Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. Follow Greg @gchild6645

Hold private schools that receive voucher money to higher standards, says Children’s Law Clinic report

Correction: Senate Bill 711 would not change income eligibility requirements for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. The bill would allow any student eligible to attend a North Carolina Public school to become eligible for a scholarship.

Private schools whose students receive taxpayer funded vouchers should be required to participate in state end-of-grade testing, says the authors of a new report recently released by the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University’s Law School,

And participating schools should be required to offer a curriculum that’s equivalent to the curriculum used in public schools, the authors contend.

Staffed by Duke law students, the Children’s Law Clinic provides free legal advice, advocacy and legal representation to low-income, at-risk children in cases involving special education, school discipline and children’s disability benefits.

The recommendations are among those the authors made after a six-year review of North Carolina’s controversial Opportunity Scholarship Program that provides scholarships of up to $4,200 to help low-to moderate-income families send children to private schools.

Click here to see the report.

Taxpayers have spent more than $150 million on the voucher program since it launched in 2014. Another $730 million is set to be appropriated through 2027.

Public school advocates complain that the program fosters school segregation and lacks academic and fiscal accountability. They also contend it weakens public schools by shifting valuable resources to private schools while offering no evidence that students who receive vouchers perform better.

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

The Children’s Law Clinic’s report comes about two weeks after a group of Republican senators filed Senate Bill 711 to allow any student who attends a North Carolina public school to be eligible for the program.

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

Jane Wettach

Jane R. Wettach, the William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law at Duke, the clinic’s founding director and the report’s lead author, said it’s important that the General Assembly understand program details and how it has worked.

“I hope the data presented will help the legislature make sound decisions about the continuation of the program, with the interests of both students and the public in mind,” Wettach said.

Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, denounced the bill shortly after it was filed.

“It seems particularly callous right now to make this a priority,” Marcus told Policy Watch. “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 authors also recommend that schools be required to set reasonable qualifications for teachers and that failing schools be disqualified  from receiving voucher payments.

Here are some of the key findings in the report:

  • No information is available to the public about whether the students using school vouchers have made academic progress or have fallen behind. All public reporting on academic outcomes of students receiving vouchers has ended because the program’s design prevents meaningful data from being available.
  • The central feature of the program is the provision of a government subsidy to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools. More than 90 percent of vouchers are used to pay tuition at religious schools; three-quarters of those schools use a biblically-based curriculum presenting concepts that directly contradict the state’s educational standards.
  • Private schools participating in the program are not required to be accredited, adhere to state curricular or graduation standards, employ licensed teachers, or administer state end-of-grade tests. North Carolina’s accountability measures for the voucher program are among the weakest in the nation.
  • Nearly half of the new applicants are those entering kindergarten and first grade who have not attended public school. Most other children are required to have attended public school before applying for a voucher. Once a child is awarded a voucher, it can be renewed for successive years.
  • After convening a task force to study program evaluation, the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the program, concluded that its features prevent an independent research organization from conducting an effective, valid, and reliable evaluation. Thus, although the law requires such an evaluation to be conducted, none is planned.
  • Only about 5 percent of the schools accepting voucher payments are subject to financial review by the state. At least one private school, almost entirely supported by voucher payments, closed mid-year, leaving nearly 150 students to be unexpectedly absorbed by surrounding public schools.

Remote teaching and learning may continue for some students, teachers after schools reopen

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

When traditional schools reopen, possibly in mid-August, it won’t likely be for everyone.

Teachers and students at high-risk of contracting the coronavirus could be asked to continue teaching and learning remotely, according to Superintendent Mark Johnson.

Johnson shared those thoughts last week in an email message to members of a task force studying and planning for the reopening of schools.

“Since the start of our switch to remote learning in March, I have held the belief that we are going to need to utilize remote learning next school year as well in some form or fashion,” Johnson said. “As guidelines start to take shape, we see that we will need options to at least protect students and teachers who are in the high-risk category.”

Johnson also warned that the reopening of schools won’t be easy.

Following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to screen students before they enter school buildings will take a herculean effort, he said.

“Depending on how schools must screen students before entering, a screening process could take hours if schools are near capacity,” Johnson said. “And, that doesn’t even start to account for the space required depending on NC DHHS’ [N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’] upcoming guidance on social distancing at schools.”

Johnson said state education leaders are rethinking how remote learning might look for the state moving forward.

