Legislature returns to Raleigh with many action items

By: Kari Travis - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — School safety, charter schools, and teacher pay headline K-12 issues for Republican and Democratic lawmakers during the N.C. General Assembly’s 2018 short session.

The legislature will consider 14 recommendations from the newly formed House Select Committee on School Safety, including funding for school resource officers, efficient licensing for school psychologists, and peer-to-peer counseling programs in schools.

As with most sessions, public charter schools will be hotly debated, mostly due to House Bill 514, a measure to allow a handful of municipalities to launch their own charters.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, is raising some eyebrows. H.B. 514 may cause a host of problems, including more segregation across the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the system’s board said in an April 19 statement.

“Students may have to leave high-performing schools where they are achieving today,” the statement reads. “H.B. 514 will open the door to a more segregated community and close the door on access to opportunities for those who need it most in Charlotte-Mecklenburg.”

H.B. 514 isn’t nefarious, and CMS is ignoring the larger purpose of the legislation, Brawley told Carolina Journal.

The towns affected — Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius, and Huntersville — are dealing with population spikes. The bill, filed in March 2017, is an answer to school capacity problems, and Matthews residents asked for it, Brawley said.

CMS doesn’t plan to build another school in northern Mecklenburg until 2030, he said. That means waiting lists at area schools are long and growing longer every day.

Three charter schools exist in the territory, Brawley said. Lake Norman Charter School has a waitlist of 6,000. Community School of Davidson and Pine Lake Preparatory Academy have more than 3,000 students waiting for admittance, he told CJ.

“The ability to build charter schools gives the towns the ability to add capacity for the new students that are coming in if Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will not build new schools, which they are currently refusing to do. To say that the towns are being racist is to try to change the subject from a lack of school space for the children where they are,” Brawley said.

CMS has proposed a joint task force with the Matthews Town Commission to explore other solutions for problems such as overcrowding, the board’s statement says.

H.B. 514 still brings questions, said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union.

Municipal charters would mean breaking up CMS. It also means getting the N.C. Department of Public Instruction “out of the school business in those communities,” Horn said.

Diversity will be an issue, he said.

“Matthews isn’t known as a melting pot. [These] are predominately majority white areas. So does that result in the resegregation of CMS?”

While the bill incites much debate, there are other topics to worry about, Horn said.

Advanced teaching roles, a pilot program that allow teachers to take on extra responsibilities for additional compensation, is likely to get some extra funding.

The N.C. Community College System has asked for $16 million to invest in career and technical education, a request that’s likely to see “a lot of hand wringing,” Horn said. The legislature also plans to fund apprenticeship programs.

The General Assembly should take an aggressive approach to bring teacher pay to the national average, said Rep. Greg Meyer, D-Durham. Lawmakers should also expand early childhood education and address capital needs among schools.

But those goals aren’t likely to advance, Meyer said.

“The Republican majority has made it pretty clear they are going to advance their own agenda and aren’t going to work with any of us,” Meyer said.

Criminal justice

Juvenile justice issues remain a priority for lawmakers in North Carolina. But now that the state has enacted a major policy reset, it’s all about money matters.

Raise the Age, a law that bumped the state’s juvenile age limit from 16 to 18 for those with minor offenses, passed last year. Legislators must now tie-up loose ends, Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, told Carolina Journal.

Passing the law was one challenge. Funding it is another. The juvenile justice system is more intense — in some ways — than the adult criminal justice system, McGrady said. Implementing the new legislation is dependent on money, and time is of the essence.

The policy change takes effect Dec. 1, 2019

The legislature plans to fund a new juvenile detention facility in Rockingham County. The price is tagged between $10 million and $20 million.

Other criminal justice issues have popped up, McGrady said. Certificates of relief, which would restore personal rights lost upon a criminal conviction, may be scrutinized during session. Expunctions for people with criminal records is also an issue of interest.

The session will be short, and there’s no guarantee lawmakers will take up major policy issues while in Raleigh.

“My life right now is all about appropriations,” McGrady said. “I just don’t have a sense right now if we’re far enough along to take those issues up. I just don’t know yet what the appetite for moving legislation will be.”

Higher education

It’s difficult to collect information at the University of North Carolina System. Data — financial, faculty, and student — is fragmented due to the lack of a clean, comprehensive database. In particular, the university can’t factor cost comparisons between institutions. It’s a formula for unhappy administrators and lawmakers, said UNC President Margaret Spellings.

“The bottom line is we can’t answer questions we need to answer, and we don’t know what they need to really maximize the benefits for taxpayers,” Spellings said.

That could soon change.

UNC is asking for an annual $2 million to build a database. The system will collect and compare information across all 17 UNC schools. Administrators want to know how out-of-state tuition stacks up against UNC’s educational costs. They also want to track program successes and failures to make good use of taxpayer money, Spellings said.

The university is also prioritizing programs that will keep students on schedule to graduate. Those include a grant-based summer school program and “Student Success Innovation Labs,” faculty-invented teaching projects catered to student needs. UNC has also proposed “Adaptive Courseware,” a learning software that will help students and teachers better communicate and stay on schedule. UNC is asking for a total $5 million to kick-start all three proposals.

The university is asking for $3 million to help recruit and retain faculty members. Another $3 million would pay for research projects.

Additionally, UNC is requesting $1.07 million to support lab schools, university operated public schools designed to give undergrads real-world teaching experience.

Legislators are on board, said Rep. John Fraley, R-Iredell, who chairs the N.C. House Committee on Education-Universities.

Like UNC, the General Assembly wants access to more university data. Lawmakers from the House and Senate are also supportive of extra funding to entice faculty to stay at UNC — instead of taking lucrative jobs at other universities, Fraley said.

Spellings’ requests seem reasonable, but the legislature can’t make any money promises at this point in the budget debate, he said.

The N.C. Community College System is also on the legislature’s radar. The state lacks career and technical education, a need the NCCCS is poised to fill.

Legislators also want to extend resident tuition rates to military veterans who wish to attend a private school within the association of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities. Currently, only UNC offers that perk to veterans.

“I think that we clearly have a focus and a vision on all university systems [working] together — and also working on public education to bring people through school and keep them in North Carolina,” Fraley said.

Kari Travis

Carolina Journal