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Legislative roundup | Lawmakers want lesson plans posted online

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The week started off with a bang in a House K-12 committee Tuesday. Lawmakers took up two bills they said would increase academic and funding “transparency.” One made it through the House this week. The other never left the committee.

The first bill, titled “An act to ensure academic transparency,” would force schools and districts to make available to the public information on what instructional materials and activities are being used in classrooms.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, a primary sponsor of the bill, said in committee that when parents are active in their children’s education, students have better outcomes, and this legislation would help parents have more information to enable them to be more engaged.

“This is one of those efforts to say, ‘We’re going to make a little extra effort … to try to make this as simple as possible while still providing the transparency so that parents can be aware of what is being offered to their students,'” Blackwell said.

By the end of the school year, teachers would have to post an outline of what was taught during the year as well as information the public could access to follow up on the material. Teachers would also be required to publicly post “the lesson plans that were used at the school during the prior school year.” According to the bill, “Lesson plans shall identify, at a minimum, (i) all instructional materials by the title and the author, organization, or website associated with each material and activity, (ii) a brief descriptor of the instructional material, and (iii) a link to the instructional material, if publicly available on the internet, or information on how to request review of a copy of the instructional material in person.”

Districts would also have to put on their website how materials and instruction are reviewed by the district.

The bill comes amid increased scrutiny in schools around things like teachings on racial equity. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson created a webpage so people could report attempts of “indoctrination” of students and established a task force to look into such allegations. He and other Republicans on the State Board of Education also objected earlier this year to new social studies standards. Much of the debate focused on the use of words such as “racism,” “discrimination,” and “identity.”

Rep. Jeffrey McNeely, R-Iredell, said during the committee this will help parents see what teachers taught the year before, which is useful information for parents with students entering a teacher’s classroom.

“Hopefully we’re just going to teach the kids, we’re not going to try to indoctrinate them,” he said.

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, said she wondered if the bill was a “solution looking for a problem.”

As a former school board member, she said she thought this kind of information was already available to parents and others online.

Blackwell said there was no statewide requirement to provide this kind of information, though some school systems may do it on their own.

Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, told Blackwell there would be a lot of opposition to the bill, bringing up some of the logistical difficulties.

“This just seems like a pretty large burden to put onto educators,” he said, adding later: “This feels like a heavy-handed element of government.”

Blackwell said he thinks teachers come into the classroom with a plan for what they’re going to teach, and this asks them to provide it for public perusal. As for teachers who don’t do so and wait until the end of the year to put the list together, Blackwell said they are being given the flexibility to compile the information on their own schedule.

“This is not government looking over,” Blackwell said. “It’s parents looking over.”

This bill made it all the way through the House this week, but many, including the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), were not happy about it.

The link in the tweet above takes you to a post on The Action Network sponsored by the NCAE. It says:

“This completely unnecessary and unimaginably burdensome law would require teachers and school districts to post online a comprehensive list of all teaching, classroom and assignment materials used by every teacher in every class session. 

“Every single book, article, video clip, song, webpage, or even any assignment or assessment would have to be documented, organized, collected and posted to the web. Every. Single. One. And to what end? So right-wing conservatives can cherry-pick examples of ‘liberal indoctrination’? So that legislators who have not taught a day in their lives can bully and undermine our professionalism? Not on our watch.”

Financial transparency

A House education committee also took up a bill that would make changes to the budgeting process between local boards of education (LBEs) and their board of county commissioners (BCC) with the aim of increasing “transparency and accountability in local education funding.” It would give local BCCs more input on school system budgets and make school boards provide their commissioners more information.

From summary of the bill.

But some members of the committee argued the bill could increase tension between school boards and their county commissioners and it shouldn’t apply to school boards that already have a good relationship with their commissioners.

Lawmakers weren’t the only ones that questioned the bill’s rationale.

“Why is this bill even necessary?” asked Richard Bostic, assistant director of governmental relations at the state School Boards Association, when he was given time to speak to the committee. He said state law requires that boards of education open their budgets to county commissioners already.

During the conversation about the bill, it became clear it was in danger of not making it out of the committee. It was pulled from the calendar before a vote, but it could come back up in the future.

House K-12 committee odds and ends

Other bills heard and passed from the committee included:

  • One that would allow school districts to provide remote learning “academies.” These academies have been prevalent in the past year due to COVID-19. This legislation would allow them to continue, though the total enrollment in such academies could be no more than 10% of total district enrollment. This legislation would allow such academies only for next school year. The academies would be separate from traditional classroom instruction, operating essentially as their own school.
  • One bill that would create a committee charged with producing an accountability method that utilizes multiple measures. Currently, accountability for North Carolina schools mostly consists of a grade that is created using a combination of 80% academic performance and 20% academic growth.
  • A bill that would create a task force to study the opportunity gap and propose strategies for closing it.

