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.”


Senators advance controversial ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ disregarding concerns of educators, LGBTQ advocates (w/video)

Members of the Senate Health Care Committee sought to limit debate over the Parents’ Bill of Right Thursday by restricting comments to only the portion of the bill that deals with parental consent for treatment.

But even with that narrow focus, more than half a dozen speakers told lawmakers House Bill 755 would be harmful to LGBTQ students, who may not be out to their parents or peers.

Gretchen Phillips

The current version of the bill prohibits curriculum that teaches about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3. The measure also spells out parents’ legal rights to consent or withhold consent from participation in reproductive health and safety education programs.

If a child asked that a different name or pronoun be used, the school would be required to first notify the parents of the request.

Gretchen Phillips, a former teacher and Wake County parent, said she has real concerns about the health care implications of the bill.

“This is going to make it so teachers feel pressure not meet their students where their needs are, but to go by their parents’ comfort level, even when their parents’ comfort level is directly against the best interest of the mental health care of their children,” Phillips testified.

Iliana Santillan

Iliana Santillan, executive director of El Pueblo, said as a queer activist and former teacher she was troubled by the message the bill sends to young people like her own teenage daughter.

“When she was in third grader her peers would ask her why she didn’t have a Dad, why her Mom was with another woman. I am proud of who I am today,” Santillan said.

Santillan said rather than fast track this measure, lawmakers should turn their attention to the Leandro school funding plan.

“Get more nurses, get more counselors in the school system. What you are doing now is wrong and it’s going to damage families like mine. It’s going to further exacerbate the anxiety of my child.”

Olivia Neal said the bill was laden with discrimination against North Carolina’s LGBTQ community.

Olivia Neal

“I was a queer student in North Carolina public schools,” Neal said. “If this bill were made law in my youth, I would have lost many of the outlets that I had to explore and understand my identity without the interference of the government or the school system.

“Even as someone with parents who supported my queerness, I would have felt unsafe seeking help in my school, even mental health care, if I was constantly worried about being outed by my counselors before I was ready.”

Neal said students should be focused on learning in school, not worried about the backlash and abuse they might be subjected to when they return home.

“In some cases, school may be the only place where LGBTQ students can access supportive mental health care, but this bill would force them to run the risk of outing. The reality is for LGBTQ students, parents do not always have their best interest at heart.”

Forty-five percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year, according to a recent survey by the Trevor Project.

“This bill is not about securing rights for parents, it’s about trying to eradicate LGBTQ identity from public life,” Neal added.

Taylor Cortes, a former educator, said the bill was unfair for LGBTQ youth and their families.

Ari Becker

“Unfortunately there are many households where children are not safe coming out. Forcibly making children come out in environments that are hostile will absolutely put their lives at risk,” Cortes warned.

“Children are not their parents’ property. They are their own people. And if they are in an environment that is not safe to their authentic selves, they need to be protected.”

Ari Becker told lawmakers before she was a graduate student at NC State, she was a homeless LGBTQ youth.

“A student who discloses they want to use a different name or pronoun to their teacher or health care provider may have good reason not to want this reported to their parents,” Becker testified. “Forcibly outing children will put them in physical danger.”

Becker said the bill as written would allow for broad censorship, leaving some educators unable to teach about historical figures if they were part of the LGBTQ community.

Sen. Ralph Hise

“Would this result in people life me being ousted from the classroom?” Becker asked.

Senator Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) dismissed the concerns.

“Take a school nurse, how many hours do you think they have actually spent with a child?” Hise asked his colleagues.

“When it comes to health and those sorts of things, parents have been there since the children were born. They know the mental health issues they’ve gone through; they know the physical health issues and having a school professional on limited knowledge be able to make those decisions and not inform the parents should be criminal as a matter of fact.”

As for concerns a child might face physical abuse at home from being outed, Hise said teachers with proof have a duty to report that abuse to the department of social services.

HB 755 advanced on a voice vote Thursday and moves to the Senate Rules Committee next week.

Bonus content: Watch a sampling of some of the educators and LGBTQ advocates speaking out against HB 755.

U.S. Senate Republicans block bill requiring agencies to monitor domestic terrorism

Critics say new NC school bill is not needed, will hurt LGBTQ students

Kendra Johnson, Equality NC executive director

The state Senate is set to begin debating proposed legislation that would require schools to tell parents if their children want to change their pronouns or seek counseling, and would ban teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 classrooms.

The provisions are part of a larger measure that Republican sponsors say would make it easier for parents to know what’s being taught in school and about counseling their children receive. Under the bill, parents would be able to go to court to get information if they are not satisfied with responses to their questions.

Critics said the bill is not needed, and is a distraction from the legislature’s failure to provide adequate school funding.

“It’s dangerous,” Equality NC Executive Director Kendra Johnson said in an interview. “We know that LGBTQ students are harassed. This level of policing is deeply problematic.”

NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly


Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators, said Republicans are trying to divide teachers and parents for political gain instead of talking about funding schools under the Leandro mandate.

