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Not all bills are created equal

The General Assembly can be a confusing place — and not just because it’s built like a labyrinth and takes several trips around the building to find a bathroom. It can also be confusing because often, things aren’t what they seem. 

Take bills, for instance. Sometimes all a bill needs is a sensational subject and, all of a sudden, it starts to seem like a possibility. 

This session, there’s the School Self-Defense Act — a House bill that would let faculty or staff of a school carry a handgun in case something happens that requires their old-west peacekeeping skills. The bill, filed by two Republicans who sometimes stand to the right of their colleagues on certain issues, received quite a bit of news attention, so you would be forgiven for thinking that guns were coming to a classroom near you. But it’s never going to happen. 

This isn’t the first time this idea was proposed, and the same thing will happen: nothing. The bill has been referred to the rules committee in the House, and when a bill is referred there as its first stop, that usually means it’s not going to be considered. It won’t be heard in any committees, and it won’t make the House floor. 

Colin Campbell of the Insider State Government News Service had a great piece breaking down the signs to look for when you want to know if a bill is going to make it. I suggest you read it if you need a primer. 

What he writes applies to education bills as much as any other. One of my responsibilities is updating the legislative tracker on the EducationNC website. It takes a while because a ton of bills are filed on education topics. Looking at the list of bills that have been filed this session, it would seem as though education is going to be the topic of the day every day, but it’s not so. Only a fraction of the bills on our tracker will ever seriously be considered. 

And just because lawmakers hold a press conference doesn’t make a bill’s chances any more likely, either.

Senator Wiley Nickel, D-Wake, filed a bill that would add teacher assistants (TA) to classrooms in grades K-3. He held a press conference on the subject last Thursday talking about the need for more teacher assistants, the Republican cuts to the positions in the state’s public schools, and the studies that support the efficacy of TAs.

And while you can come down on one side or the other as to the merits of the bill, it’s important to understand that it’s not likely to go anywhere. All the sponsors of the Senate bill are Democrats. And there is a companion bill in the House that is also sponsored by only Democrats. While the Democrats made gains in last November’s elections, they are still the minority in both the House and the Senate. They narrowed the margin enough that Governor Roy Cooper can veto Republican legislation and possibly avoid an override, but they didn’t do well enough that Democrat bills without bipartisan support are likely to be heard in committee much less make it out and onto the House floor. 

But a press conference and news articles lend promise to bills that don’t necessarily have any. An astute observer would do well to keep this in mind when watching the goings on of the legislature. 

There are exceptions, however. On the face of it, I would have no reason to believe that a bill filed last week by Senator Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, on the subject of residency requirements for higher education would have any more of a chance than any other bill. 

The bill would allow graduation from a North Carolina high school to be used as evidence of in-state residence for the purposes of getting in-state tuition to community colleges and universities. This evidence would rebut the presumption that a student’s legal residence is the same as their parents. Additionally, the law as it is currently assumes that if a student is under 24, their residence is their parents. The bill takes away the age requirement, so that a student of any reasonable age can provide evidence of living independently from their parents to gain in-state tuition.

This bill is being filed to deal with an issue facing community colleges with regards to in-state tuition. You see, community college students are different than traditional university students, and sometimes using their parent’s residence as a decider on in-state tuition puts them at a disadvantage, because they may not live with their parents, they may be older students, etc. By saying that graduates of North Carolina high schools are North Carolina residents, that will shortcut some of the issues community colleges have been having.

The reason that I can look at that bill out of the gate and think it has a chance is because Community College System President Peter Hans talked at this month’s State Board of Community Colleges meeting about working to hammer out an agreement on this subject. 

“It hasn’t been an easy path. It hasn’t been [a subject] that we’ve been greeted with open arms on, necessarily,” he said. “But we’ve got to make progress for our students, and this is a significant step in the right direction.”

He’s been working behind the scenes to get support for legislative action on this issue, indicating to me that this bill may have a better than average chance of going somewhere. I’ll be reporting more on this as the week progresses, so stay tuned.

My overall point is that there is a great deal of back story to everything, and you can only know it if you’re in the legislature and other agencies affected by lawmakers, studying what the issues are and what’s happening with them. 

The General Assembly is a complicated place. You can’t just look at what bills pop up on the website and assume you know what’s going on. That’s why it’s important that there are people other than lawmakers inside the building who can fill in the blanks. I try to be one of them. I have many great colleagues at many publications, TV, and radio stations who are doing the same. 

I am writing this as a sort of follow-up piece to the article I referenced earlier written by Colin Campbell. I’m continuing to harp on the issue because it’s important, and there is enough confusion out there as it is that I think a little more clarity is in order. 

School drinking water

An example of a bill that could have the promise of at least getting a hearing is one filed by a bipartisan group of legislators last week. It came out the same day as a study that rated North Carolina as an F when it comes to keeping lead out of school drinking water. 

The bill would make public schools test lead levels in their water. The bill would apply to both traditional public and charter schools and will make its first stop in the House health committee.

Alex Granados

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