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North Carolina Changes Almost Everything

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This is the Choice Media Ed Reform Minute for Monday, July 29.

When was the last time you heard of this happening in the same week: A state gets rid of teacher tenure, launches two voucher programs, and helps increase funding to charter schools?  That was the news last week from North Carolina.  Before we break it down, the political overlay across the story is important.

Back in 2008, North Carolina voters sided with Barack Obama, and against Charlotte mayor and Republican nominee for governor Pat McCrory.  By the time 2012 came along, everything switched, and Republicans won big, meaning the state voted for Mitt Romney against Obama, and this time, said "yes" to the Republican, now Governor McCrory.  Not only did it mean North Carolina would have its first Republican governor since 1988, but it was the first time the GOP controlled both houses of the state legislature literally since the 1800's. So it was an electoral there-for -- Republican Assembly, Senate and Governor's mansion for the first time in over 100 years.

While there are many Democrats who support education reform and school choice, to many, this North Carolina GOP landslide presented a moment in time that lawmakers could seize in breaking the public education one-size-fits-all monopoly. 

Starting with tenure reform.  And this is the first strange part of the North Carolina story.  Rather than passing a standalone bill to eliminate teacher tenure and offer merit pay to excellent teachers, the provisions of what had been the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013 got added to the state budget.  

Terry StoopsTerry Stoops of the John Locke Foundationexplains.

Tenure reform, school grades, performance pay and a few other provisions in there.  And that was all included in the budget.  Yeah, it's a little strange, but really par for the course as far as budgets in North Carolina go.

The tenure reform would eliminate tenure by 2018.  In the interim there will be one, two and four-year contracts granted to teachers based on performance.

There were also two separate voucher plans added to the budget.  One is the means-tested voucher, where kids in families with incomes of no more than 133% of the free and reduced lunch level are eligible.  That means if you're in a family of four making no more than $31,000/year, and you'd rather send your kid to a private school, he or she would be eligible for a voucher of $4,200 to help pay that tuition.  [The overall program is capped at $10 million the first year, but legislators have already said they're ready to raise the cap if there's demand.]

The other voucher plan is a special needs voucher.  It's worth $6,000/year of tuition, and it's not means-tested -- any North Carolina kid with special needs would be eligible.  [This is capped at $3.7 million the first year, and $4.3 million the second year.]

Already, the Empire is looking to strike back.  Local press had carried stories with headlines like "Teachers outraged over proposed NC budget."  Establishment defender Diane Ravitch wrote amicroblog entry titled, "NC: Schools Lose, Corporation$ Win," with the "s" in corporations formed by a dollar sign.  

And today, the state teachers union plans a protest in Raleigh at the state capitol that they're calling "Moral Monday."  They operationally defined "moral" in this context as "it's moral to protect our jobs and give us control, and immoral to give parents other choices for education that don't involve us."

Also, there's this.

I should mention that our NEA affiliate, the North Carolina Association of Educators, has alreadythreatened a lawsuit claiming that our voucher is unconstitutional.  I don't think there's much merit to that threat, or the lawsuit, but that is probably something we'll see very soon here. 

Regular Choice Media readers may know these kinds of anti-school choice lawsuits have sometimes prevailed, at least temporarily, in places like Colorado, Georgia and Louisiana.  

Moving on to the charter school reforms.  These were not part of the budget, but were standalone bills SB337 and HB250, both signed by the governor last week. 

The good news includes progress toward funding parity with district schools.  For example, in the past the regular school districts could artificially reduce the money per student given to charters by carving out certain projects defined as special programs and taking those funds off the balance sheet before the education funds were divvyed up between district and charters.  The new law prevents that.  Also, some districts in the past were taking the dollars for K-12 education, then adding in the pre-K or preschool kid headcount into the denominator to artificially lower the payment to charters.  The new law will stop that too. 

Perhaps the biggest news is automatic year-by-year charter school growth provision.  That means if a school is granted, say, a charter for first through third grades this year, next year it will automatically be allowed to add fourth grade.  And the year after that, fifth grade.

Baker MitchellBaker Mitchell of the North Carolina Alliance for Public Charter Schools is happy with the new law, once called Senate Bill 337.

I think 337 will enhance the charter school front in North Carolina considerably, because it evens the playing field with regard to the funding they get.  So that will allow the charters to add additional programs and beef up their process.

The big disappointment in North Carolina was the failure to include additional charter authorizers, someone besides the state department of education.  There's a new Charter Advisory Council, but it only gives advice to the state department of education.  An earlier version of the charter bill did include a provision for universities to authorize charter schools, but that was dropped. 

Earlier this month, the Center for Education Reform issued a press release critical of the North Carolina reforms for keeping in place the single charter authorizer model.

So why, you might wonder, with a Republican, presumably pro-reform sweep of the state Legislative and Executive Branches, in a state with the temerity to dump tenure and pass two new voucher laws, not also be inclined to pass alternate charter school authorizers.  Baker Mitchell says it has to do with that third branch of government, the Judiciary.  Charter advocates were afraid of a lawsuit, in the form of a constitutional challenge.

The state board of education is actually a creature of the state's constitution, rather than just a statutory creation.  And the constitution explicitly says that the state board of education should administer and supervise all free public schooling. There had been some indication that had the bill been passed with a totally independent charter board that there would be a challenge on the constitutional basis -- that you're going against the constitution and you're depriving the state board of Ed of some of its constitutional power to supervise and administer all free public schools in the state.

Eddie GoodallAnother take on why North Carolina didn't get multiple authorizers comes from the state's other, you might say rival charter school group, the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association.  Eddie Goodall is the Executive Director.

There's many times more the people in the district school sector than charter school sector, so they have a big, big footprint here.  And even though we have the political majority, they still have a lot of influence.  And that part's been disappointing.  We don't want to let up on the pressure, though.  We want to just start again next year and keep trying to get it right.

Finally, one of the bright spots for North Carolina charters and reformers generally: A mostly new, and allegedly "choicier" state board of education.  Eight of the thirteen members are new, and the incoming Chairman, Bill Cobey, is said to be a supporter of education reform.

Today's rally in Raleigh, which I'm calling the "It's Moral to Protect My Job" rally, is one barometer of the considerable education reforms passed last week in the state of North Carolina.  

For the latest in education reform news, check ChoiceMedia.TV.  For free karma points, tell a friend about the Ed Reform Minute podcast.

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