With Republican majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in over 100 years, the recently-completed legislative session marks a new period in North Carolina political history. Last November, conservative themes of accountability, expanding educational freedom, and local control helped to propel many candidates to victory. Soon after the election, Republicans proposed a 100 day legislative agenda which, among other things, promised to increase the percentage of classroom funding and to eliminate the cap on charter schools. Now that the dust is settling on the session, we ask: Did Republican majorities deliver on their promises? A quick review of legislative accomplishments is always helpful.
Charter Schools Legislation Was the Primary Educational Focus
Subject: Charter Schools
Legislation: SB 8
Status: Approved by House and Senate; signed by Gov. Perdue
SB 8, passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Bev Perdue, is the session’s signature piece of education reform legislation. The legislation removes the state’s 15 year old cap (100) on the number of charter schools. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that enjoy greater administrative flexibility. Under the new law, there will be no limit on the number of charter schools created in the state. In addition, charter schools will also be able to increase annual enrollment by up to 20 percent of the school’s previous year’s enrollment and charge fees for the same services or costs that are charged by the local school administrative unit where the charter is located.
While conservatives consider removal of the cap a major victory, there are concerns about the law’s other provisions. A major impetus for the new charter school law was lessening the institutionalized animosity that existed between the State Board of Education (SBE) and the charter school community. Charter school advocates fought hard for the creation of an independent public charter school commission to approve charters and to help administer the school programs. However, language creating an independent commission did not survive past the first few legislative drafts. Language calling for an independent commission was not included in the final legislation. Many charter advocates fear the legislation actually works to strengthen the authority of the SBE. Besides approving and reviewing charter school applications, the legislation requires SBE to adopt “criteria for adequate performance” of charter schools. The legislation states that any charter school which demonstrates no growth in student performance and has annual performance composites below 60 percent in two of the last three years must develop a plan to meet student performance goals. If the plan fails to improve student performance and meet the stated goals, SBE is authorized to terminate the charter.
Accountability is important, but shouldn’t it apply to all schools – both traditional public schools and public charter schools? When traditional public schools fail, the schools receive additional staff and resources to direct improvement in specific areas. Charters receive no additional services. Furthermore, if charter schools fail, they face the threat of termination. No such provision exists for failing public schools. This provision will likely make many charter schools unwilling to enroll low performing students for fear that it will adversely impact school performance scores.
All things considered, however, conservatives should regard legislation to lift the charter school cap as a net plus. Though not perfect, the legislation expands educational opportunity for North Carolina parents and students and encourages educational innovation while providing much needed competition for our public schools.
Other Significant Legislation
Subject: Tax Credit for Parents of Special Needs Children
Legislation: HB 344
Status: Passed House and Senate; awaiting action by Gov. Perdue
Many parents have found that local public schools often lack quality services for special needs children. To address this need, Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) authored legislation to create a tax credit for parents of special needs children. The tax credit allows parents to access services available in nearby nonpublic schools. Parents can receive a credit of up to $3,000 per semester or up to $6,000 per academic year. The General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division estimates by 2015-16, the credit will save North Carolina taxpayers $30 million over the next five years.
Subject: Modifications of Career Status for Teachers
Legislation: SB 466
Status: Passed Senate and House; awaiting action by Gov. Perdue
SB 466 makes modifications to teacher career status regulations. The legislation gives the State Board of Education the authority to award teacher licenses. Such authority was previously held by the Department of Public Instruction who awarded teacher career status based on meeting certification requirements. The bill also spells out additional criteria for teacher nonperformance.
Subject: Revisions to School Discipline Code
Legislation: HB 736
Status: Approved by Senate and House; awaiting action by Gov. Perdue
This bill amends the current law on school discipline and gives local boards of education the authority to adopt policies for disciplining students consistent with current law and the constitutions of North Carolina and the United States. The legislation also authorizes –under certain conditions – the use of reasonable force and corporal punishment by school personnel.
Subject: No Dues Check Off for Public School Employees
Legislation: SB 727
Status: Passed Senate and House; vetoed by Gov. Perdue
Since the early 1990s, North Carolina state government has collected dues for members of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), as well as other employee associations. In doing so, the state supplies a direct administrative service to NCAE worth thousands of dollars annually and furnishes NCAE with a steady cash flow to fund operations and activities. SB 727 would have ended that practice for NCAE. The legislation was vetoed by Gov. Perdue. Unfortunately Republicans singled out the NCAE. They also failed to approve an amendment which would have eliminated the dues check off option for all organizations. Because no compelling reason exists for the state to perform such services for any organization, singling out one group in this legislation is difficult to support.
Subject: Amending Governance of the Department of Public Instruction
Legislation: HB 823
Status: Passed by House referred to Senate Rules Committee; scheduled for summer session
This legislation offers a proposed constitutional amendment to: 1) make the Superintendent of Public Instruction a member of the State Board of Education; 2) expand the SBE from 11 to 14 members; and 3) shorten board terms from eight to six years. The legislation also grants the superintendent the authority to make “all necessary state level appointments necessary for the supervision and administration of public schools.” Final action on the proposed amendment will be taken later this year in the fall constitutional amendment session. Lawmakers hope to place the amendment on the May ballot.
Subject: No Standardized Testing Unless Required by Federal Government
Legislation: HB 114
Status: Passed House and Senate; became law ten days later after Gov. Perdue failed to sign
HB 114 eliminates requirements to provide standardized tests except when required by federal law or a condition of receipt of federal grant. The legislation eliminates end of course tests in U.S. History, Algebra II, Civics and Economics and Physical Science.
Subject: Extending School Year
Legislation: HB 200, Budget Bill
Status: Passed House and Senate; approved over Gov. Perdue’s veto
Budget bill includes a provision (115C-84.2(1)) to add five additional days to the school calendar. The bill also eliminates five “teacher work” days from the school year. Local boards may apply to SBE for a waiver.
Higher Education/ Community Colleges Legislation
School Accreditation/College Admission
Legislation: HB 342
Status: Passed House and Senate; awaiting action by Gov. Perdue
In the past year, a national accrediting agency (AdvancED) has withdrawn accreditation status from Burke County Schools whose students have scored above state wide averages on various tests. The accrediting agency has also placed Wake County Public Schools on “warned status.” In 2009-10, 13 of 16 “low performing schools” in North Carolina were accredited through AdvancED.
This legislation prohibits the University of North Carolina System or any member of the North Carolina Community College System from using information about the accreditation status of an applicant’s educational institution in making decisions about admissions, scholarships, loan and other education policies. The legislation also authorizes the Department of Public Instruction to create a process for accrediting public schools in North Carolina.
Opt-Out Option from Federal Loan Program for Community Colleges
Status: Passed by Senate and House; vetoed by Gov. Perdue; legislation subsequently changed to local bills.
These bills allow individual community colleges to opt out of the Ford Federal Direct Student Loan program. Community Colleges have sought to decline entrance to the program because of the high default rates associated with recipients. In order to maintain eligibility for federal student assistance, institutions must maintain low percentages of students in loan default.