Parents, civil rights groups challenge town charter school districts

Mark Dorosin

Parents, civil rights groups and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, are challenging a law approved by the General Assembly in 2018 that gave four towns in North Carolina the right to establish charter schools.

The plaintiffs, who filed the complaint in Wake County Superior Court against the State of North Carolina, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger, contend the law “violates the state’s constitutional guarantees of a uniform system of free public education, and equal protection under the law.”

House Bill 514 authorized four predominantly white, wealthy towns in Mecklenburg County —Matthews, Mint Hill, Huntersville and Cornelius — to create Town Charter School Districts within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District.

It was introduced following a proposal by CMS to redraw student assignment areas to stop the racial and socioeconomic segregation in CMS schools.

HB 514 became law without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature because it was considered a “local bill,” only applying to four towns in Mecklenburg County.

“These Town Charters will result in further racial and socioeconomic segregation of students not only by creating majority white and wealthy schools using public funds,” said Mark Dorosin, a managing attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee. “But also by leaving CMS schools even more segregated by race and class and undermining the district’s ability to address that disparity. Decades of education research shows that segregation hurts all students.”

The North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP and two parents with children in CMS filed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are represented by the Lawyers’ Committee and the law firm of Tin, Fulton, Walker and Owen, P.L.L.C.

“Allowing these predominantly white towns to create publicly funded schools that can exclude the Black and Brown students that live in Charlotte is another attempt to push our schools back to the days before Brown v. Board of Ed., Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the North Carolina NAACP said in a news release.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP President Corinne Mack said black students deserve the same high-quality teachers, curriculum and facilities that students from white and wealthier families enjoy.

“We are bringing this lawsuit to protect all students’ rights to an equitable education and to help end the segregation in CMS,” Mack said.


State Superintendent Mark Johnson creates task force to study reopening schools in the fall

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

State Superintendent Mark Johnson on Thursday announced the creation of a new bipartisan task force to plan for the reopening of public schools. They have been closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Johnson made the announcement about the new Schools Reopening Task Force during a State Board of Education meeting Thursday.

He said it’s important to get the message to educators, parents and students that the current school closure and remote learning taking place is not the “new normal” in North Carolina.

“We recognize that this situation is not sustainable,” Johnson said. “We, today, are launching the task force on how we will reopen schools in the fall.”

Gov. Roy Cooper said last week that he’s confident students will return to school buildings in the fall.

The task force will include a mixture of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest who chairs the SBE’s Digital Learning Committee, superintendents from across the state and staff from Cooper’s office.

Education-focused organizations, teachers, principals, parents and students will advise the panel.

Johnson said the task force will focus on:

  • Improving remote learning options by making them more user-friendly and practical, including broadband internet;
  • Monitoring and closing the achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and students of color and their white counterparts; that gap might have grown larger because some students need more individualized instruction than online learning allows.
  • Social distancing when students return to school. The need for greater social distancing is likely unavoidable until there is a vaccine. The taks force will help develop guidelines in partnership with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services with the goals of getting as many teachers and students back in schools as safely as possible and determining how to manage extracurricular activities.

“Everyone can understand how difficult it will be to social distance on a school bus or in a classroom or in a hallway or cafeteria,” Johnson said.

COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

UNC System aiming for fall re-opening of campuses, avoiding tuition increases

All 17 UNC System campuses should be able to return to on-campus instruction in the Fall semester, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper said in a statement this week.

It may not immediately be “the ‘normal’ we were all used to prior to COVID-19,” Roper said, but the system is working with individual campuses and their chancellors on plans for how to get there.

“We are optimistically seeing indications of improvement and hopeful that this will continue,” Roper said. “But these trends will continue only if we stay focused and diligent, which we must and will do. North Carolina will likely have improved capacity for tracking student exposure and greater access to the tools, materials, and supplies that can help minimize the virus’s threat.”

UNC System Interim President Bill Roper.

Chancellors at the individual universities will be given the flexibility to determine what is best for students and staff on campus and off, Roper said. Some may consider staggered or shortened calendars and may take steps to to reduce the number of students in campus housing and in classrooms.

“Above all, our steps forward will be contingent on what we discover through ongoing monitoring of infection rates and North Carolina’s testing and treatment capacity,” Roper said. “We will continue to follow the advice of the nation’s infectious disease experts and our own experts at UNC Health. We will remain in frequent contact with Dr. Mandy Cohen, Secretary of NC Department of Health and Human Services. And we will continue to coordinate our operations with Governor Cooper’s executive orders.”

Students, teachers and administrators throughout the system did a remarkable job shifting to online-only education last month, Roper said. But it’s not a permanent solution.

“For many in the UNC System, digital learning technologies simply cannot be a long-term substitute for the facilities and community that our campuses provide,” Roper said. “The majority of our faculty and students need access to our libraries, labs, classrooms, and medical and agriculture facilities to fully engage with their research, teaching, learning, and service work.”

This week students filed separate lawsuits against East Carolina University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Wilmington over the shift to online education. The complaints say that though the pivot was necessary, thousands of students across the state didn’t get what they paid for in their college experience and pro-rated refunds for unused meal plans and on-campus housing don’t fully compensate them for that.

The complaints filed against UNC are part of a nationwide wave of such suits and aspire to become a class action lawsuit that could involve thousands of students in the state.

As the UNC system wrestles with that problem, a UNC Board of Governors committee voted this week to postpone any increase in tuition and fees at system schools for the coming academic year. The final vote will be taken at the full board meeting later this month, but there appears to be little support for raising tuition and fees as students and their families deal with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

At its May meeting the board is also expected to officially approve Dr. Sharon Gaber as the next chancellor of UNC-Charlotte. The school announced her appointment this week. Gaber will come to the post from the University of Toledo, where she was the school’s first female leader. She will replace Philip Dubois, who served as chancellor of UNC-Charlotte for 15 years.

Searches for the next chancellor at East Carolina University and for a new President of the UNC System have been postponed due to the pandemic.

Commentary, COVID-19, Education

How the COVID-19 packages compare for public schools

Lawmakers have returned to Raleigh this week, aiming to pass a series of bills to help the state manage through the COVID-19 crisis. To date, the House, Senate, and Governor have all released plans to distribute funding received from federal relief bills and to modify state regulations. The plans are a reflection of the crisis we face: massive and complex.

One of the primary challenges for state lawmakers is how to mitigate the harm caused by the closure of public schools. School closures have exacerbated existing inequalities in our school system. Lawmakers must figure out how best to minimize the harm caused by fewer instructional days, diminished instructional quality and widespread trauma.

The table below summarizes the major differences between the competing plans released by the Senate, the House, the Governor, and the State Board of Education.

1 S704, Edition 1
2 H1035 Edition 1 and H1038 Edition 2
3 Recommended money and provisions, as found here and here
4 As presented at 4/23 SBE meeting here
5 Funding from child nutrition may be used to provide incentive pay for school nutrition and transportation staff involved in the preparation and distribution of meals and food packages
6 Governor’s package includes $243 million in public school funding to address the needs outlined in the State Board request, but does not specify dollar amounts for specific programs

Money Items
As the table shows, none of the plans fully fund every request made by the SBE, but the Governor’s plan comes the closest. While it omits the SBE’s request to hire additional support personnel to address students’ physical and mental health needs upon returning to school, the Governor also states that it remains his intention to provide that funding at a future date with state money.

The House plan also funds the majority of the SBE’s request, though not always to the dollar amount.

As is frequently the case, the Senate’s plan is the most miserly, providing funding only for child nutrition and a summer bridge program.

The plans all include the technical changes necessitated by the elimination of school testing for this year. In other policy areas, however, the plans differ in the extent to which they help schools navigate the challenges they will face over the coming months.

Researchers are estimating substantial learning loss. One way schools might mitigate the “COVID slide” would be starting their school year earlier than currently allowed. Under current law, schools can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26. The House and Senate plans move the allowable starting date up to Aug. 17. In contrast, the Governor’s plan eschews arbitrary starting dates, allowing school districts to establish calendars that best address their students’ needs.

Spending flexibility is another tool that can help districts navigate an uncertain future. Lawmakers have enacted numerous restrictions in recent years limiting schools’ budgetary flexibility. The Senate and Governor’s plans fail to provide districts with new spending flexibility. The House plan takes the meager step of lifting restrictions on funds for driver’s education and teacher assistants (representing just 4% of schools’ state funding). A smarter approach would be to maximize spending flexibility as the General Assembly did during the Great Recession.

The House and Senate plans both create onerous new reporting requirements. These requirements will force central offices — already stretched to the breaking point by legislative budget cuts — to prioritize compiling paperwork for legislators instead of finding innovative ways to meet the needs of their students. For example, it’s unclear how students benefit from the Senate requirement that schools report to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee with a comprehensive catalog of every online and offline remote instruction resource used by schools.

Finally, lawmakers should avoid unfunded mandates. The Senate plan creates new school responsibilities without providing commensurate increases in funding. For example, providing technology support for all students experiencing technical difficulties and adding five instructional days will create new costs for districts without additional funding.

