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Lawmakers push raft of education bills in advance of crossover deadline

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As the April 30 ‘crossover deadline’ nears — at which point a bill must be passed by one legislative house in order to have a shot at becoming law — members of the General Assembly scrambled to rush proposed measures through committee hearings Tuesday, debating many of the education bills that have been the focus of the 2015 session.

Read on for some highlights from Tuesday’s meetings, in which lawmakers quickly debated bills in an effort to keep them alive for the remainder of the year.

Making student assault of a teacher a felony — after the first offense

This original intent of this measure, sponsored by Senator Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph), was to make the assault of a teacher by a student a felony offense — current law designates it a misdemeanor.

L [2]awmakers previously tried to sort out [2] whether the unintended consequence of the legislation would be for juveniles committing minor transgressions to be charged with felony offenses that could never be expunged from their records, under North Carolina law.

“This bill could result in serious, permanent obstacles for youth in terms of employment, housing and educational prospects,” said Jane Wettach, Duke University law professor and head of the Children’s Law Clinic in Durham.

On Tuesday, the proposed measure was amended to make a student’s first offense a misdemeanor, and second and third offenses progressively harsher felonies — but none as serious as the originally proposed Class I felony for assault of a teacher.

SB 343 [3] is scheduled to go to the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

Bill to increase teaching workloads for UNC faculty effectively killed

Senator Tom McInnis’ bill to require all UNC faculty to teach a minimum of eight courses per year [4] caused an uproar [5] in the higher education community—perhaps a loud enough one to compel Senate education committee chair Sen. Jerry Tillman to squash the measure for the time being, sending it away to a legislative research committee for further study.

Prior to the bill’s demise, Sen. McInnis defended his bill, saying he believed UNC students deserved actual professors to teach their courses, instead of just graduate students.

McInnis offered a watered down version of the measure Tuesday, which would have excluded UNC–Chapel Hill and N.C. State University professors in STEM disciplines from seeing any increases in their teaching loads. Other schools in the UNC system would have seen their teaching loads go from five courses a year to six under the proposed law.

To hear Sen. McInnis speak about the need to increase the quality of instruction at North Carolina’s universities, click here [6].

A-F school grading formula gets a tweak

House lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday that would improve the formula for how the state’s schools are now awarded A-F letter grades [7] to make them more reflective of how a school helps its students grow academically over time.

There are a number of bills floating around the General Assembly that would change how schools receive letter grades — but the one that would change the formula to 50 percent growth, 50 percent performance, sponsored by Reps. Glazier, Johnson, Lucas and Horn, has gained the most traction.

First unveiled earlier this year, North Carolina’s A-F school grades are, to a large extent, a reflection of how well a school’s student population does on standardized tests on a given day. The formula is currently weighted 80 percent “performance” (how students perform on those tests on one day), and 20 percent “growth” (how students perform on those tests over time).

When the grades were first released in February [8], a public outcry ensued as they largely tracked the demographics of a school’s population. High poverty schools received mostly Ds and Fs; more affluent-serving schools scored higher.

A-F school grades are the brain child of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Versions of the system have been implemented around the country [9].

Rep. Glazier (D-Cumberland), a sponsor of HB 803 [7] that passed the House on Tuesday, noted that Florida has already tweaked its school grading formula at least 34 times since its inception.

Virginia recently repealed the A-F school grading system [10].

At least one lawmaker is skeptical that the Senate will take up a fix [11] for the A-F school grades.

Limiting teachers’ political activities survives another day

Senate Bill 480 intends to make sure teachers can’t engage in political activities during the school day — but some are concerned the bill could keep teachers from speaking out altogether on issues they care about.

On Tuesday, members of a Judiciary committee passed the bill, but with a few tweaks.

New language in the bill would allow superintendents and principals to engage in political advocacy efforts during the school day. Teachers could too — as long as their local school boards signed off on that kind of activity.

If a teacher wishes to advocate on an issue at a PTA meeting, for example, that teacher could do so — but would need prior approval from their local board of education.

Senator Wells previously told the News & Record that the bill is intended to make a uniform policy applicable to all school employees regarding when and how they can or cannot engage in political activities. Many local school boards already employ various kinds of similar policies but they all differ in scope.

“What [school employees] do on their own time is their right and their business,” Wells said. “But what they do when they’re being paid to be working and what they do with public facilities and resources, we should have one set of rules for that.”

The bill is scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

Teaching students about the gold standard

Senators Curtis, Soucek and Tillman want to make sure all high school students have a solid understanding of the country’s founding principles — and their bill is taken from a page out of the ALEC playbook [12], as reported by WRAL [13].

Senate Bill 524 [14] adds principles to the high school curriculum that are, according to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, related to the founding documents of the United States government. They include:

  • Constitutional limitations on government power to tax and spend and prompt payment of public debt
  • Money with intrinsic value
  • Strong defense and supremacy of civil authority over military
  • Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none
  • Eternal vigilance by ‘We the People’

As reported by WRAL, ‘money with intrinsic value’ is a concept known as the gold standard, which is to “back government currency with a commodity owned in sufficient quantity to guarantee the value of all paper money in circulation.”

It’s a favorite concept of conservative pundits like Glenn Beck.

The bill is scheduled to be on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

Remediation-free high school graduates

The outgoing leader of the state’s community college system, Dr. Scott Ralls, spoke in support of a bill Tuesday that would allow high school students to begin receiving remediation while still in high school in an effort to make sure they’re not already behind once beginning higher education.

“We think this will help us take an important step forward,” said Ralls in support of Senate Bill 561, which directs the State Board of Community Colleges to work with the State Board of Education in coming up with a plan to allow high school seniors to receive remediation in math and English prior to graduation.

The proposal merited favor from the Department of Instruction as well — perhaps because it’s more of a carrot than a stick. Earlier in the session, lawmakers filed a different bill that would have charged local school districts for the cost of remediating students while enrolled in community colleges [15].

The bill is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

Just the tip of the iceberg

Several other education-related measures were moved along the path toward becoming law, including the following:

  • a failed attempt [16]to disallow local school boards from suing their county commissioners for failing to invest in their schools;
  • a bill that contains numerous modifications to charter school law [17], including one provision that would discontinue an LEAs’ ability to reserve certain funds for traditional public schools only;
  • a bill that contains many fixes to the Read to Achieve Act [18] that House lawmakers passed last year, including provisions to limit the number of tests given to third graders; and
  • the passage of HB 248 [19], which eliminates the use of the NC Final Exam to assess teachers’ performance in relation to Standard 6 of the North Carolina Teacher Evaluation System, upon approval of an amendment to the current North Carolina Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver.

Did I miss something important? Need more details on some of these proposals? Send me an email — [email protected] [20] — or give me a ring at 919-861-1460.

You can also find me on Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC