Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

School calendar flexibility gets nod in House Education Committee

A flood of bills granting school districts calendar flexibility received favorable hearings Tuesday from the House Education K-12 Committee.

Districts want the flexibility to start the school year earlier, one wants to start as early as August 1, and to close later to address learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

State law currently allows schools to start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and to end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. There are exceptions for some schools such as charter schools, year-round schools and low-performing schools.

Meanwhile, other schools want flexibility to align district calendars with community colleges calendars to aid high school students enrolled in college coursework.

House Bill 77 seeks calendar flexibility for Moore County Schools. It  would help the district to accommodate golf tournaments.

“What makes this different for Moore County is that we have major golf tournaments,” said Rep. James L. Boles, a Moore County Republican and bill cosponsor.

Moore County is home to the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club. The country club’s famous No.2 Course will host the U.S. Open in 2024.

School buses and parking lots are needed to host such events, Boles told the committee.

The school district usually receives exemptions every few years to accommodate major tournaments. HB 77 would give it permanent flexibility to adjust the calendar to adapt to them.

Support for the calendar bills was nearly unanimous. Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican, supports local calendar flexibility bills but voiced concern about those that apply statewide.

“Everyone is familiar with my attitude about the tourism industry and school calendar,” Iler said. “I think it should be labeled child abuse to send anybody back to school before Labor Day, and so, I’ll be abstaining or voting no on calendar bills.”

The state’s tourism industry has vigorously opposed allowing the school year to slip into months traditionally reserved for summer break. The N.C. Travel Industry Association wants families free during summer months to travel to state beaches, the mountains and attractions in between.

Louise Lee, founder and president of Save our Summers NC, a volunteer organization of parents, teachers and others who want to preserve a traditional school calendar, said lawmakers who spoke in favor of the calendar flexibility bills did so on behalf of superintendents and school boards.

“The piece that’s missing is who I’m representing; that is parents and teachers,” Lee said. “These people have been through enough this year without fighting once again just to preserve a somewhat traditional school calendar as a choice for families.”

Arguments to align school calendars to community college calendars and to set them up so students finish exams before winter breaks have been around for 17 years, Lee said.

“It is time to put these arguments to rest,” she said.

Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Forsyth County Republican, has filed a school calendar flexibility bill every year since 2013 when he began serving in the House.

“Those bills have never been heard,” Lambeth said.

He said the fact the bills received near-unanimous support in committee sends a message that the House supports allowing district officials to operate in a manner they believe is best for students.

Lambeth wants a list of schools operating on a traditional school calendar and one of the counties the bills will impact along with their school start and stop dates.

He also asked for a list of counties granted exceptions. Those include districts in the mountains that are allowed to start the school year early because they close frequently due to severe weather.

“I’d love to see all districts to give us a profile of where the state would look if we pass all of these bills through the House and Senate,” Lambeth said.

Bill requiring phonics-based approach to teaching reading becomes law

Photo: Adobe Stock

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law a controversial bill requiring a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.

Despite his veto of similar legislation in 2019, Cooper said in a statement that Senate Bill 387 will help students and teachers.

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading,” the governor said. “But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham County) sponsored SB 387. It is supposed to fix deficiencies in the state’s “Read to Achieve” law he championed in 2012 to ensure all students read on grade level by the end of third grade.

But after spending more than $150 million on the initiative, reading scores have not improved.

“I’m skeptical of any approach from Phil Berger after his first Read to Achieve bill resulted in third grade reading being the only EOG [end-of-grade] subject where test scores have actually fallen,” said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with NC Justice Center’s Education Law Project. “We know that depriving schools of resources and just threatening 8 and 9-year-old children with retention is a failed strategy. Yet this bill retains those core, failed strategies.”

Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.

The new law requires teachers to receive training in the “science of reading,” which is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

Teaching reading requires phonics, associating sounds with letters, in addition to  phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension, some experts agree.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said last month that the data show that North Carolina must change its approach to reading instruction.

“Before COVID, our data show that two-thirds of eighth graders in North Carolina do not read proficiently when they start high school,” Truitt said. “We know already that the slide will have occurred post-COVID. We’ve seen it already with our third-grade data.”

Other experts are critical of relying heavily on phonics to teach reading.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Editorial Board.

Cooper also signed House Bill 82 into law. The Summer Learning Choice for NC Families law requires school districts to create summer learning recovery and enrichment programs to address learning loss students experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic has challenged students and teachers like never before,” Cooper said. “Providing a summer opportunity for academic growth plus mental and physical health will help schools begin to address those challenges.”

