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Legislative roundup | School choice and calendar flexibility rule the week

Probably the biggest education news this week is the hearing in the long-running Leandro court case. Judge David Lee called the parties together to discuss the comprehensive plan to meet the state’s obligation to give all students the opportunity for a sound, basic education. This relates to the General Assembly because at the end of the day, if the priorities of the plan are going to be funded, it’s lawmakers who will be allocating that money.

Lee said he has no intention of telling legislators how much money to spend. He wants cooperation. But we will have to wait and see how the desire for cooperation is received by the parties and the legislature. Read more about the Leandro hearing this week by clicking the link below.

School choice

A bill that would increase the amount of money students could get under the Opportunity Scholarship Program passed the House today and goes now to the Senate.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program, often referred to as a voucher program by opponents, gives up to $4,200 to low-income students to attend the private school of their choice. Under this bill, however, eligible students could receive “up to seventy percent (70%) of the average State per pupil allocation in the prior fiscal year” instead. That would go up to 80% in the 2023-24 school year.

The current average state per pupil allocation is $6,586, according to staff at the State Department of Public Instruction. That means if this bill becomes law, Opportunity Scholarship recipients could get $4,610 until 2023-24, at which point they could get about $5,269.

The bill also merges two programs — the Special Education Scholarship for Children with Disabilities and the Personal Education Savings Account.

The former provides “$8,000 annually to a qualifying student with a disability to be used for tuition and reimbursement of special education, related services, and educational technology.” The latter provides “$9,000 annually to a qualifying student with a disability to be used by parents for qualifying education expenses through funds provided to the parent in an electronic account or debit card.”

Under the bill, the merged programs would now be called the Personal Education Student Accounts for Children with Disabilities and would be funded at “85% of the average state per pupil funding in the previous fiscal year in addition to per pupil special-needs funding.” This is in addition to the “state allocation per funded child with disabilities.”

The Senate has its own bill expanding the Opportunity Scholarship Program. It would raise the salary level under which families would qualify for the program as well as increase the amount of money they would receive. The Senate bill has not been heard yet in any committee.

Calendar flexibility

A House K-12 committee heard a slew of local calendar flexibility bills as well as one statewide calendar flexibility bill this week — 17 to be exact. They all moved out of the committee with favorable approval. Here they are:

H12: Address Pandemic Learning Loss/Alamance Cnty.

H77: School Calendar Flexibility/Moore County.

H92: School Calendar Flexibility/Davie County.

H106: School Calendar Flexibility/Pitt County.

H111: School Calendar Flexibility/WSFCS.

H116: School Calendar Flex./Certain School Systems.

H125: School Calendar Flexibility/Lenoir County.

H129: Graduations/School Calendar/Certain Counties.

H201: Academic Alignment/Certain School Units.

H202: School Calendar Flexibility/Harnett County.

H226: School Calendar Flex/Mecklenburg County.

H319: COVID Impact on Craven County School Calendar.

H390: School Calendar Flexibility/Certain Systems.

H445: School Calendar Flexibility/Chatham County.

H396: Address Pandemic Learning Loss/Select Systems.

H376: School Calendar Flexibility.

H185: School Calendar Flexibility/Wake County.

But only two, House Bills 125 and 201, were actually taken up by the full House this week and approved. The former would let Cumberland County Schools, Franklin County Schools, Lenoir County Public Schools, Nash-Rocky Mount Schools, and Pitt County Schools decide on their own open and close dates for schools.

The latter would let Chatham County Schools, Edgecombe County Schools, Elkin City Schools, Martin County Schools, Mt. Airy City Schools, Surry County Schools, and Union County Public Schools align their public school calendars with those of their local community colleges.

So, what you need to know is that calendar flexibility is a perennial issue at the legislature. I’ve been covering it since I started this job in 2015. Generally, the House is more favorable to the idea than the Senate, and that seems like it will again be the case. The News & Observer quoted Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, as saying: “I don’t know that the appetite for school calendar bills has changed.”

The state currently mandates two things when it comes to school calendars: how many days students must be in school and when districts can start and end their calendars. 

The state says that students must be in school for a minimum of 185 days a year or 1,025 hours of instruction. It also says that schools can’t start earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26, and they can’t end later than the Friday closest to June 11. Of course, those rules changed slightly this past year because of COVID-19, but only temporarily.

As it turns out, a lack of calendar flexibility creates a host of problems for our geographically diverse state. From snow to hurricanes, schools are often forced to close school and then jam in make-up days at odd times in order to fit within the legislative calendar mandate. Districts argue they need calendar flexibility — the ability to start and stop school given local considerations — to avoid extreme measures sometimes needed to get kids the instruction that is mandated. In addition, some districts say that a lack of calendar flexibility means holding semester-ending exams after the winter break, something schools and parents can be eager to avoid.

There is large-scale bipartisan support for calendar flexibility, but advocates say that the tourism industry holds up legislation because businesses that rely on student workers over the summer don’t want districts to cut into their season.

Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, speaking to the House K-12 Committee said his position with regards to the tourism industry and calendar flexibility is known by everyone before saying: “I think it should be labeled child abuse to send anybody back to school before Labor Day.” 

Louise Lee, the president of Save Our Summers North Carolina, spoke at the committee meeting as well, saying that she represented parents and teachers.

“We have heard the arguments about community college alignments and exams before Christmas for 17 years,” she said. “It is time to put these arguments to rest.” 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.