Commentary

Dear NC Policy Watch readers,

It’s been a great pleasure to connect with all of you and bring you news and information about what’s going on with public education here in North Carolina.

Today is my last day with NC Policy Watch, although I’ll still be wrapping up some remaining projects over the next few weeks. But do not despair: Policy Watch will continue its work covering important education issues—if you know anyone interested in working as an education reporter, please do be in touch!

I am excited to announce I’ll be joining the Fletcher Foundation as an education specialist. In that role, I’ll be conducting research, analysis and reporting on issues pertaining to education in North Carolina. In particular I’ll be taking closer looks at trends related to charter schools, educational equity, and the broader area of school choice, just to name a few topics.

And I will continue to collaborate with my colleagues at Policy Watch, so keep your eyes peeled for more from me here, too.

If you’d like to drop me a line, you can now find me at lindsay@ajf.org

Thanks again for reading and supporting NC Policy Watch.

News

One of the longest legislative sessions in more than a decade (possibly the longest since 2002) came to a close during the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Here’s a quick update on some last minute controversial proposals affecting public education that ultimately didn’t become law.

Charter school funding 

Sen. Jerry Tillman breathed new life back into a proposal heard earlier this session that would have diverted funds typically reserved for traditional public schools over to charter schools.

Using the ‘gut and amend’ process, Tillman shoved the complicated language into a House bill that was previously about school playgrounds a week and a half before the close of session. Loads of push back ensued from the school boards association, school administrators and other education advocates.

The bill would have allowed charter schools to receive more federal and local tax dollars—as well as private grants— than to which they are currently entitled. And some of that money could have been reimbursements for services that charter schools may not be providing to students, like school lunches. (State law doesn’t require charter schools to provide school lunches, although many do participate in the federal school lunch program.)

Senate lawmakers approved the measure Monday evening and sent it back to the House for concurrence—but the bill was left to die last night. It could come back next year.

School vouchers

Republican House lawmakers successfully banded together Tuesday morning in an effort to block a proposal put forward by school voucher champion Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam that would have set up the state’s new school voucher program for expansion.

Stam gutted and amended S456 to require the state to award more Opportunity Scholarships (also known as school vouchers) to kindergartners and first graders, a move seen by some as a set up for the program’s expansion down the road.

But there appeared to be growing discontent among some Republican lawmakers over the school voucher program, as Rep. Bryan Holloway led efforts to block Stam’s proposal by telling his colleagues they “might find it interesting” to look at what kinds of schools voucher students are picking and choosing.

Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Smithfield) told colleagues that a private school in his district accepting school vouchers didn’t seem fit to take tax dollars.

“I went to visit this school [receiving school vouchers, in his district]. It’s in a back of a church, and it has like 10 or 12 students. And one teacher. Or one and a half teachers,” said Rep. Daughtry. “And I think you need to go slow with Opportunity Scholarships. From what I saw…the school there that I visited didn’t seem to be a school that we would want to send taxpayer dollars to.”

Stam’s proposal was narrowly defeated in the House appropriations committee, 24-26, after a careful count of the ayes and noes.

Achievement school district

Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) pushed hard for months behind closed doors to pitch a proposal to his colleagues that would have created an ‘achievement school district’ in which some of North Carolina’s lowest performing schools would be placed, teachers and staff at those schools could be fired, and the schools would be subject to the management of for-profit (or not-for-profit, too) charter school operators tasked with bringing them up into the ranks of the state’s top performers.

The idea is controversial thanks to the mixed results its seen in places like Tennessee and Louisiana, coupled with the notion that for-profit charter operators subject to fewer checks and balances and not accountable to an elected school board would be tasked with the care of a vulnerable student population.

As the end of session neared, it began to look as if Bryan’s proposal would be heard publicly only at the very last minute—but ultimately the bill, which was another ‘gut and amend’ of a Senate proposal that had already passed that chamber, never made it into committee. Rumors of the idea being placed into a ‘study committee’ never materialized, but the pitch could come back next year.

News

Republican House lawmakers successfully banded together Tuesday morning in an effort to block a proposal put forward by school voucher champion Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam that would have set up the state’s new school voucher program for expansion.

Stam gutted and amended S456 to require the state to award more Opportunity Scholarships (also known as school vouchers) to kindergartners and first graders—a move that would increase waiting lists for the $4,200 scholarships that allow families to use tax dollars for tuition at private schools, many of which are religious and none of which are subject to rigorous oversight and accountability standards.