How to improve these plans
Both the Governor and House plans offer reasonable starting points for addressing immediate needs. In the coming days, these plans could be improved in several ways:

  • Maximizing school spending flexibility to the extent allowable under federal law
  • Distributing funding in accordance with student need
  • Removing arbitrary school calendar restrictions
  • Eliminating any reporting requirements unnecessary to comply with federal law
  • Improving budgetary stability by holding districts harmless for enrollment decreases in the next school year
  • Avoiding any unfunded mandates

It is important to remember that these plans are focused on immediate concerns that can be addressed with federal funding. The unprecedented challenges faced by our students will require additional action — and state funding — to avoid backsliding. Substantially more will be required to deliver the type of education our students are owed.

COVID-19, Education, News

House Appropriations Committee approves $1.6B spending plan for federal aid

State Rep. Craig Horn

The House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved a $1.6 billion spending package Wednesday that would send more than $300 million in federal aid to North Carolina’s public schools.

The bill also calls for spending millions more on health care, medical research, economic support for residents and business and state operations, as recommended by the House Select Committee on COVID-19.

A big chunk of the money for schools, about $80 million, would be used to reimburse districts for lost meal receipts or federal funds due to school buildings being closed as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

The bill will go to the House Rules Committee next.

The state Senate is also working on a spending plan for more than $3.5 billion in federal aid and Gov. Roy Cooper revealed a $1.4 billion plan for spending the federal aid last week.

Another large chunk – $70 million – in the House plan for schools would pay for supplemental summer learning programs for students whose education has been negatively affected by the the virus.

The omnibus bill, House Bill 1038, would also provide $35 million to local school districts to buy computers or other electronic devices for students. The committee also recommended spending $21.2 million to improve internet connectivity by providing community and home mobile access points connections. And $1.3 million would pay for installation of internet access points in school buses.

State education officials estimate that there are more than 300,000 North Carolina children who don’t have electronic devices or internet connectivity to take advantage of remote learning opportunities.

“We have approximately 1.6 million K-12 students who have not been in school since about March 12,” said State Rep. Craig Horn, who co-chaired the House Select Committee on COVID-19 working group that focused on education. “That’s [school closure] resulted in significant learning loss so we have developed an appropriations proposal that will help our kids regain some momentum in learning, in particular with a summer bridge or jump-start program to help get them back on track, to provide kids with devices that they desperately need. As you all know, many families have multiple children and they can’t all be on one computer at the same time.”

HB1038, which is also known as the “Omnibus 11 COVID-19 Response Act of 2019,” grew out recommendations made by teams of state representatives working as part of the House Select Committee on COVID-19.

The committee approved an amendment to allocate $400,000 in nonrecurring funds to the Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services to buy opioid antagonists to combat opioid addiction.

The amendment was submitted by State Rep. Bobby Hanig, a Republican from Currituck County.

“Opioid users are at a higher risk of overdose during the COVID-19 emergency and the No. 1 recommendation from the American Medical Association is to ensure they have access to medicine that would reverse the opioid-related overdose,” Hanig explained.

Here are more highlights from the House’s proposal:

  • Community colleges would receive $25 million to enhance online learning capacity, cover increased costs associated with moving to online education for students, cover expenses for resources and supports for faculty and staff, to provide small business counselors, to cover expenses for expanded demands on information technology, including devices for campuses in rural areas, and to provide facility sanitation and other necessary eligible expenses for services for ongoing campus operations.
  • UNC campuses would receive $48.6 million to cover increased costs related to moving coursework and exams online, to implement a digital learning accelerator, to provide for facility sanitation prior to reopening campuses and during the operation of campuses and for other necessary eligible expenses for services for ongoing campus operations, and to cover expenses for assistance to students and employees, including counseling services and information technology support,
  • The Duke University Human Vaccine Institute at the Duke University School of 11 Medicine, the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, and Wake Forest School of Medicine will receive $25 million each to develop countermeasures to prevent and treat COVID-19 infections.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services and the Division of Emergency Management within the Department of Public Safety for receive $50 million to purchase personal protective equipment such as gloves, gowns and aprons, surgical and respiratory masks, goggles, face shields and other protective clothing that meet CDC guidelines for infection control.
  • The North Carolina Healthcare Foundation would receive $75 million to award grants to rural hospitals to offset expenses incurred for providing patient care in North Carolina to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The House approved $350 million for counties ineligible to receive direct funding from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund established by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Funding will be allocated per capita basis.

See the House’s complete funding plan here.