News

State Board of Education chair on charter expansion bill: “Not a good idea.”

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

Education lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly are planning a full spate of votes next week in the final days before the legislature’s crossover deadline, including myriad charter reforms, school construction leasing, teacher licensing updates and changes to the state’s much-criticized method of classifying low-performing schools.

But one of the state’s most influential education leaders criticized at least one key proposal before a House committee Monday that would allow existing charters to expand their enrollment by as much as 40 percent without state approval.

“To automatically increase by up to 40 percent, as much of a supporter as I am of charter schools, I do think there are limits that need to be in place,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey told Policy Watch Thursday.

Cobey, a Republican appointee to the state board by former Gov. Pat McCrory, oversees a panel that has the final say on pending charter school applications today.

State law currently allows charters to increase enrollment by up to 20 percent and, in some cases, add an additional grade level without state vetting, but some GOP school choice supporters are seeking further sweeteners for North Carolina’s booming charter school sector.

The draft bill, filed by Republican Representatives Linda Hunt Williams and Mark Brody, comes with Cobey’s board hearing calls in recent years to increase scrutiny of charter schools following a series of high-profile closings and a diploma scandal at Durham’s Kestrel Heights School.

Cobey emphasized that his board doesn’t have an official position on the legislation, but he’s opposed to such a broad concession to charters.

Charters are publicly-funded schools given greater flexibility over staffing and curriculum than traditional schools. They are also managed by unelected boards and private groups rather than elected officials, but they’ve become a cornerstone of school choice reforms across North Carolina and the U.S., often clashing with traditional school systems over state funding.

“I think the idea of giving them 20 percent was probably a good idea,” said Cobey. “It certainly cut down on our workload. But anybody that wants to go over 20 percent, they can make their case to the Charter School Advisory Board. If they think that it’s a good idea, they’ll recommend it to us.”

The legislation, along with a slew of other GOP-backed K-12 reforms, is slated for hearings before a House education committee early next week. The bills would require the approval of the full chamber by the April 27 crossover deadline to be considered going forward.

News

New study: Vast majority of Americans support municipal broadband

A new Pew Research Center study this month shows 70 percent of Americans think local governments should be able to build their own high speed broadband networks.

Even broken down by party, 67 percent of those who self identify as Republicans or lean Republican and 74 percent of those who self identify as Democrats or lead Democrat support the idea.

North Carolina is pretty far behind in this respect, fighting for years to prevent municipal broadband. The courts have, so far, been on the side of state laws preventing its expansion.

There is some legislation this session to loosen things up a bit on this front.

The study also has some interesting data on how many Americans say home high speed Internet access is essential.

Read the whole study, which is worth your time.

Courts & the Law, News

Floyd McKissick Jr. seeks District Court seat vacated by new lawmaker Marcia Morey

Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham, Granville)

When one door opens for a judge to become a legislator, another door opens for a legislator to become a judge.

Former District Court Judge Marcia Morey was appointed to N.C. House District 30 at the end of March, leaving vacant a seat on the bench that state Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. now seeks to fill.

“You know, if that door shall open, then I shall walk through,” McKissick said. “It will be the first day of the rest of my life. And if it doesn’t [open], I will continue working vigorously and aggressively as I have here at the Senate.”

He is one of nine people who submitted their names to the Durham County Bar Association to replace Morey, said Guy Crabtree president of the local Bar and the Fourteenth Judicial District Bar.

He identified the other candidates as Brian Aus, Catherine Constantinou, Christy Malott, Amanda Maris, Drew Marsh, Daniel Meier, Kendra Montgomery-Blinn and David Robinson.

McKissick said a number of members of the Bar suggested that with the “breadth and depth” of his background and experience, he would be an excellent complement to the bench in Durham.

“They have some excellent judges, but only one of them has been in private practice, the other ones have backgrounds really well grounded in criminal law from being former prosecutors,” the lawmaker said. “They felt like someone from a strong civil background could definitely bring some skill-set to the bench that would very much complement the existing members.”

He has 33 years of experience practicing civil and criminal matters in both state and federal court, he said. His focus throughout the years has primarily been civil litigation.

McKissick is the son of the late civil rights activist Floyd McKissick, who was also the first black recipient of a law degree from the University of North Carolina. The father and son established the law firm McKissick and McKissick, where the lawmaker still practices.

McKissick sees the bid for judgeship as an opportunity to provide a different form of public service — a form that he also believes he will be good at.

“You have to listen very attentively when people come into that courtroom and not be judgmental,” he said. “You’ve got to really weigh the issues that come before you in a thoughtful and deliberative way, and one thing I’ve learned to do over the years is listen very attentively and to try to make good decisions.

I think that’s critical. You’ve got to have that temperament; you’ve got to have that ability to listen; you have to be able to understand the facts and the law and the issues and I think with 33 years of experience, it’s a point in my career where I possess the attributes that I think would be very helpful in a judge.”