Stam told fellow lawmakers that the program has had “way more applicants for K-1 than they can handle under the existing limitation that it be no more than 35 percent” and indicated that without the change in law, the program might not be able to spend all funds this year. The change would allow more students to get vouchers in the short term, and, with longer waiting lists, demonstrate increased demand that would serve as justification for the program’s expansion in the long run.

Rep. Bryan Holloway (R-Stokes) kicked off opposition to Stam’s proposal, saying he’s not yet seen results indicating whether or not the school voucher program works in favor the low-income students it purports to help.

“Why not just move forward, come back next year, see these kids’ test scores?” said Rep. Holloway. “Look at the data. Look at the schools these kids pick. Let’s look at the data before we do this.”

Rep. Linda Johnson echoed Holloway’s sentiments, saying “we continue to put money [into school vouchers], but we don’t have any results yet.”

The Opportunity Scholarship program is moving into its second year of existence. During its inaugural 2014-15 year, the program moved forward while the state Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of sending public dollars to private, religious schools that are subject to very little oversight by the state. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the program did not violate the state’s constitution, allowing it to continue.

Lawmakers voted to expand the voucher program considerably over the next two years, upping it from $11 million to $17.5 million next year and $24 million the following year.

Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Smithfield) told the committee a private school in his district that accepted school vouchers didn’t seem fit for accepting tax dollars.

“I went to visit this school [receiving school vouchers, in his district]. It’s in a back of a church, and it has like 10 or 12 students. And one teacher. Or one and a half teachers,” said Rep. Daughtry. “And I think you need to go slow with Opportunity Scholarships. From what I saw…the school there that I visited didn’t seem to be a school that we would want to send taxpayer dollars to.”

Stam’s proposal was narrowly defeated in the House appropriations committee, 24-26, after a careful count of the ayes and noes.

News

After hours of anticipation yesterday as a bill lingered on a House Rules committee agenda that could allow for-profit charter school operators to takeover some of North Carolina’s worst performing schools, Rep. Rob Bryan (R-Mecklenburg) told the Charlotte Observer Thursday night that his proposal won’t be taken up by fellow lawmakers this year.

Bryan, a Mecklenburg Republican with a leadership role in education, said in August that he planned to introduce a bill that would force five of the state’s lowest-scoring schools to close or convert to independently run charter schools. But he said Thursday that prolonged work on the budget squeezed out time to deal with the bill in the House education committee.

He said the new plan is to have a House select committee study the proposal and hold public meetings early in 2016, with a vote in next year’s short session. That would still allow schools to reopen as charters in 2017-18, he said.

The plan to create an ‘achievement school district’ (ASD) has been tried in similar ways in Tennessee, Louisiana and elsewhere. It’s a controversial way to attempt to improve student success at low-performing schools because it allows charter operators to fire public school teachers and staff and implement their own curricula and governance standards that are not overseen by locally elected school boards.

And the data don’t paint a clear picture of success in other locales where ASDs have been tried.

NC Policy Watch also uncovered out of state ties to pushing the ASD legislation. A wealthy Oregon businessman who has a history of pushing school privatization initiatives around the country financed lobbying efforts for the bill.

Proponents of the bill say the status quo isn’t working for disadvantaged students, and efforts like an achievement school zone where charter operators can pull up low-performing schools should be considered.

Rep. Bryan worked on his legislation with various stakeholders behind closed doors, producing 40+ versions of the proposal before it would have made it to a public hearing this week.

But Bryan says many politicians and educators weighed in on the idea to create a charter school takeover district.

“It’s been way more vetted than most other bills we do,” he said Thursday.

For more background on ASD, check out the following stories:

News

The controversial gutted-and-amended SB95, which has seen 40+ versions behind closed doors and would create a charter-managed Achievement School District comprising some of North Carolina’s lowest performing schools, looks to be on the move for public debate in the waning days of the 2015 legislative session.

The House withdrew SB95 from the Education K-12 committee this morning and placed it into the Rules committee. No word yet on when a House Rules committee will take place, but given the last few days’ unpredictable scheduling, it’s possible it could be calendared at any time.

See the end of this post for a recent version of the ASD proposal.

For more background on ASD, check out the following stories: