state and federal dollars but Senate Bill 101 makes no provision for covering additional costs that would be incurred for holding someone for ICE.    

County budgets have been hit hard by the pandemic. While the full impact on the upcoming fiscal year budget is not entirely clear, a number of counties have had to reduce services because of revenue hits to fees and other revenue sources in the past fiscal year and could need to do the same going forwardLocal government employment has also remained below pre-COVID-19 levels. Raising costs for counties will require cuts to priority investments in vaccination campaigns, public schools, and infrastructure.  

The impacts of this legislation won’t be felt equally across the state.  

Small and rural counties have seen larger increases in jail costs in recent years: a 13 percent increase from 2007 to 2017 compared to just 2 percent for urban areas according to national analysis. Rural county budgets are also more likely to be hit hard by the downturn and less likely to receive aid to balance their budgets from state and federal governments.   

Senate Bill 101 demonstrates that Senate leaders continue to pursue hate, not fiscal constraint.

Alexandra Sirota is the Director of the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.

Elon Poll: Support for COVID-19 vaccination has grown dramatically

Support for and confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine has grown dramatically in the last six months, according to a new Elon University poll released this week.

The poll, taken from March 30 to April 2, found 63 percent of respondents had already been vaccinated or plan to be.

When Elon began asking about peoples’ vaccine plans in October, only 33 percent answered “yes” when asked if they planned to be vaccinated when that became possible.

Those who are unsure or skeptical remain, however. In the poll 18 percent of respondents said they are not sure whether they will take the vaccine and 19 percent said they do not plan to do so.

“The size of the group of residents saying ‘no’ to vaccines has consistently been around 20 percent for months,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll and associate professor of political science.

Across four surveys, Elon has found the number of people against taking a vaccine holding steady at about 20 percent.

“This continues to cast doubt in my mind about whether some herd immunity goals will be met throughout all regions of North Carolina,” Husser said.

While the poll found a split in attitudes by political party, a majority of both Democrats (76 percent) and Republicans (54 percent) were in favor of vaccination. Among those who belong to neither party, 57 percent were in favor.

Dramatically more Republicans (28 percent) said they will not be vaccinated compared to Democrats (9 percent). Among those belonging to neither party, 22 percent said they would not be vaccinated.

The poll found modest variation on the issue by race, with 64 percent of white respondents saying they were already vaccinated or planned to be vaccinated and 63 percent of respondents of other races answering the same way. The poll found 59 percent of Black respondents had already been or planned to be vaccinated.

A greater variation was found according to level of education. The poll found 10 percent of those with a bachelors degree or higher said they would not be vaccinated. Among those with less than a bachelors degree, that number was 24 percent. The poll found 55 percent of those with a bachelors degree or higher said they had already been vaccinated while 31 percent of those with less than a bachelors degree said they had.

Among those who have already been vaccinated, 92 percent said they are glad they took the vaccine.

The poll found 80 percent describing the experience  of vaccination as “very easy” or “somewhat easy,” with two-thirds reporting they no negative side effects.  Of those who did experience negative side effects, 69 percent said it was no more than “a minor disruption.”

 

The poll was a representative online survey of 1,395 North Carolinians. The overall results have a credibility interval of +/- 2.8 percentage points, according to information released by the school.

Read the full report, including more information about methodology, here.

State health officials say expansion of COVID-19 testing in schools would help slow infections

State health officials want to expand testing for COVID-19 in school districts as more students, teachers and staff return to classrooms this month.

Officials are focusing on “screen testing,” which is done on a regular basis, usually weekly, as opposed to diagnostic testing performed on individuals who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

“We do have some evidence from national studies that the weekly testing of students, teachers and staff can reduce in-school infections by an estimated 50%,” Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS), said Thursday.

Perry’s comments came during a State Board of Education meeting where she announced plans to apply for a share of $10 billion in federal money President Joe Biden’s administration earmarked for to help schools expand COVID-19 testing for students, teachers and staff as part of the effort to help schools reopen full-time for in-person instruction.

The money is part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes $122 billion for K-12 schools.

“These screening tests provide another layer of mitigation and protection, another tool in the tool box that we are strongly recommending that schools and districts consider implementing and we’re going to try to make that process easier for schools moving forward,” Perry said

Aditi Mallick, director of the state’s COVID-19 Operations Center, said the federal money will allow NCDHHS to move to Phase 3 of its testing program for K-12 school, which expands testing to more schools across the state.

Phase 1 was a pilot program utilizing diagnostic testing at selected schools. It ran from December 2020 through February 2021. Phase 2 began in March and included diagnostic testing and screen testing.

More than 63,255 tests were distributed to school districts, charter schools and private schools during Phase 2. Of testing results reported to NCDHHS, 181 of 1,213 were positive. Results were limited because some districts reported them to local health departments and NCDHHS were unable to determine whether those result were from schools or other settings.

“Our sincere hope is that schools will be excited to take advantage of this opportunity, and certainly the infusion of new funding helps solve for potential historical barriers of staffing or reporting or availability of tests,” Mallick said, noting that participation will be optional for districts.

Districts will have three screen testing options, Mallick said.

They will be able to contract with a NCDHHS approved vendor for testing. The vendor will be named by fall 2021.

NCDHHS will also provide free screening tests or diagnostic tests to schools that request them or districts can develop their own approach to testing without state involvement.

The move to expand testing comes as infection rates have plateaued or increased slightly across all age groups except residents 65 or older in which case rates are declining.

Currently, there are 45 active clusters in schools, which is a 30% decline from last month. Thirty-four clusters are at public schools and 11 at private schools.

As of April 4, there has been 1,840 infections associated with K-12 clusters. Students made up 1,205 case and staff 635.

Perry said the state cannot let its guard down.

“We are seeing rising numbers in other parts of the country and across the world,” she said. “We know that this virus is still very much out there and new more infectious variants are spreading and we all need to continue to be careful and responsible as we race to get North Carolinians vaccinated.”