When asked if he’d talked to Morey about filling her vacancy, McKissick said he had and that she was encouraging, but that she won’t be the only judge he seeks guidance from.

“You learn from your other colleagues who are on the bench who have been serving in a thoughtful way; you don’t go there thinking you know it all because there’s a learning curve,” he said. “Whenever you move into a new horizon, there’s always a learning curve, so I would look to really consult with not just Judge Morey, who’s really just extraordinarily experienced, but also the other members.”

And if things don’t work out, McKissick said it just means he hasn’t done what he’s supposed to do yet in the Senate.

“This is the sort of thing where if it’s meant to be then it will occur, and if for some reason it is not, then I continue vigorously representing constituents in District 20 and working as hard and effectively as I can, and continue giving it the amazing amount of time and energy that it deserves,” he said.

Crabtree said voting on the nine candidates is taking place now and ends at 4 p.m. Monday. The names of the five candidates who receive the most votes will be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper for him to make the appointment.

News

Educators warn 5,500 “specialty” teaching jobs at risk if Senate fails to act on HB13 (video)

If you missed it this morning on the main Policy Watch website, make time to read Billy Ball’s latest on the push by educators and parents to get state Senators to take speedy action on a bill to avert a looming class size funding crisis.

As Ball reports:

Policy Watch has reported extensively on the class size bickering since last November. School district leaders say a GOP-authored budget mandate that schools trim class sizes in grades K-3 beginning with the 2017-2018 academic year will have major consequences in North Carolina public school districts without additional state funding or staffing flexibility for district leaders.

The state’s funding dilemma is complicated, but school leaders say a loss of flexibility over average and maximum individual classroom sizes in grades K-3 would force districts to hire thousands more teachers in core subjects.

To make space, districts would likely need to jettison teachers in “specialty” subjects such as arts, music and physical education, positions once funded separately by the state but now lumped in one block funding category.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), an organization that lobbies for K-12 teachers at the legislature, estimated Wednesday that school districts would be forced to lay off about 5,500 “specialty” teachers in arts, music and physical education.

“It’s going to devastate rural school districts who have a very difficult time recruiting teachers to begin with,” said Jewell. “It is definitely not providing our students in North Carolina a world class public school system that is guaranteed by our constitution.”

Smaller classes would also prompt a need for new classroom space in many schools and districts, with school administrators complaining they would need to spend millions in local dollars to boost school infrastructure or refit mobile classroom units.

House Bill 13 offers a temporary respite on those directives, returning district flexibility over average and maximum individual class sizes in K-3, although public school advocates say a long-term plan for saving teaching positions will require a major boost in the state’s investment in schools.

The NCAE’s Mark Jewell joins Chris Fitzsimon in the studio this weekend to discuss the pressure school districts will face without the passage of  HB 13.  For a preview of that radio interview, click below.

The read Billy Ball’s full story on the class-size crisis, click here.

Courts & the Law, News

Committee reins in expansive powers for AOC director; approves District Court judges serving on Superior Court

Rep. Rena Turner

After North Carolina representatives from both parties expressed concern about a bill that would give the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) director unfettered power over court processes, an amendment was approved to eliminate the provision altogether.

Rep. Rena Turner (R-Iredell), the sponsor of the bill, said she would have preferred to keep House Bill 236 whole, and a representative speaking on behalf of the AOC deferred to her when asked what the organization preferred.

Democratic Leader Rep. Darren Jackson and Rep. David Rogers (R-Burke, Rutherford) spoke against the overly-broad language of the bill, which as written, would allow the AOC director the authority to rewrite all court policies, procedures and processes.

Jackson and Rogers had been contacted by the District Attorneys in their districts with concerns about that section of the bill.

“It appears to me this provision of the bill is broad enough that it prohibits counties from having local rules because the local rules for Wake County are different than the local rules for Johnson County, and the AOC could decide that that’s not uniform and say, ‘you can have no local rules,'” Jackson said. “I also have a concern about calendary under this bill, this provision, that calendary be taken over by the AOC and taken away from the District Attorneys’ Offices.”

He asked for a guarantee from Turner and the AOC that those concerns would not come to fruition under HB236 — which they could not promise. Turner said though, that the bill was not drafted with malicious intent.

Maureen Krueger, Moore County District Attorney, also spoke out about concern for the possibility of unintended consequences with the bill.

Jackson presented an amendment to the committee to remove the provision of the bill that would give the AOC director such expansive power, and it passed on a voice vote.

Rep. Sarah Stevens

Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes) asked the committee to vote against his amendment because she didn’t think there should be so many local judicial rules. She said she would like to see a more uniform court system, and that the AOC director needed power to enforce it.

Stevens also presented HB677, which would would allow District Court judges to serve on three-judge Superior Court panels addressing constitutional challenges to General Assembly laws.

That bill was passed without comment from lawmakers besides Stevens and without any discussion.