News

State Board of Education chair on charter expansion bill: “Not a good idea.”

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

Education lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly are planning a full spate of votes next week in the final days before the legislature’s crossover deadline, including myriad charter reforms, school construction leasing, teacher licensing updates and changes to the state’s much-criticized method of classifying low-performing schools.

But one of the state’s most influential education leaders criticized at least one key proposal before a House committee Monday that would allow existing charters to expand their enrollment by as much as 40 percent without state approval.

“To automatically increase by up to 40 percent, as much of a supporter as I am of charter schools, I do think there are limits that need to be in place,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey told Policy Watch Thursday.

Cobey, a Republican appointee to the state board by former Gov. Pat McCrory, oversees a panel that has the final say on pending charter school applications today.

State law currently allows charters to increase enrollment by up to 20 percent and, in some cases, add an additional grade level without state vetting, but some GOP school choice supporters are seeking further sweeteners for North Carolina’s booming charter school sector.

The draft bill, filed by Republican Representatives Linda Hunt Williams and Mark Brody, comes with Cobey’s board hearing calls in recent years to increase scrutiny of charter schools following a series of high-profile closings and a diploma scandal at Durham’s Kestrel Heights School.

Cobey emphasized that his board doesn’t have an official position on the legislation, but he’s opposed to such a broad concession to charters.

Charters are publicly-funded schools given greater flexibility over staffing and curriculum than traditional schools. They are also managed by unelected boards and private groups rather than elected officials, but they’ve become a cornerstone of school choice reforms across North Carolina and the U.S., often clashing with traditional school systems over state funding.

“I think the idea of giving them 20 percent was probably a good idea,” said Cobey. “It certainly cut down on our workload. But anybody that wants to go over 20 percent, they can make their case to the Charter School Advisory Board. If they think that it’s a good idea, they’ll recommend it to us.”

The legislation, along with a slew of other GOP-backed K-12 reforms, is slated for hearings before a House education committee early next week. The bills would require the approval of the full chamber by the April 27 crossover deadline to be considered going forward.

News

Republican-backed campus free speech bill stalls in N.C. House committee, for now

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

[Note: This story has been updated] A Republican-shepherded bill aimed at curtailing UNC campus protests of conservative speakers hit some snags in the state House Wednesday.

When voting wrapped, members of the House Education Committee on Universities were deadlocked in a 6-6 tie on partisan lines over House Bill 527, legislation backed by influential Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

The bill requires neutrality from UNC universities and, notably, prohibits campus protests that, according to the draft, “infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”

It also opens a new pathway for lawsuits against universities and creates a so-called Committee on Free Expression appointed by the UNC Board of Governors, which would prepare annual reports for the state.

A tie vote means the motion fails, but the bill will remain in committee where it could be brought for another vote in the coming days. Of course, with the legislature’s April 27 crossover deadline approaching, the vote will have to take place quickly.

Meanwhile, a companion version of the bill in the state Senate is currently assigned to a clogged Rules & Operations Committee, with no clear schedule for when it will be debated.

Still, the legislation has emerged as a rallying point for conservatives like Forest who say conservative speeches have been stifled by protesters on UNC campuses.

House Democrats on Wednesday found a surprising ally in UNC Senior Vice President and General Counsel Tom Shanahan, who represents the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors and UNC System President Margaret Spellings.

Shanahan told lawmakers the university does not believe the legislation is necessary, later agreeing with suggestions that it may “dampen” free speech on campuses.

“Our staff on our campuses work with students every day to help them be able to protest, get their thoughts out and debate,” said Shanahan.

Wednesday’s vote failed despite arguments from GOP lawmakers that the campus free speech bill would not have a “chilling” effect on free speech for university professors and students.

“The legislation is extremely straight forward in its intent to preserve and restore free speech,” said Rep. Chris Millis, R-Onslow, Pender, a co-sponsor of the House bill.

Committee Democrats, however, suggested the bill was simply not necessary, asking for specific examples of individuals denied First Amendment rights on UNC campuses.

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News

N.C. lawmakers to take up GOP-championed campus free speech bill

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

A conservative-championed campus free speech bill will get its first substantial debate in the N.C. General Assembly this week.

Members of a House education committee are scheduled to consider House Bill 527 Wednesday afternoon, draft legislation pushed by Republicans in recent years to curtail demonstrations against conservative speeches on college campuses.

