With latest voucher bills, NC House and Senate compete to undermine public education

Both House and Senate leaders have now introduced bills (H32 in the House, S671 in the Senate) overhauling North Carolina’s three voucher programs in an apparent effort to see who can do more to dismantle public schools. Both bills are long, complex, and would further subsidize students in unregulated private schools at the expense of their peers in inclusive public schools.

Currently, North Carolina has three voucher programs. Both bills would modify all three vouchers.

The first, and by far the largest, is the Opportunity Scholarship program. This program was originally designed to provide vouchers of up to $4,200 to North Carolinians with low incomes (up to 185% of the federal poverty level). Subsequent modifications have increased the income eligibility to 278% of the federal poverty level ($72,705 for a family of four). For this year, the General Assembly appropriated $75 million to the program. Under current law, funding for this voucher is set to increase by $10 million per year until annual appropriations reach $145 million – the state’s only education program with guaranteed funding increases.

The second-largest program is the Disabilities Grant voucher. This voucher provides up to $8,000 per year for students with disabilities who enroll in a nonpublic school. Unlike the Opportunity Scholarship, there are no family income limits on eligibility. This program is currently funded at nearly $16 million.

Finally, North Carolina also has the Education Savings Account that is also only open to families of students with disabilities. These “vouchers on steroids” provide families with debit cards of up to $9,000 per year that can be used to purchase tuition, educational technology, or other educational services. These programs have little oversight, and have been littered with fraud. North Carolina currently commits nearly $7 million to this program.

It is important to note that under both the Disabilities Grant and the Education Savings Account, families are foregoing their federal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These foregone rights include, “the rights being waived can include the right to a free education; the right to the same level of special-education services that a child would be eligible for in a public school; the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher; and the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child.” Many families are unaware that private schools do not have to comply with federal laws.

H32 and S671 would modify all three of these programs, and not for the better. None of the changes strengthen the nearly nonexistent accountability or quality standards of the voucher schools. Too many state-subsidized voucher schools will continue to rely on curricula that echoes “the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” There are no additional protections against fraud. And parents of students with disabilities will continue to be cut adrift, having to navigate an unregulated market with no federal rights.

The table below summarizes the General Assembly’s proposed changes: Read more

Student, professional athletes push for NCAA to pull events over transgender athlete bans

Student and professional athletes joined LGBTQ advocates Friday to ask the National Collegiate Athletic Association to take action against states passing bills to exclude transgender women from women’s sports teams.

“This is a moment of national crisis where the rights and very existence of transgender young people are under attack,” said Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a virtual press event. “This year’s state legislative sessions mark the highest number of anti-transgender bills in history — more than 50 — which target the ability of transgender athletes to participate in sports.”

In North Carolina last month, Republican lawmakers filed a bill to bar transgender women from competing against other women at schools and universities. Just this week, they filed bills that target transgender health care, seek to force teachers and counselors to report children who exhibit “gender nonconformity” and legally protect scientifically debunked “conversion therapy” that seeks to cure LGBTQ people.

As North Carolina saw five years ago, during the battle over HB2, the economic and cultural impact of sports organizations withdrawing competitions from states with discriminatory laws can make a difference. In response to that bill, the NCAA moved seven championship events scheduled to be held in the state as other major organizations and corporations boycotted the state. The final economic impact was estimated at nearly $4 billion.

Last month nearly 550 current NCAA athletes from across the nation signed a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert and the NCAA Board of Governors asking that they reaffirm the organization’s existing non-discrimination policies and pull championship events in states where transgender athletes are banned from competition. More than 700 NCAA athletes have now signed the letter.

Alana Boja, track and field athlete at Washington University.

“We noticed more and more states slated to host championships were putting anti-trans bills on the table but the NCAA was just staying silent,” said Alana Boja, a Washington University track and field athlete who helped spearhead the letter.

“We couldn’t just sit back and watch as the right to play sports was stripped from our fellow athletes,” Boja said.

The bills are a threat to all women athletes, Boja said.

“It’s impossible for women athletes to feel safe and supported in an environment where their personal identity and integrity is questioned,” Boja said. “The reality is many of these bills cannot possibly be enforced without inviting policing and bullying of all student athletes who do not meet stereotypes of gender and could empower any person to force any student athlete to undergo invasive physical exams or hormone tests in order to ‘prove their gender,’ whatever that means.”

Transgender women don’t threaten women’s and girl’s sports, Boja said.

“They’re my teammates, who want to play for the exact same reasons that I do,” Boja said. “To have fun, to improve ourselves, to make friends and be physically fit.”

Boja’s Washington University teammate, Aliya Schenck, said Republican legislators aren’t supporting or protecting women’s sports by discriminating against transgender women. If they want to do that, she said, they can concentrate on funding underfunded women’s sports programs all over the country.

The NCAA has had a policy allowing for the inclusion of transgender athletes since 2011. The organization should treat the current legislation like the threat to its policies and values that it is, Schenck said.

“Trans girls have been competing for a long time without incident,” Schenck said. “The NCAA needs to take action and withdraw all athletic competition from states considering anti-transgender sports bills.”
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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.”

Elon Poll: Support for COVID-19 vaccination has grown dramatically

Support for and confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine has grown dramatically in the last six months, according to a new Elon University poll released this week.

The poll, taken from March 30 to April 2, found 63 percent of respondents had already been vaccinated or plan to be.

When Elon began asking about peoples’ vaccine plans in October, only 33 percent answered “yes” when asked if they planned to be vaccinated when that became possible.

Those who are unsure or skeptical remain, however. In the poll 18 percent of respondents said they are not sure whether they will take the vaccine and 19 percent said they do not plan to do so.

“The size of the group of residents saying ‘no’ to vaccines has consistently been around 20 percent for months,” said Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll and associate professor of political science.

Across four surveys, Elon has found the number of people against taking a vaccine holding steady at about 20 percent.

“This continues to cast doubt in my mind about whether some herd immunity goals will be met throughout all regions of North Carolina,” Husser said.

While the poll found a split in attitudes by political party, a majority of both Democrats (76 percent) and Republicans (54 percent) were in favor of vaccination. Among those who belong to neither party, 57 percent were in favor.

Dramatically more Republicans (28 percent) said they will not be vaccinated compared to Democrats (9 percent). Among those belonging to neither party, 22 percent said they would not be vaccinated.

The poll found modest variation on the issue by race, with 64 percent of white respondents saying they were already vaccinated or planned to be vaccinated and 63 percent of respondents of other races answering the same way. The poll found 59 percent of Black respondents had already been or planned to be vaccinated.

A greater variation was found according to level of education. The poll found 10 percent of those with a bachelors degree or higher said they would not be vaccinated. Among those with less than a bachelors degree, that number was 24 percent. The poll found 55 percent of those with a bachelors degree or higher said they had already been vaccinated while 31 percent of those with less than a bachelors degree said they had.

Among those who have already been vaccinated, 92 percent said they are glad they took the vaccine.

The poll found 80 percent describing the experience  of vaccination as “very easy” or “somewhat easy,” with two-thirds reporting they no negative side effects.  Of those who did experience negative side effects, 69 percent said it was no more than “a minor disruption.”

 

The poll was a representative online survey of 1,395 North Carolinians. The overall results have a credibility interval of +/- 2.8 percentage points, according to information released by the school.

Read the full report, including more information about methodology, here.

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.”