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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.

News

N.C. legislature inches closer to school calendar reform

School busesAfter more than a decade of bickering over the public school calendar’s start and end times, North Carolina legislators moved closer Thursday to enlisting a pilot program that would research the impacts of shortened summer breaks on student performance.

House lawmakers on Thursday overwhelmingly approved House Bill 389. The bill, as explained in this March Policy Watch report, enlists 20 rural counties in a pilot program allowing districts to amend their calendars to reconvene around Aug. 10, rather than the late-August start time enshrined in state law.

Education researchers argue abbreviated summer breaks may improve academic performance, particularly among low-performing students, because it blunts the impacts of so-called “summer learning loss.”

The draft legislation orders officials with the Department of Public Instruction to provide annual reports on the program’s impacts to the legislature. Meanwhile, the State Board of Education and Department of Commerce would also offer reports on the program to the UNC School of Government.

If approved, counties would have the option to participate beginning in 2018-2019.

House lawmakers also appear poised to give their approval to House Bill 375 next week, a draft bill granting districts the power to time the start of their school year with community colleges.

Legislators say K-12 calendars are currently out of sync with community colleges, which mostly begin their academic year in mid-August. They say House Bill 375 will help high school students who want to take community college coursework as well.

Both bills will likely face a more unpredictable path to approval in the state Senate, which has traditionally been more skeptical of cutting summer breaks.

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In fight over charter dollars, Senate GOP seeks to transfer powers to county commissioners

As noted on Policy Watch many times, school choice and traditional school advocates have been bickering—in and out of a courtroom—over charters’ share of state funding for the better part of a decade.

Charter schools often accuse local school districts of shortchanging them, despite state laws that require traditional school systems shuttle per-pupil state dollars along with students leaving for charters.

It’s an accusation that, at least according to this analysis from the progressive N.C. Justice Center, may be off target.  (Disclosure: The Justice Center is the parent nonprofit for N.C. Policy Watch.)

In the latest twist though, state Senate Republicans are hoping to take that funding out of local school districts’ hands altogether.

A pair of bills filed this week, Senate bills 658 and 562, are similar in that both would leave county commissioners, rather than local school boards, the responsibility for dispensing appropriations to charters.

However, Senate Bill 658—cosponsored by Republicans Ralph Hise and Chad Barefoot—goes a significant step further, also giving counties the power to issue capital, or infrastructure, funds and access to various funding pools currently denied to charters. That includes reimbursements, sales tax revenues, gifts and grants made directly to local school systems.

Of the two, Senate Bill 658 is the most likely to anger traditional school system supporters, who might note charters are not required to share their own portion of grants, reimbursements and gifts with local school systems.

Both bills have been assigned to a heavily backlogged Senate Rules and Operations Committee. Policy Watch will continue to track the legislation.