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Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) filed a motion Tuesday asking the state Supreme Court to allow the controversial school voucher program to proceed for the 2015-16 academic year while the high court continues to debate the constitutionality of allowing families to use public dollars for tuition at private schools.

“Intervenor-Defendants respectfully request that this Court modify its 12 December 2014 Order granting in part a writ of supersedeas and permit the Opportunity Scholarship Program to move forward for the 2014-2015 academic year unimpeded by the Superior Court’s permanent injunction,” wrote attorneys who filed the motion on behalf of Senator Berger and Speaker Moore, who are defendant intervenors in a case that is seeking to halt the school voucher program.

The North Carolina Supreme Court last released opinions on June 11, and many expected a decision on the case at that time from the state’s highest court.

But a decision did not come, and the next scheduled date for Supreme Court opinions is not until August 21 — a point in time, as Tuesday’s motion highlights, when it will be nearly impossible to ensure that the program can continue for the upcoming academic year should the Court decide that the Opportunity Scholarship Program passes constitutional muster. (The Supreme Court is, however, able to issue opinions at any time and without regard to the scheduled dates, if the Court so desires.)

Last summer, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood put a halt to the Opportunity Scholarships program, enacted by the General Assembly in 2013.

Judge Hobgood found that the program failed constitutional muster for several reasons—chiefly because it funnels public dollars that should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools to private institutions instead, which the state holds to almost no curricular requirements or standards of accountability.

“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Judge Hobgood said.

The state, along with defendant-intervenors for parents as well as then-Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger appealed Hobgood’s ruling to the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals ruled last fall that the program could continue for this past academic year as the fate of the program was debated.

State lawmakers passed a 2013 budget that tagged $10 million to be used for the Opportunity Scholarships beginning in 2014. The vouchers, worth $4,200 per student annually, funnel taxpayer dollars to largely unaccountable private schools––70 percent of which are affiliated with religious institutions.

Proponents of the voucher program say it’s necessary to provide low-income families with options outside of the public school system—especially for those whose schools do not have the means to ensure a student’s academic success.

The House’s 2015-17 budget, passed last month, proposes expanding the school voucher program from $10 million to $17.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The Senate’s proposal does the same, but with recurring funds instead and for both years of the biennium.

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Two charter schools hoping to open up shop in North Carolina in 2016 have abandoned partnering with a troubled management company that had planned to operate the schools, according to the News & Observer.

The questions surrounding Newpoint Education Partners [a Florida-based education management company] caused the State Board of Education earlier this month to refer Pine Springs Preparatory Academy in Wake County and Cape Fear Preparatory Academy in New Hanover County to an advisory board for further review. Both schools have since submitted letters announcing they’re severing relations with Newpoint, according to Adam Levinson, interim head of the state Office of Charter Schools.

At a meeting of the State Board of Education earlier this month, the applications of Cape Fear Preparatory (New Hanover) and Pine Springs Preparatory (Wake) were kicked back to the state advisory board that reviews charter school applications so that they could further investigate allegations and charges of grade tampering and other abuses at some of Newpoint’s Florida charter schools.

A formal investigation by the Florida State’s Attorney into these allegations resulted in criminal charges handed down in early June—just as the charter school management company had hoped to nose its way into doing business in North Carolina (for more background, click here).

Other findings of the school district’s own investigation included students not completing curricular requirements; numerous missing or incomplete academic records for the schools’ students; allowing the employment of an individual who had not passed a background check; and teachers drinking alcohol with students on a senior trip/cruise, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

See Cape Fear Preparatory’s letter explaining their intention to cut ties with Newpoint here, which outlines how the board plans to operate the school without the aid of an education management organization.

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A few short lines in the 2015-17 Senate budget would eliminate state-paid health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees hired after January 1, 2016.

“This will negatively impact the state’s ability to recruit good, qualified folks,” said Richard Rogers, executive director of the North Carolina Retired Governmental Employees’ Association. “In the future, I don’t see folks sticking with state government for the long term or for a career.

Current law provides teachers and state employees with a paid health insurance plan for the duration of retirement. It’s a graduated system, said Rogers, so employees must work a certain number of years in order to receive the maximum benefit of a fully-paid health insurance plan.

The Senate budget provision, located deep in the biennial proposal that was released and passed by Senators this week, would affect teachers and state employees who join the workforce after January 1, 2016 by eliminating the health insurance benefit altogether.

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The provision also affects those who stop out of the workforce and withdraw their retirement benefits from the state system, then re-join the workforce after January 1, 2016. Those state employees would also forfeit their retiree health insurance benefits.

The retiree state health plan provides health care coverage to more than 685,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, current and former lawmakers, state university and community college personnel, state hospital staff and their dependents, according to the plan’s website.

The General Assembly is expected to spend the rest of the summer hammering out a final 2015-17 budget for the state. Stay tuned to see if the Senate’s proposal to axe retirement health benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

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A teacher and assistant principal at Orange County’s Efland-Cheeks Elementary School have resigned their positions following an uproar over the teacher’s decision to read a gay-themed fairy tale to his third grade students in an effort to put a stop to bullying in his school.

From the News & Observer:

Omar Currie and Meg Goodhand of Efland-Cheeks Elementary School submitted resignation letters, Orange County Schools spokesman Seth Stephens said Monday.

Currie had said he would resign because he felt administrators did not support him after he read “King & King,” in which two princes fall in love and get married. He has said he read the book after a boy in his class was called gay in a derogatory way and told he was acting like a girl.

Previous press reports detail how the teacher’s decision to read “King & King” sparked an uproar in the community, with parents filing formal objections to the book resulting in two public hearings.

While the Orange County elementary school has twice decided to uphold the use of the book, one parent has appealed that decision to the superintendent. Orange County schools will hold a public hearing on the matter Thursday evening.

Currie, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who is gay, says he’s felt unsupported in his decision to read the book to students and has been criticized for participating in an interview about the controversy on school grounds, even though he did not break any rules related to student privacy.

The News & Observer conducted a lengthy Q&A session with Currie that was published back in May. In the interview, Currie explains what happened the day he read “King & King,” what it’s like to teach in a rural school, and how he has experienced bullying himself as a gay African-American teen in middle school.

Can a teacher be an activist? (Currie and [assistant principal] Goodhand have been criticized for speaking at a conference for LGBT activists, which sought in part to challenge ‘the heteronormative culture in schools.’)

Currie: Yes, I think you should be. You have a group of students in your classroom. You leave a lasting impact and a lasting impression on them. It is important that you are championing the rights of those kids and the future of those kids. I think it’s important that you’re an activist and not just about things like that, but in general for the teaching profession and your rights as a teacher.

Read the full Q&A here.

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Teacher assistants ask Sen. Andrew Brock (R-Mocksville) to save their jobs

About a dozen teacher assistants from all over North Carolina came to the General Assembly Wednesday to tell lawmakers they’re not happy with the prospect of losing a significant chunk of their workforce thanks to a Senate budget proposal that eliminates more than 8,500 TAs from elementary school classrooms.

“It’s about the children and the future of North Carolina,” said teacher assistant Teresa Sawyer from Currituck County. “If you lose extra people in the classroom, what’s going to happen to these children?”

Senate lawmakers unveiled a budget this week that would rid North Carolina’s early grade classrooms of more than half of their state-funded teacher assistants.

TAs have been a target for state budget cuts for years—since 2008, the state has lost more than 7,000 of these instructional aides who also frequently double as bus drivers and first responders to medical emergencies.

Instead of providing enough funds to keep TAs in classrooms, Senate budget writers have proposed putting some funds instead toward hiring more teachers to reduce K-3 class sizes.

“It’s a good concept, because there is some research out there that says lower class sizes work better,” said North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants’ incoming president, William Johnston, “but [with the Senate budget proposal] you’ll get 2,000 more teacher positions and eliminate more than 8,000 TAs…you’re losing 6,000 sets of eyes to make sure that students get to where they need to be.”

“The safety of the children is being compromised,” added Johnston. “How are you going to cover lunch duty? How are kids going to get their medications?”

Others expressed concern over where the additional classes would be housed.

“Are they gonna give us money to create new construction?” wondered teacher assistant Lacy Autry. “In Robeson County, every one of our schools has three, four outside classrooms already. Where are you going to find room? We’ve taken janitorial supply closets to make classrooms. We just don’t have the room to reduce the sizes.”

Teacher assistants at the General Assembly on Wednesday also explained that a lot more is expected of them now than ever before, thanks to increased testing requirements and cuts to school nurses—and without their service, students will suffer.

“So if you don’t have that extra help in the classroom while teachers are pulling students out to work on testing requirements, children will just be doing a lot more busy work,” said TA Andrea Cranfill from Davie County.

And in Bladen County, the entire district has just four nurses to share among 13 schools.

“I’m the first responder in my school,” said Johnston. “We have a nurse maybe one day a week. So what happens the other four days a week if I’m not there?”

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TAs visit the office of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph)

Many TAs administer medications, serve on crisis response teams and even administer catheters and feeding tubes, according to those who came down to the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Senator Andrew Brock, a member of the Senate budget committee, seemed sympathetic to the TAs’ concerns.

“I’ve got some issues with that,” Sen. Brock said in response to the prospect of the state losing TAs.

The teacher assistants also visited the offices of Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) and Senate budget writer Harry Brown (R-Jacksonville).

The Senate plans to pass a final budget this week, then set to work on a final compromise with the House this summer.

Watch TAs explain to Sen. Harry Brown’s staff the importance of keeping them in the classroom.