The bill draws attention away from the day to day issues at schools, she said, such as inadequate pay and lack of school counselors.

“Our lawmakers are once again showing their disconnect from the reality on the ground in our schools and our community,” she said.

These kinds of bills are being pushed by Republican legislatures and governors in other states.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed what’s known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law that prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-3 and classroom discussion of those topics. The law also prohibits discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity at certain grade levels, leading some Florida teachers to worry how to respond to student questions about diverse families. NBC reported on two Florida teachers who quit because of the law.

Text of the North Carolina bill was not available online Tuesday night, but Senate leader Phil Berger discussed it at a news conference late Tuesday afternoon.

Berger said the proposal’s section on K-3 instruction differs from the Florida law.

“There is no attempt to squelch folks from talking about things,” Berger said. Parents should know whether their children are receiving counseling.  And if parents ask school employees whether their children are asking questions about sexual orientation, the school should tell them.

“If my child asks a question about something like that, I think I would want to know about it,” Berger said.  “It would be incumbent upon the school incumbent upon the school to notify a parent that those are the kinds of inquiries the child is engaged in.”

Berger said he didn’t believe the bill has a notification requirement, but “if the parent asks, the parent has the right to know that.”

The bill is being debated in the shadow of the midterm elections. There’s no guarantee Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper would sign the bill if it gets through the legislature. But the issue and legislators’ votes could become fodder in election campaigns.

Johnson called the bill “a solution is search of a problem” because schools aren’t teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in K-3 classes.

“It sounds like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida,” she said. “Schools should be inclusive spaces for all genders, people of all religious backgrounds. It should be a place where we bring all of ourselves.”

A strong relationship between parents and educators leads to student academic and social success, Walker Kelly said. Parents can already get the information about school instruction that Berger described, she said.

“When students come to school, they have the right to be affirmed and seen in the classroom,” Walker Kelly said. “To restrict conversation about the diversity of families can be harmful to students in our schools.”

Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget would fully fund year three of the Leandro remedial plan

Gov. Roy Cooper

The third year of the Leandro comprehensive remedial plan would be fully funded under a budget proposal released by Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday.

Cooper’s plan calls for spending $525.8 million on the school improvement plan that stems from the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit. He also proposes to spend $687 million more for K-12 and University of North Carolina system construction projects, repairs and renovations.

The remedial plan is based on a detailed school improvement plan developed by WestEd, a consulting firm hired by Cooper to examine public education in North Carolina. WestEd concluded that it would cost $5.6 billion over eight years to fully implement its recommendations.

“My budget fully funds the plan to ensure that every child receives a sound basic education and we know that it’s been a difficult couple of years for students, parents and staff,” Cooper said. “Children and educators are working hard to catch up on studies and they need more support.”

The Leandro conflict commenced nearly three decades ago, when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties joined Halifax in the lawsuit.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

The State Supreme Court is preparing to take up the case again after former Leandro judge David Lee ordered lawmakers to transfer $1.7 billion from its coffers to pay for the first two years of the remedial plan. Republican lawmakers contend the lower court doesn’t have the authority to order such a transfer. They also disagree with Democratic colleagues about how much of the $1.7 billion Lee ordered transferred is included in the current budget.

Teachers would also see bigger raises and master’s pay would be restored under Cooper’s proposal, which is essentially a revision of the second year of the state’s biennium budget lawmakers approved last year.

North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature ended salary increases for educators with advanced degrees in 2013, contending there is no evidence that teachers with master’s degrees help improve student test scores. Critics of the move say it has made it tougher for the state to recruit and retain quality educators.

Here are the expected impacts of Cooper’s proposed investment in education:

  • Ensure all teachers receive at least a 7.5% raise over the biennium.
  • Support up to 535 additional Teaching Fellows with forgivable loans.
  • Provide up to 97,500 students with no co-pay, free school meals.
  • Increase NC Pre-K reimbursement rates by 19%, and administrative reimbursement rates from 6% to 10%.
  • Expand Smart Start services statewide and strengthen the Early Intervention program with increased staffing and professional development.
  • Expand the Child Care WAGE$ program statewide to improve pay for early childhood educators.

Here’s the governor’s full budget proposal.

Tamika Walker Kelly

N.C. Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly applauded Cooper’s revised spending plan.

“Among the highlights of Gov. Cooper’s budget proposal are much-needed salary increases and adjustments for educators, as well as a commitment to fund Leandro in its third year while providing $180 million in support to at-risk and low-income students,” Kelly said. “Given the latest state revenue projections, we feel confident that these are achievable goals.”

The state expects a $4 billion surplus this fiscal year and nearly $2 billion next year, according to a revenue forecast released this week by the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division and Office of State Budget and Management.

The state’s Republican leadership has not responded to Cooper’s proposal. The Raleigh News & Observer reported Senate Leader Phil Berger will address the proposal next week in the short session, which begins Wednesday.