State health officials say expansion of COVID-19 testing in schools would help slow infections

State health officials want to expand testing for COVID-19 in school districts as more students, teachers and staff return to classrooms this month.

Officials are focusing on “screen testing,” which is done on a regular basis, usually weekly, as opposed to diagnostic testing performed on individuals who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.

“We do have some evidence from national studies that the weekly testing of students, teachers and staff can reduce in-school infections by an estimated 50%,” Susan Gale Perry, chief deputy secretary of the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHSS), said Thursday.

Perry’s comments came during a State Board of Education meeting where she announced plans to apply for a share of $10 billion in federal money President Joe Biden’s administration earmarked for to help schools expand COVID-19 testing for students, teachers and staff as part of the effort to help schools reopen full-time for in-person instruction.

The money is part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that includes $122 billion for K-12 schools.

“These screening tests provide another layer of mitigation and protection, another tool in the tool box that we are strongly recommending that schools and districts consider implementing and we’re going to try to make that process easier for schools moving forward,” Perry said

Aditi Mallick, director of the state’s COVID-19 Operations Center, said the federal money will allow NCDHHS to move to Phase 3 of its testing program for K-12 school, which expands testing to more schools across the state.

Phase 1 was a pilot program utilizing diagnostic testing at selected schools. It ran from December 2020 through February 2021. Phase 2 began in March and included diagnostic testing and screen testing.

More than 63,255 tests were distributed to school districts, charter schools and private schools during Phase 2. Of testing results reported to NCDHHS, 181 of 1,213 were positive. Results were limited because some districts reported them to local health departments and NCDHHS were unable to determine whether those result were from schools or other settings.

“Our sincere hope is that schools will be excited to take advantage of this opportunity, and certainly the infusion of new funding helps solve for potential historical barriers of staffing or reporting or availability of tests,” Mallick said, noting that participation will be optional for districts.

Districts will have three screen testing options, Mallick said.

They will be able to contract with a NCDHHS approved vendor for testing. The vendor will be named by fall 2021.

NCDHHS will also provide free screening tests or diagnostic tests to schools that request them or districts can develop their own approach to testing without state involvement.

The move to expand testing comes as infection rates have plateaued or increased slightly across all age groups except residents 65 or older in which case rates are declining.

Currently, there are 45 active clusters in schools, which is a 30% decline from last month. Thirty-four clusters are at public schools and 11 at private schools.

As of April 4, there has been 1,840 infections associated with K-12 clusters. Students made up 1,205 case and staff 635.

Perry said the state cannot let its guard down.

“We are seeing rising numbers in other parts of the country and across the world,” she said. “We know that this virus is still very much out there and new more infectious variants are spreading and we all need to continue to be careful and responsible as we race to get North Carolinians vaccinated.”

Senate bill would increase maximum amount families receive for school vouchers

In a move that’s sure to spark controversy, Senate Republicans on Wednesday filed a bill to increase school voucher awards by $2,300.

Parents use state vouchers to help pay tuition at private and religious schools. Currently, families can receive awards of up to $4,200. Senate Bill 671 would push the maximum award to $6,500.

Sens. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who co-chairs the Senate Education Committee, sponsored SB 671.

“It’s clear that after a year of being forced into ‘virtual learning’ working-class families want a bigger say in their child’s education and Opportunity Scholarships can give them back their voice,” Lee said in a statement.

The bill would increase income eligibility from 150% to 175 % of the amount required to qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program.

“Under this bill, a single mother making less than $56,400 would be eligible to receive an Opportunity Scholarship for her child,” according to a statement posted on Senate leader Phil Berger’s website.

The bill also combines the Special Education Scholarships for Students with Disabilities and Personal Education Savings Accounts. The two would become the Personal Education Student Accounts for Children with Disabilities.

SB 671 comes in the wake of House Bill 32 that would substantially expand eligibility for school vouchers by no longer requiring voucher recipients to be enrolled in a public school unless they are entering kindergarten or first grade.

HB 32 would also increase the value of vouchers by setting the maximum award at 70% of the state average pupil allocation in the prior fiscal year for the 2022-23 school year, then raising the maximum award to 80% of the state average pupil allocation in the 2023-24 school year and beyond.

The state average per public allocation is currently $6,585, so the maximum voucher award would be more approximately $4,610 next school year at 70% of the state average.

“The changes would funnel taxpayer funds to increasingly subsidize payments to families who were already planning to enroll in private schools,” Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with the NC Justice Center’s Education and Law Project wrote in February. “The bill is estimated to cost the state $159 million over the next nine years.”

