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.”


House approve bill restricting classroom discussions about race moves to Senate

State Rep. Kandie Smith

A controversial bill restricting what North Carolina school children can be taught about America’s racial history was approved by the Republican-led House on Wednesday and is headed to the Senate where it is also likely to receive a favorable hearing.

House Bill 324 is like dozens of bills around the country being pushed by Republican legislatures trying to ensure unflattering parts of the nation’s history is not taught in public schools.

Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped the nation’s legal and social systems, is also a target of such bills.

In North Carolina, HB 324 would prohibit teachers from promoting concepts that suggest America is racists or that people are inherently racist or sexist. It would also prohibit teaching that whites or anyone else is responsible for the sins of their forefathers.

Critics of the bill believe it’s a response to new social studies standards adopted by the State Board of Education that require diverse views are included when history is taught.

“When I look at a bill like this, I have to question myself, why are we having this bill before us,” said Rep. John Autry, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “I believe it’s a reaction against the new and more inclusive social studies standards the State Board of Education passed.”

Autry said teachers must be trusted to engage students in tough conversations about America’s racial past, which includes slavery, Jim Crow laws and the cruelty heaped upon Native American.

“We’re conflating racial analysis with racism as a way of protecting the sensibility of us white folks,” Autry said.

He said no one is being taught that they are inherently racist in the state’s public schools.

“It’s simply a straw man,” he said.

Rep. James Gailliard, a Democrat from Nash County, called HB 324 an “anti-business” bill, explaining that the bill prohibits schools from employing diversity trainers and consultants.

“These are common practices in business today because businesses recognize that without a conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion that we can’t expand our workforce, it contributes to the bottom line and it helps companies identify their blind spots,” Gailliard said.

HB 324 is also an anti-education bill, he said, because it avoids tough conversations about systemic injustices, the residual impacts of those injustices, the benefits of diversity and the recognition that all people have value.

“This is where we strip our children of the understanding that there are heroes and villains in the world, where we strip our children of the reality that you can turn injustice into justice,” Gailliard said.

Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, a Guilford County Democrat and educator, said she is bothered to her “core” by HB 324.

The bill would prevent teachers from being truthful when discussing historical or political issues with students, Clemmons said.

She cited an incident during the George W. Bush presidency where a student asked her why there were no women or Black presidents.

“I am worried that bill [HB 324] would prevent me as that teacher in that moment from honestly answering that question,” Wheeler said. “Honestly, a lot of our history makes that true. The facts of our history have led to where we are. Until 1920, only white men could vote. Women could vote in 1920 but then people of color; not until 1965.”

Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, said conversations about race are challenging and uncomfortable but necessary.

“This bill spends a lot of time talking about what you can’t do,” Smith said. “There’s an entire list of don’ts in this bill but there is no mention of what we should do.”

She likened the introduction of HB 324 to a “book burning.”

“A small group of enraged individuals are looking to ban an entire concept of thought because it makes them uncomfortable,” Smith said. “The acquisition of knowledge is not a danger to our children but the banning of these ideas for the sake of maintaining the status quo, let’s be clear, that will continue to endanger the lives of Black and Brown children across the state and across this country.”

Rep. Charles Graham, a Robeson County Democrat and member of the Lumbee tribe, said many of his House colleagues were taught that American Indians were savages.

HB 324 would continue to circumvent history and send the wrong message to teachers, Graham said.

“I don’t know what inspired anyone to want to bring this to this body today, but let me say this, it’s wrong and as far as I’m concerned, it’s mean-spirited,” he said. “We need to be teaching about Black culture and what it has meant to this county, about our Native American culture and what it’s meant to this country, our Hispanic culture and what it means to this country.”

No Republicans rose to speak in support of the bill, but it has been endorsed by the House leadership and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, who said earlier this week that HB 324 encourages students to think freely and to respect differences of opinions.

“Classrooms should be an environment where all points of view are honored,” Truitt said. “There is no room for divisive rhetoric that condones preferential treatment of any one group over another.”

Truitt’s support of the bill comes at a time when the state board has made racial equity the center piece of its five-year strategic plan. It’s unclear whether her endorsement of HB 324 will strain the collegial relationship she’s worked to have with the board.

This year, Republican legislatures across the nation have introduced bills that would restrict educators’ ability to teach about systemic racism, sexism, bias and similar topics.

In Tennessee, the House of Representatives debated a last week that would ban classroom discussions about systemic racism. The state would withhold funding to schools that taught about systemic racism and white privilege under the bill.

The Tennessee House approved the bill along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it while Democrats opposed it. The Senate, however, declined to accept the legislation.

In Ohio, the legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit “teaching or advocating divisive concepts on race, color, nationality or sex, the Ohio Capital Journal reported.

Republican-led legislatures in Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho and other states have introduced similar bills.

Umpires told a high school softball player in Durham to remove beads from her braids or leave the game

Nicole wearing jersey No. 6.

