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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.”



School buses to carry Wi-Fi hotspots to rural, underserved students

Accessing remote learning opportunities will become easier for students in communities underserved by high-speed internet connections, thanks to donations of Wi-Fi hotspots from AT&T, Google and Duke Energy Foundation.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced the gifts in a news release Wednesday.

The donations will allow as many as 280 additional school buses to be equipped with Wi-Fi hotspots.

The buses will travel to underserved areas, park at sites such as school nutrition meal distribution centers or grocery stores so students can connect to the internet to turn in assignments, download materials or connect with teachers.

Gov. Roy Cooper

The drive-up Wi-Fi access will also allow residents to connect to healthcare providers, apply for unemployment or access other critical information and services.

AT&T and Google are providing up to 100 Wi-Fi hotspots each and the Duke Energy Foundation is providing up to 80. The first 156 devices are expected to be delivered starting today to communities in 29 counties across the state.

“In many communities, school buses are already delivering meals to students and their families. Now they’re delivering Wi-Fi for online learning,” Cooper said.

Cooper asked the N.C. Department of Information Technology (NCDIT) to work with the North Carolina Business Committee on Education (NCBCE) and Hometown Strong, internet providers and other corporate partners to help more students who lack home internet access get connected during this time, including through installing Wi-Fi technology on more school buses.

The lack of high-speed internet connections for rural students learning from home since mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak have been a much-discussed topic.

State officials estimate that more than 300,000 students across the state, many of them in rural communities, lack the internet connections and electronic devices needed to access remote learning opportunities.

Policy Watch reported last month that roughly 95% of households in North Carolina have access to broadband internet, which is slightly better than the national average of 93.5%. Still, large swaths of rural North Carolina do not have access, including some of the state’s high poverty areas.

School districts in rural parts of North Carolina will be among the first to receive the new Wi-Fi hotspots.

Schools in Avery, Bertie, Bladen, Burke, Caswell, Chowan, Columbus, Duplin, Edgecombe, Franklin, Gaston, Gates, Halifax, Harnett, Hertford, Johnston, Martin, Montgomery, Northampton, Perquimans, Person, Randolph (includes Asheboro City Schools), Robeson, Sampson (includes Clinton City Schools), Scotland, Tyrrell, Vance, Wayne, Warren and Yadkin counties will receive the first 156 Wi-Fi hotspots.

“This partnership with AT&T, Google and the Duke Energy Foundation will allow more access for some of our most underserved counties,” said State Board of Education (SBE) Chairman Eric Davis. ‘The board’s ultimate goal is to eliminate the digital divide to allow the same access for each and every child. These Wi-Fi hotspots are a start to getting these counties the resources they need to serve students despite their location.”

A team from the NCDIT’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, Hometown Strong and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) began delivering hotspots late Tuesday.

Data from the Federal Communication Commission and NCDPI’s school survey was used to identify counties with the most households unserved and underserved by high-speed internet.

NCDIT cross-referenced that information with counties using school buses to deliver meals to students, as well as information about cellular coverage, to determine where school bus Wi-Fi hotspots can be most useful. Some counties are already using school buses to provide internet access.

The SBE received an update on the new Wi-Fi hotspots during its monthly meeting Wednesday.

To learn more about the free Wi-Fi spots, visit:  www.ncbroadband.gov/covid19.

The webpage also includes a map of other public Wi-Fi drive-up locations, as well as a listing of free or low-cost options for internet service during the pandemic. The list is updated as new offers and locations are added.  


How the pandemic has reshaped learning: My experience with high school newcomers

Editor’s note: As businesses begin to re-open and COVID-19 restrictions ease, many teachers remain at home working to salvage the school year for their students. Today we offer an essay from Ginny Clayton,  who teaches English Language Learners at Cary High School.  Her first block class,  ESL Applied, is a year-long class designed for newcomers with interrupted formal education.

In this first-person account, Ginny discusses some of the challenges in transitioning to online learning as well as reasons for hope. Her students are represented by their first initial to protect their privacy.

Ginny Clayton

Hello and Goodbye

K.’s first day in U.S. schools was March 11, three days before closure due to COVID-19.

Because the factors that uproot children and families from rural Central America do not operate on an academic calendar, adding students late in the school year is not uncommon. It’s challenging but has its benefits: The whole class gets to review the basics, and there are enough helper jobs to make everyone feel needed.

K.’s classmates happily gave her tutorials on many tasks: from annotating handouts to checking grades online to operating the classroom coffee pot. A minor miracle occurs when students take on such roles: In a flash they jump from believing they know nothing to realizing how much they’ve actually learned in the short months they’ve been at school. They tell the newcomer not to worry, that she’ll get it soon, that she’s in a safe place now. K.’s first week was going well.

It had also been a good week for my second- and third-year students. For the first time, we had a 100% pass rate on the weekly vocabulary quiz. Three students had gone after school to the big new public library nearby and gotten their own library cards. They were proud of themselves and excited to start visiting regularly.

Now it feels like all the progress we were making has been pushed over a cliff.

Friday, March 13, was a whirlwind. Gov. Cooper had not made an official recommendation to cancel schools, but the writing was on the wall and a buzz was in the air. Two pre-service teachers who were visiting that morning were kind enough to run my lesson so that I could scurry around to various classrooms collecting current student cell phone numbers. (Teachers know how ephemeral those things are.)

The ESL team and school staff at-large tried one last time to make sure all our students were signed up for Remind, Google Classroom, Khan Academy, whichever apps we were putting our faith in to carry us through in case of closure. For me it was Duolingo with its cute owl mascot who sends insistent push notifications if students aren’t meeting their points goals. “If we don’t come back Monday,” I told the class, “then the owl is your teacher. Obey the owl.” It felt like a lot was riding on that little bird.

The Transition

Our first two weeks out of school were consumed with reaching out to students. Are you OK? Are you still here? Do you have food? Are you washing your hands? Is anyone in your family sick? What are their symptoms? Are you working? Where, and how many hours, and how far apart from other people? Have you heard from so-and-so? Do you have a computer? How many people use it? We shared information as we learned it from all the wonderful community organizations who were jumping into action to provide food, health care, and emergency aid.

These conversations with families underscored for me the fact that immigrants, already an important part of our community’s economic bedrock, were keeping it going. I talked to people working in childcare, cleaning, construction, landscaping, retail and food service who did not have the luxury of staying home.  Read more

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

Delayed by COVID-19 pandemic, search for UNC System president continues

The UNC System Presidential Search Committee continued its work in conference call meeting Monday afternoon, despite delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During these challenging times we are continuing to make progress in our search for the next leader of our great system,” said UNC Board of Governors member Wendy Murphy, c0-chair of the committee.

The committee had hoped to be interviewing candidates by now. Instead, they are still accepting applications and advertising for the position.

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

So far, there are 36 applicants from across the U.S. and several from other countries, according to a report from search director Kim Strach. The selection process is confidential and none of the candidates are being identified publicly. After a brief report from Strach at Monday’s meeting, the committee met in closed session.

As Policy Watch reported last month, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper will stay in the position until the search is concluded. Roper was scheduled to leave at the end of June. The timeline for his replacement is now unclear and depends on progress on slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Roper has been serving as interim president since November 2018. Before that, he was CEO of UNC Health Care for 14 years and dean of the public health school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

As interim president he now makes $775,000 per year, with a $77,500 annual retirement contribution and the possibility of up to $125,000 in an annual performance bonus.

“I’m honored to serve and we’ll see how this plays out,” Roper said after last month’s board of governors meeting. “It’s an uncertain time in many respects.”

In the meantime, Roper is leading the system office through the pandemic, which has led to students at all 17 UNC system schools moving to online-only education and concerns about a coming financial crisis. Roper has announced that the system is planning students’ return to campus for the Fall semester.