Policy Watch is a project of the NC Justice Center.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2020 budget proposal would have effectively killed the voucher program by cutting it by $85 million to help pay for other education and teacher support programs.

Cooper has said the voucher program lacks accountability.

Ballard said Cooper wants to deny low-and middle-income families a chance to attend better schools.

“Gov. Cooper is withholding access to educational opportunities, ensuring that private education is only accessible to the wealthy,” she said. “For all the talk about equity and fairness, ending the Opportunity Scholarship program would only hurt the students Gov. Cooper claims to care about the most.” 

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay part of the tuition at a private school. The State Education Assistance Authority handed out 12,284 vouchers to private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

The program has been a target of criticism by public school advocates who complain it allows private schools to siphon money from underfunded public schools.

The N.C. Association of Educators and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in July charging that the state’s Opportunity Scholarships operates with little state oversight and that some schools benefiting from the program discriminate based on religion and sexual orientation.

Should ‘misuse of deadly force’ disqualify a police officer from employment? Graham residents think it does.

An officer guards a Confederate statue outside of Alamance County Historical Courthouse.

Community organizers in Graham have mobilized against the hiring of a police officer recently fired from the Greensboro Police Department for recklessly shooting into an automobile fleeing a crime scene in downtown Greensboro.

Activists are also critical of Officer Douglas A. Strader’s hire because he was involved in a controversial hogtying incident in 2018 that led to the death of Marcus Smith, a black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Strader was one of eight officers involved in the incident. None of them were disciplined because the now-prohibited practice was allowed in 2018. They are, however, defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by Smith’s mother.

“We just don’t think this was a good hire for our community when another community let him go because his actions were a danger to their community,” said Dreama Caldwell, a community organizer with Down Home NC, a nonprofit that  works to empower people in small towns and rural North Carolina.

The City of Graham hired Strader at the rank of Police Officer 1 on March 1. He’d been a corporal in Greensboro before being fired in October 2020. That was a little more than a year after the September 2019 shooting incident that involved three other officers.

Greensboro City Manager David Parrish upheld the firing after Strader appealed the decision. Here’s what Parrish wrote in the dismissal letter dated Oct. 7:

“A single mistake, error or lapse of judgment while using deadly force can have tragic and long-lasting consequences for our community. As a result, we have no tolerance for the misuse of deadly force. For these reasons, I am upholding your dismissal from employment with the Greensboro Police Department.”

In a statement, the Graham Police Department said it “exceeds and complies with all guidelines set forth by the NC Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission” which requires background checks on all applicants seeking law enforcement certification.

“As with all police applicants, Graham Police Department conducted a thorough background into the character and suitability of Officer [Douglas] Strader. Many of the details and results surrounding hiring decisions are protected by North Carolina personnel law and cannot be divulged pursuant to North Carolina G.S. 160A-168.”

Slater’s hire was first reported by the Yes! Weekly, an alternative news magazine that covers Greensboro, in a story titled “Wandering Cops: Triad Sees Impact of Police Accountability of trail, or lack of”.

Policy Watch is documenting racial tension and race relations in Alamance County in a special series titled: The battle for Alamance: A look at the past and present of one of North Carolina’s most divided counties.

Strader’s hire has become a headscratcher for community activists, many of whom wonder why Police Chief Kristi Cole would invite more controversy to a city still reeling from the aftershock of weeks of angry protests last summer over a Confederate statute guarding the courthouse in downtown Graham.

Civil rights activists were pepper sprayed and arrested during the protests, which made national headlines.

The city also made news after former police chief Jeffrey Prichard criticized the Black Lives Matter movement and the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the department’s website. Prichard said he thought he was posting the comments to his personal Facebook account.

“This is a Police Department with history, so to hire someone like that just shows there is no interest in repairing that bridge with the community,” Caldwell said.

Community activist Dejuana Bigelow said Cole promised to work to improve race relations after Prichard’s departure.

Hiring someone with Strader’s background to protect and serve the community isn’t the way to rebuild trust, said Bigelow, president of Future Alamance, an grassroots organization pushing for inclusion and equity in Alamance,

“To hire him [Strader] is like a spit in the face,” said Bigelow,. “The Police Department went in a totally different direction than what we had been building to and talking about for our community and for our residents, an inclusive Graham.”

She said the Strader hire is a setback for race relations.

“We’re already working to build one Graham where everyone feels included, and I have had several talks with Kristi (Cole) and several of her officers along the way, and she said she was interested in restoring trust,” Bigelow said. “This hire creates more distrust. It creates more division.”