Ideas include:

  • Addressing teacher shortages through the help of teachers in the at-risk category who could create remote lessons from home for students anywhere in the state to use.
  • More remote lessons coordinated from the district or state level instead of individual schools creating all of their own lessons (allowing teachers more one-on-one time with students, even if remotely).
  • Utilizing more remote learning tools with built in lessons and support that already have a strong track record of use before this crisis.
  • Reopening schools for lower grades first while relying on remote learning at the start of the year for high school.

Safety guidelines for reopening schools are expected soon, according to state health official

They’re the big questions of the day.

What does the timeline look like for deciding when to and how to reopen North Carolina’s public schools?

And when they do reopen, possibly as early as Aug. 17, what will they look like?

What directives will school staffs, parents and students be given about protecting themselves against the contagious and deadly COVID-19?

There are no definitive or answers, for now.

Susan Gale Perry

But they’re coming, says Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).

“Very, very, very quickly here, within the next week or so, we’re going to have to start getting some clarity on school guidance,” Perry said Thursday, noting that virus data will drive school reopening decisions.

Perry’s remarks were made to the House Select Committee on COVID-19 focused on educational issues.

The committee met remotely with Perry and school leaders to receive an update on the work being done by the Schools Reopening Task Force (SRTF) created to address the challenges of reopening schools.

David Stegall

David Stegall, state deputy superintendent of innovation, said absence any additional guidance from Gov. Cooper and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) activity at schools could begin to rev up as soon as next month.

“Things such as the end of the dead period for sports where athletes can start practicing and doing workouts and lifting and conditioning begins in June,” Stegall said.

Summer school, year-round schools, summer camps and teacher development programs would occur before traditional schools open in the fall, he said.

“Lots of stuff is happening and happening quickly and we want to make sure we’re giving as much guidance as possible,” Stegall said.

School buildings in the state have been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis. And many of the state’s nearly 1.6 million students are now learning from home.

Perry shared preliminary guidelines for reopening schools with lawmakers. She covered social distancing, cleaning/hygiene, monitoring the health of students and staff, protecting high-risk populations and educating students and staff about the virus.

“There’s a lot more work that needs to be done because while, I think we have some good ideas from the public health side, what is going to protect students and staff and considerations for high risk individuals and what the kinds of practical things are that need to be done, the implication for schools we realize are massive,” Perry said.

Requiring students and teachers to wear face masks is being considered.

“Obviously, there are many considerations around face coverings for children, particularly at different ages, their level of compliance or ability to wear them properly, making sure everyone has them,” Perry said.

NCDHHS and state education partners are also weighing what to do about athletics, managing staggered school schedules and lunches being served someplace other than lunchrooms, she said.

“There are a lot of logistical considerations,” Perry said. “We’re still vetting options because we have to take into consideration all of the practical realities.”

State Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who co-chairs the House Select Committee’s on COVID-19 education group, asked about protocols to ensure the safety of exceptional children, some of whom are more susceptible to infection.

“We’re probably going to have to make some special arrangements and what kind of costs do we expect to incur,” Horn asked.

Beverly Emory, state deputy superintendent of district support, said experts are imbedded in work groups to advocate and to “give voice” to issues important for to medically fragile children.

“We are trying to get our arms around that as we look at these scenarios,” Emory said. “How they [eceptional children] participate needs to be as equitable as any other students in our system.”

State Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Republican from Burke County, asked if guidelines for school reopening would be tailored to fit individual school districts.

Blackwell said Avery County, where there are no confirmed cases of the virus, might not need the same strict guidelines as downtown Charlotte.

“Is DHHS going to make it possible to have variable standards and practices [for schools] based on the actual on the ground realities or are they going to continue their [statewide] policy of one-size fits all when it comes to what we must do?” Blackwell asked.

Perry said such a decision would be a joint one, made with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, NCDHHS, Superintendent Mark Johnson, the State Board of Education and other parties about whether districts would have flexibility implementing safety guidelines.

“We understand that there are many differences across the state both in terms of how the public health data is playing out in this crisis and also in how schools are structured,” Perry said.




State Democrats file bill to place $3.9B bond referendum on November ballot

Several Democratic lawmakers filed a bill Thursday that would place a $3.9 billion bond for schools, colleges and universities, and water and sewer infrastructure  on the November ballot.

Under House Bill 1088, taxpayers would be asked to approve $2 billion for public schools to begin to address an estimated $8 billion in construction and renovation needs.