All three of those bills passed the full House this week and are now in the Senate.

The committee also considered a bill that would create a teacher recruitment pilot program in Craven County. The program would be for out-of-state teachers who have a residency license and would allow them in-state tuition at some schools in the UNC system. This bill is slated next for a House appropriations committee.

Another bill would increase child care subsidy rates for child care providers. It was heard in a committee on families, children, and aging policy this week. The legislation raises the rates to those from the latest market rate survey (from June 2018). It would also create a subsidy “floor” for child care providers. The legislation would allocate $13.5 million in recurring funds for 2021-22 and $18 million in recurring funds for 2022-23 to increase market rates for the subsidies.

The legislation also appropriates $40.5 million in recurring funds in 2021-22 and $54 million in recurring funds in 2022-23 to ensure that child care providers would get the state average in subsidies regardless of where they’re located unless their county rate is higher.

“I ask you to support this bill. It’s years overdue,” said Rep. David Willis, R-Union, a primary sponsor of the bill. For more information on child care subsidies, check out this article by EducationNC reporter Liz Bell.

Opportunity scholarships

A bill that would expand the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program passed the Senate this week and is now in the House.

The program, often referred to as a voucher program by opponents, gives up to $4,200 per year to eligible students to attend the private school of their choice. 

The bill would increase the amount of money offered by such scholarships and would increase the income eligibility amount from about 150% of the income required to qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch to 175%. 

Under the bill, funding would now increase to up to 90% of state per-pupil funding. The current average state per pupil allocation is $6,586, according to staff at the state Department of Public Instruction. That means students using opportunity scholarships could get a little over $5,900 per year.

The House also passed a bill expanding the program, which is now in the Senate.

Under that bill, eligible students could receive “up to seventy percent (70%) of the average State per pupil allocation in the prior fiscal year.” That would go up to 80% in the 2023-24 school year. If the House bill becomes law, scholarship recipients could get $4,610 until 2023-24, when they could get about $5,269.

Both the House and Senate bills would merge two other programs: the Special Education Scholarship for Children with Disabilities and the Personal Education Savings Account.

My guess is that both of these bills will stay where they lay and some amalgam of the two will make it into the final legislative budget. If either of these bills makes it out of the General Assembly alone, Gov. Roy Cooper is almost certain to veto them. His budget proposal seeks to end the Opportunity Scholarship Program for new recipients.

Senate Education Committee

The Senate Education Committee also met this week and gave a favorable vote to a number of bills, including one that would remove the legal requirement that families appeal due process hearings to the State Board of Education. It would instead allow them to appeal directly to state or federal courts. You can read EdNC reporter Rupen Fofaria’s story on the bill here.

The committee also approved a bill that would let those with a bachelor’s or graduate degree be an adjunct high school teacher in certain subjects if they had attended a community college and finished at least one semester’s worth of courses in teacher preparation.

The committee also gave favorable votes to a bill that would require carbon monoxide detectors in public and private schools and a bill that would require the State Board of Education to adopt a statewide medical condition action plan for public schools. 

All of these — except the bill on special education due process hearings — passed the Senate Rules Committee by the end of the week and are slated to go before the full Senate on May 10.

What other legislative action was there?

A number of education bills passed one or the other chamber this week. The following passed the Senate and goes now to the House:

  • bill that would loosen the requirements around getting in-state tuition for community colleges.
  • A bill that takes up a number of waivers the State Board of Education is seeking from lawmakers to relax accountability requirements around standardized testing. The federal government has already offered waivers in these areas, but the State Board needed state lawmakers to sign off as well. Read more about that here.

The following passed the House and goes now to the Senate:

  • A bill that allows districts to give a three-year renewable license to a teacher even if they hadn’t yet passed their licensure test, and to new teachers with a license from another state.
  • A bill that makes sure “qualified” 15-year-olds can participate in community college fire training programs.
  • A bill that would mandate the creation of threat assessment teams at schools in the state.
  • A bill that would let teachers take personal leave without having to pay the cost of their substitute teacher. Currently, if a teacher takes personal leave on a day when they have to be in the classroom, they are responsible for covering the cost of the substitute teacher who will take their place. Under this legislation, however, if the teacher provides a reason for taking personal leave, they won’t be responsible for covering the cost of a substitute.
  • A bill that would change the Asheville City Board of Education from an appointed to an elected board.
  • A bill that would make some changes to the standards governing student conduct in state public schools.

If this seems like a lot of action this week, consider that next Thursday, May 13, is crossover — the time by which legislation must have a financial component or must have passed at least one of the two chambers in the legislature in order for lawmakers to still consider it.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.