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Legislature focused on education reform

Legislature focused on education reform

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Just one month into its general session, North Carolina’s state legislature has already proposed more than 30 bills related to education.

From Senate Bill 68’s proposal to require arts education for graduation, to House Bill 44 calling for the state to transition away from funding textbooks in favor of digital learning, it’s clear that education reform will be a goal for the General Assembly this year.

Gov. Pat McCrory has already called for sweeping changes to the state’s education system. Education reform played a major part in McCrory’s campaign for the state’s top office. In his first State of the State address Monday, McCrory called for a change on the education debate.

“Instead of focusing the debate only on the budget, we must now demand results,” he said. “We must ensure that our schools are preparing students for success by effectively teaching them both the knowledge and the skills that will help them lead productive lives and also find jobs.”

The first bill McCrory signed into law since taking office in January puts a premium on career and technical education. The new law encourages students to enroll in courses that will lead to a diploma with an endorsement indicating that they are either “career ready,” “college ready” or both. It also directs the State Board of Education to update the curriculum for career and technical education courses.

“We must ensure our education system provides opportunities and pathways for our students to get the necessary knowledge and skills to fulfill their post-graduation goals, whether that be entering the workforce or continuing on to getting a higher degree,” McCrory said in a statement.

The bill is the first, but likely not the last, piece of education reform the legislature will send to McCrory this session. The House has followed McCrory’s lead; more than 30 bills related to education have already been filed this year, and more are on the way. Legislators are prepared to tackle teacher tenure, charter school expansion and private school vouchers – all issues that could have major impacts for local school districts.

“Every legislative session, there are a lot of bills filed. A lot of them will never go very far but to monitor them is a task,” said Don Martin, superintendent for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schoola. “There’s a lot of trying to read the tea leaves.”

Martin said school choice proposals – like those that would expand charter schools and allow private school vouchers – have the most potential to affect local districts.

McCrory’s rhetoric is not the only factor driving the education reform talk in Raleigh. State Sen. Peter Brunstetter, R-Forsyth, said education reform really got started in the House two years ago when Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, started driving the agenda in the Senate. While some pieces of that package were passed, Brunstetter said their work is not done. He expects talk about teacher tenure and performance to be hot button issues this session and talk about charter schools expansion to continue.

“We are not satisfied with the status quo in public education,” Brunstetter said. “But we have successfully started the dialogue that was long overdue in terms of what we can do to improve the quality of public education at the K-12 level.”

Brunstetter has his own ideas about how to improve education. He is the primary sponsor of a bill that would require students to complete at least one credit of arts education to graduate. Brunstetter said he sees value in arts education, even for students who do not necessarily plan on pursuing a future in the arts.

“The idea is it gives students critical thinking skills that pay dividends in areas way beyond art itself,” Brunstetter said. “It exposes students who might not otherwise get exposure to arts.”

It’s too early now to know which, if any of these bills, will get passed and what finals versions will dictate. For now, it’s a game of waiting, watching and trying to keep up with the legislature’s feverish pace.

That has some concerned, who say making so many changes so quickly could result in some unintended consequences. Rep. Ed Hanes, D-Forsyth, said he’s keeping a close eye on how legislation supported by the Republican-controlled state government might impact marginalized and underserved student populations. Hanes said there are ideas floating around in Raleigh that could help or hurt such groups.

“If we’re not careful and we’re not thoughtful, with our pace with the changes being considered… the poorest people are always in the most vulnerable position,” Hanes said. “We can’t move so fast we miss people on the margins.”

Hanes said he hopes proposals for expanded charter systems and private school vouchers – some versions of which would help increase school choice for the state’s poorest students – get fair looks.

Last year, the legislature lifted the cap on the number of charter schools that could be approved in the state. Charter school expansion is inevitable, Lambeth said, leading many districts looking for ways to compete and benefit from charter schools’ lack of regulations.

There’s been talk in the state also about private school vouchers. A bill filed in 2011 would have provided tax credits for parents who remove their children from public school, helping to cover the cost of private tuition. The move would essentially take at least a portion of the tax dollars that go to public schools for each student and give it to private institutions. That bill, House Bill 41, never made it out of committee, but legislators say they expect similar proposals to surface this year. Similar provisions have already been provided for students with special needs that are not being met by traditional public schools.

“The general tenor is to allow parents to have as much choice and decision-making ability for their children as possible,” Lambeth said.

Those proposals are likely to be some of the most contentious. Martin said superintendents across the state are keeping a close watch especially on the voucher proposal. Vouchers would allow students to take public dollars and use them to attend private school.

“It’s really causing a lot of angst among school folks,” Martin said. “It’s a line that should not be crossed.”

Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, said he expects to have a charter school bill filed next month to allow communities to create entire charter school districts. The idea is to give traditional school systems some of the flexibility enjoyed by charters. Lambeth, former chairman of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, said there is talk of creating a new education caucus to help take a closer look at the dozens of education-related bills.

“It does seem like there is a really high level of interest in a number of education topics,” Lambeth said.

Other likely hot topics this year are school security, student achievement and digital learning.

Senate Bills 27 and 59 would allow for additional armed personnel in schools. Senate Bill 16 would revoke a driver’s license for illegally passing a stopped school bus. Lambeth and Hanes are putting together a bill that’s expected to be filed soon and will “add teeth” to existing laws around school bus stop arm violations.

Lambeth is also collaborating on a two separate bills to address high school dropouts.

Three separate House bills address digital learning – calling for additional spending, more funds and new teaching standards on digital learning.

“It’s a new day down here,” Lambeth said. “There is so much new energy and ideas being brought by the new people.”

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