In addition to the $2 billion for schools, the lawmakers want to spend:

  • $800 million on water and sewer infrastructure.
  • $500 million on community colleges.
  • $500 million on the UNC system.
  • $100 million on the Museum of History and NC Zoo.

“2020 has seen the end of the longest economic expansion in history,” said Rep. Wesley Harris, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who is one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “Unfortunately, we failed to take advantage of this growth to adequately fund the infrastructure needs of our state, which are the true drivers of long-term economic growth. Instead, our legislature chose tax cut after tax cut.”

Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat; Rep.Raymond E. Smith Jr.; a Waye County Democrat and Rep. Kandie Smith, a Democrat from Pitt County also co-sponsored the bill.

The $3.9 billion bond proposal mirrors one previously floated by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Last year, Republicans backed a pay-as-you-go plan approved by the House and Senate to pay for infrastructure needs. It was vetoed by Cooper.

Republicans backers of the pay-as-you go scheme argued that it would get money to school districts quicker and save more than $1 million in interest payments.

“It allows you to spend more money on where you would like for it to be spent,” Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said in 2019.

Democrats argued that the pay-as-you-go scheme would take money from the state’s general fund better spent on increasing teacher pay or fully funding the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“As we approach a year with expected revenue shortfall, we must preserve every dollar in our general fund that we can, while still making sure we are able to fund our critical infrastructure needs,” Harris said.

Lawmakers expect state revenue shortfalls of between $2 billion and $4 billion because of the COVID-19 crisis, which closed the state’s economy.

North Carolina’s AAA bond rating from major rating agencies would allow the state to issue debt cheaper than nearly any other state, Harris said.

“This proposal begins to close the gap in our infrastructure needs, preserves our general fund for other pressing expenses, and the capital projects will be a job creator as our State’s economy begins to recover from the COVID19 crisis,” Harris said.


GOP Council of State members want to meet with Gov. Cooper to discuss reopening the state

Republican Council of State members want to meet with Gov. Roy Cooper “as soon as possible” to discuss reopening the state’s economy.

“We all understand that the shelter-in-place cannot exist forever,” the GOP members said in an emailed message to Cooper. “With the rest of the Southeast, and the majority of our country already providing structure and clarity to struggling businesses and workers, North Carolina is lagging in communication.”

Cooper’s office was not immediately available for comment.

But he responded to questions about the letter during a press conference Tuesday.

“We’re going rely on the science and the facts tell us when to reopen,” Cooper said. “I know that people are hurting because of this virus and I know that our economy is hurting because of this virus. But the health of our people and the health of our economy go hand in hand.”

He said that his administration has offered to set up a meeting with Council of State about the COVID-19 crisis.

“We look forward to doing that,” Cooper said.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

The message from Republicans is signed by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is challenging Cooper for the governor’s seat in November. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler, Commissioner of Insurance Mike Causey, Commissioner of Labor Cherie Berry and Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson also signed the message.

It’s dated May 12, the same day Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, warned lawmakers in Washington that there could be a surge of COVID-19 cases if states, cities and regions reopen too soon.

Gov. Roy Cooper

The five GOP Council of State members here said businesses in North Carolina are ready to reopen. They said their offices are being “flooded with phone calls” from businesses owners who expected to open May 1.

“Now, you [Cooper] are telling them that they have to wait at least another two weeks, with minimal guidance from you,” they wrote.

The Republican Council of State members are the majority.

“We are asking that you convene the Council of State as soon as possible so that we understand your plan for North Carolina,” they said. “We also need the ability to provide clarity to businesses across our state that are dangerously close to permanently closing. And we need clarity as to why you aren’t allowing specific industries to open as our neighboring states have done.

The Republicans were critical of the Cooper administration’s handling of 1 million unemployment claims filed since March when nonessential businesses were ordered closed.

“It is heartbreaking to hear the unending high volume of phone calls many of us receive daily from hopeless citizens down to their last dollars,” they said. “There are numerous ways to protect lives and livelihoods while allowing healthy North Carolina citizens to return to work and giving them the ability to provide for themselves and their families.”

Cooper is following White House guidance for reopening states.

But the five Republican noted that the guidance coming from Washington is not law and that governors have flexibility in deciding when to reopen states.

“The fact that North Carolina is faring better in cases and deaths on a per capita level than the rest of the nation, and the majority of deaths are from government-regulated congregant living centers, proves that our citizens can properly social distance and abide by COVID-19 business regulations,” the letter said.

Nearly 600 people have died from the coronavirus in North Carolina and at least 15,591 have tested positive for the virus.