The bill requires neutrality from UNC universities and, notably, prohibits campus protests that, according to the draft, “infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”

The GOP-sponsored bill comes at the behest of Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who announced his intentions to urge such reforms this February.  Such legislation has the backing of right-wing pundits who say conservative speakers have been harassed on generally left-leaning college campus, but it’s likely to earn the scrutiny of groups like the ACLU.

Anyone who feels as if their rights are violated would have the right to sue the university for damages and court costs under the GOP bill.

The GOP legislation also creates a so-called Committee on Free Expression, which would include 11 members of the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors. That committee would prepare annual reports detailing:

A description of any barriers to or disruptions of free expression within the constituent institutions.

A description of the administrative handling and discipline relating to these disruptions or barriers.

A description of substantial difficulties, controversies, or successes in maintaining a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues.

Any assessments, criticisms, commendations, or recommendations the Committee sees fit to include.

Furthermore, campus orientation would be required to include a lesson on campus free speech as well.

Officials with the ACLU of N.C. told Policy Watch they are tracking the legislation closely.

“The constitutional right to free expression and assembly is fundamental to our democracy,” ACLU-N.C. Policy Director Sarah Gillooly said in a statement Wednesday. “Proposals to enshrine those rights into state law must be clear and precise. We look forward to discussing the bill with lawmakers in the days to come.”

News

With lawsuit pending, legislature moves to boost staff for new GOP schools superintendent

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

With GOP leaders complaining of statutory roadblocks to staffing in the state’s new public school chief’s office, North Carolina lawmakers seem primed to act on the superintendent’s behalf.

State House Republicans introduced a bill this week that would allow Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson to create at least five positions within the state schools office reporting directly to him.

Legislators would budget more than $700,000—freed up by eliminating 10 vacant positions within the Department of Public Instruction—to bankroll the move, while Johnson would have the power to set the new employees’ salaries.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 838, comes with Johnson and the State Board of Education entangled in a court dispute over the hiring and powers of the superintendent’s office.

Johnson, a Republican who unseated longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson in November, currently faces the same staffing limitations imposed on Atkinson, which means he would need the backing of the state board to replace a number of top policy and communications jobs in the department.

The five positions created by the new GOP bill would need no such approval, as explicitly stated in House Bill 838, and Johnson would have broad discretion to outline their roles.

As Policy Watch has reported, Johnson has filled a number of policymaking posts already under his authority with ex-aides of former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The legislature’s impending April 27 crossover deadline means any new bills would have to gain the approval of one full chamber to be considered further in the session, but House Bill 838 is getting a fast start. The House Education Committee is expected to mull the proposed bill next week.

News

Report: Black elementary teachers spur graduation for black students

School busesA new study shows black elementary school teachers may have a positive impact on high school graduation for black students in North Carolina, The News & Observer reports.

The report, published by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, American University and the Univ. of California, would seem to offer evidence of the benefits of teacher diversity for students in grades 3-5.

From The N&O:

Using data from North Carolina, researchers found that low-income black male students’ chances of dropping out declined 39 percent and their interest in going to college increased 29 percent when they had at least one black teacher in the later elementary school years.

Studies have shown that black students do better on tests when they have black teachers, so it was interesting to see that teacher assignments have lasting effects, said Nicholas W. Papageorge, an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and one of the study’s authors.

Papageorge said the findings are encouraging because it presents a workable way to address the persistent problem of lagging graduation rates of black males. Getting more students to graduate wouldn’t require districts to hire lots of black teachers, he said. Schools could use the existing workforce, he said, while making sure that black students get at least one black teacher.

“We can reassign students today with a careful look at rosters and use the black teachers we have, and maybe get something that’s working now,” he said.

After looking at North Carolina data, researchers looked at Tennessee student information and affirmed their findings.

Given only about 13 percent of North Carolina elementary teachers are black, the paper’s expected to generate further calls for the state to diversify its teaching population.

From The N&O report:

The next step is to find out why having a black teacher makes a difference, Papageorge said. Research has found that black teachers have higher expectations for black students. That may result in teachers spending more time and effort on them, and students becoming more engaged in school. Or, it may be that students benefit from seeing role models, Papageorge said.

James Ford, program director at the Public School Forum of North Carolina, said he wasn’t surprised by the findings. “I think we understand the value of being affirmed,” he said. “Not everything is reading, writing and arithmetic.”

The forum, an education think-tank, wants the state to consider ways to increase teacher diversity.