Umpires asked a softball player for Durham’s Hillside High School to remove the beads attached to the end of her braids or leave the game.

With the help of teammates, Nicole Pyles, a sophomore, cut off the beads and eventually her braids to remain in the April 19 game against rival Jordan High School.

“Without being disrespectful, I asked the umpire, ‘You officiated games where I was wearing these braids and beads, so what is the issue?’” Nicole said in a statement. “My braids were not covering my number. I felt like the world was staring at me. Why me? Why anybody for that fact? It was embarrassing and disrespectful.”

Click here to see a video of Nicole discussing the incident. 

Under the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) Rule 3-2-5, which covers uniforms and player equipment for students participating in softball, “Plastic visors, bandannas and hair-beads are prohibited.”

The NC High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) is a member of the NFHS, which is the organization that helps provide uniform playing rules for high school athletics across the nation.

The umpire’s decision to ask Nicole to remove her braids or leave the game has raises questions about the cultural fairness of such rules.

The Durham City Council became the first in the state to pass an ordinance in January banning hair discrimination within the workplace when it approved the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act” or CROWN Act.  The ordinance does not cover students in educational settings.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) called for DPS and the NCHSAA to adopt policies to eradicate all forms of discrimination in schools and athletic events.

The organization noted that the General Assembly is weighing a statewide CROWN Act (Senate Bill 165), which it wants expanded to include protections in academic settings.

Nicole and her parents also asked DPS and the NCHSAA to adopt new policies to prohibit Black hair discrimination in schools.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, especially someone who looks like me,” Nicole said.

The family has requested formal apologies from the Jordan High coaching staff;  the umpires working the game and Mark Dreibelbis, supervisor of officials for the NCHSAA.

“The humiliation my child experienced could have, and should have, been avoided,” said Julius Pyles, said Nicole’s father. “A level of professionalism should have resolved this situation so that no child, regardless of color, while under adult supervision, would experience discrimination because of their hairstyle.”

Durham Public Schools said Rule 3-2-5 is “culturally biased” in a statement sent to Policy Watch.

“Durham Public Schools is actively investigating the circumstances at the April 19 Hillside-Jordan softball game in which a game official required a student-athlete to remove beads in her hair,” the statement said. “The player cut her hair to comply. Durham Public Schools recognizes that the National Federation of State High School Associations has a specific rule (rule 3-2-5) against hair-beads, however DPS believes this rule is culturally biased. DPS is continuing to investigate the enforcement of this rule in this circumstance.”

NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker said coaches are responsible for ensuring athletes abide by playing rules.

“We empathize with the student athlete and her experience,” Tucker said. “It is truly unfortunate, as we believe this situation should never have occurred. The NCHSAA expectation is that coaches will know the playing rules and ensure that their players are also aware of them prior to participating in any athletic contest.”

Tucker added: “This is not a new rule and when the violation was noticed by an umpire, the proper determination of illegal equipment was verified as supported by NFHS Rule,” Tucker said. “Further, according to NFHS Softball Rule 3-5-1, prior to the start of a contest, it is the responsibility of each coach to verify to the plate umpire that all his or her players are legally equipped, and that players and equipment are in compliance with all NFHS rules.”

As NC lawmakers fast-track legislation prohibiting ransomware payments, federal officials focus on pipeline shutdown, future attacks

If you have waited in line this week to buy gas for your vehicle, you should be familiar with how damaging a ransomware threat can be.

In the case of Colonial Pipeline, a weekend ransomware attack forced the company to shutdown its pipeline sparking panic-buying and concerns about future cyberattacks.

House Bill 813 introduced earlier this month would prohibit any state agency or local government from communicating with or submitting a payment to an entity that has engaged in a cybersecurity threat.

Rep. Harry Warren said the bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Saine was right on the mark.

(Saine’s home county faced a ransomeware attack in 2019 that took the sheriff’s office website offline.)

Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow)

“It also clarifies consulting and reporting requirements to the Department of Information Technology. It’s very timely,” said Warren (R-Rowan) in presenting the bill.

Rep. George Cleveland (R-Onslow) questioned whether the bill should include additional requirements.

“Something that struck me with our present problem with the fuel was that Colonial Pipeline never reported anything to the feds,” Cleveland said. “Would it be appropriate or beneficial to indicate in the bill that the feds should be notified of any cybersecurity problems?”

Legislative staff said private industry were encouraged to do that but not required.

House Bill 813 quickly passed the State Government and House Rules committees Wednesday, moving on to the full House.

In Washington, D.C., Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and EPA Administrator Michael Regan also addressed the current cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline.

Sec. Buttigieg said the Biden administration is actively working to reduce the impact of the gas shortage.

Waivers and emergency declarations will be used to help move fuel more easily to where it is needed.

“Ten states can use existing federal disaster declarations that are currently in place to issue permits that allow drivers to temporarily carry additional gasoline that would ordinarily exceed existing weight limits on federal highways in their states,” said Buttigieg. “This decision provides them with the added flexibility to move fuel more efficiently.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said additional waivers from his agency will allow reformulated gasoline to be used in 12 states to ease the supply shortage.

Regan, a North Carolina native, also urged the public to do their part to ease the gas crunch.

“The folks should follow the advice of the governors and attorneys general. They are asking folks not to panic, not to hoard gasoline, and to watch for updates. We’re working very hard to alleviate these circumstances,” said Regan.

Colonial Pipeline, that delivers roughly 45% of the gas to the East Coast, announced late Wednesday that it had restarted the pipeline and supply would improve in the coming days.

Buttigieg said the nation must invest in infrastructure resiliency that can withstand future cyber threats.

“This is not an extra, this is not a luxury, this is option. This has to be core to how we secure our critical infrastructure and that includes infrastructure that is not owned and operated by the federal government.”

N.C. Senate passes “Born-Alive” abortion bill in party-line vote

The N.C. Senate passed a new version of legislation Tuesday that would require doctors to attempt to save the life of any child born as the result of a failed abortion.

Senate Bill 405, the “Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” is a slightly amended version of a measure vetoed in 2019 by Gov. Roy Cooper. It is expected to pass in the state House and again face a veto Republicans in the General Assembly do not have the votes to overturn.

In tense and sometime emotional debate on the Senate floor Tuesday, Republican Senators told anecdotal stories of infants born after attempted abortions left to die and read testimony from people who said they themselves survived failed abortions.

Democrats said the testimony of survivors does not prove that there is an epidemic of infants being born alive and left to die by uncaring doctors and nurses. Rather, it strengthens the argument that in the rare cases in which children survive failed abortions, medical professionals are already doing their duty to care for infants in their charge.

Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham)

“There are already state and federal laws that protect newborns,” said Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Durham). “Further, physicians are obligated by medical ethics and licensing regulations to provide appropriate medical treatment just as they are for all types of people. Failure to do so in the manner suggested by this bill could result in loss of credentials, supervision, revocation of their medical license, a malpractice lawsuit and even criminal charges.”

Murdock, whose mother was a pediatric nurse, said Republicans who oppose abortion are attempting to involve themselves in the difficult and complex decisions about care and viability that should be the province of the families and doctors.

Democrats called the bill a stealth challenge to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which established a right to legal abortion. It further stigmatizes the practice, they said, and demonizes doctors who perform the procedure – sometimes in circumstances where the survival of the child is not possible.

Republican Senators said that’s not true, denying that the bill has anything to do with attempts to limit access to legal abortion or overturn Roe v. Wade.

“My entire adult life, whenever I hear folks talk about abortion, the first thing I always hear is ‘my body, my choice,'” said Sen. Todd Johnson (R-Union). “Hadn’t heard much about that in the last year when we’ve been talking about mask mandates and vaccine mandates, but it’s still something I’ve heard my entire life. Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about abortion. We’re talking about a child that is completely separate from the body of its mother. So that begs this one question I’d like each one of you to think about. If somebody has an answer for me, I’d love to have it. When do human rights begin? How old do you have to be to have human rights? Is it five minutes? Is it five months? Is it five years? A child  that is separated from its mother has rights immediately. And all this bill does is mandates that a doctor take care of a living human being.”

Sen. Todd Johnson (R-Union)

But legal experts say a variety of laws already exist to protect infants born under these conditions. They range from the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) to the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act passed by Congress in 2002.

Debate on the legislation this week has been tinged with the language of the culture war over legal abortion in America that has raged for decades. Proponents of the bill have cast it in religious and political terms, with Senators repeatedly referring to the “so-called right to abortion” during debate and political allies arguing bills like S405 are necessary precisely because the courts have rejected Republican efforts to further limit access.

“This bill is even more important now that our 20-week limit on abortion has been challenged in court by Planned Parenthood and the ACLU,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, in a Tuesday committee meeting on the bill. “Because of that lawsuit abortions can be performed up to birth because the abortionist is allowed to determine when the baby is viable under the lower court’s ruling. Unless the lower court’s ruling is overturned, more babies will be born alive during abortions in North Carolina.”

Susanna Birdsong, North Carolina Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood’s South Atlantic region, called the bill “an attack on medical providers, particularly doctors who provide care to patients experiencing complex pregnancies.”

“This bill is a complete waste of time and taxpayer resources and another distraction from the fact that state lawmakers have not prioritized legislation that would expand access to health care for low-income North Carolinians, improve maternal mortality in the state, or provide workplace accommodations for people who are pregnant,” she said in a Wednesday statement.

The bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote, 28-21. It now heads to the House, where another party-line vote is expected.

The “Born-Alive” bill is one of two abortion-related bills in play this legislative session.

The other, House Bill 453, would prohibit a doctor from performing an abortion if a pregnant woman wants one due to the race of the fetus or the detection of Down syndrome during pregnancy.