by Greg Childress, NC Newsline
Two of the more controversial K-12 education bills to make it through the state House and Senate before the General Assembly’s May 4 crossover deadline have relatively innocuous names.
“Choose Your School, Choose Your Future” (Senate Bill 406) and the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” (House Bill 574) both appear to promote concepts that, at first blush, most people would find unobjectionable.
A closer look, however, reveals a pair of intensely controversial proposals.
SB 406, which would expand the state’s school voucher program to include all families regardless of income, and HB 574 banning transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports in middle school, high school and college, have attracted strong opposition among of Democrats and robust Republican support.
The legislation has helped drive the two parties further apart on K-12 education issues.
Democrats fear the passage of the two bills and a handful of others backed by the political right will push North Carolina closer to having a radically altered and privatized education system.
Meanwhile, Republicans see the school voucher program as another tool to give parents access to educational opportunities they believe best fit their children. And they see the bill banning transgender students from competing in girls’ and women’s athletics as a necessary step to protect the integrity of sports competition.
Many of the GOP-backed bills have been introduced before. In past years, however, Republicans didn’t have the votes to overcome a gubernatorial veto. This year, thanks to Rep. Tricia Cotham’s stunning mid-session switch from the Democratic Party to the GOP, Republicans now have veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat, said the GOP-backed legislation to expand school vouchers is evidence of the state’s disturbing erosion of support for public schools — a phenomenon that she contends began when Republicans gained control of the General Assembly 12 years ago.
“I feel like this session is just a culmination of all the things they’ve (Republicans) have been wanting to do over the past decade,” von Haefen recently told Newsline.
Meanwhile, Cotham recently took to the conservative National Review to make the case for opening up the so-called “Opportunity Scholarship Program” to the state’s wealthiest families. The school voucher program was created more than a decade ago for the stated purpose of helping low-income families stuck in low-performing schools escape to private schools.
“Families that have decided that their local public school isn’t the best fit for their children will have access to funds to help with nonpublic-school tuition, and they also will be able to use the money for transportation, books, and other school supplies,” Cotham wrote.
School voucher critics complain that the private schools that receive taxpayer money engage in religious indoctrination and exclusion, discriminate against LGBTQ students and parents, and are not held accountable for academic outcomes the way charter schools and traditional public school are.
Vouchers also divert money and other resources from already underfunded public schools, the critics contend. Annual spending on private school vouchers would steadily increase until it reaches $500 million by the 2031-32 school year, under the proposed legislation.
“Most North Carolinians, whether they live in urban, suburban or rural counties, want public schools that are fully equipped with the resources to provide a quality education and the skills all students need to thrive,” North Carolina Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly said in a recent statement. “The proposal to remove restrictions for who can access private school vouchers will increase public funds going into the hands of schools that don’t have to adhere to the same standards set by the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) and can select the students they want to enroll.”
Targeting transgender athletes
HB 574 and its Senate companion Senate Bill 636 have also triggered robust debate in both chambers. Republicans generally support the legislation banning transgender athletes from participating in girls’ and women’s sports in middle school, high school and college while Democrats oppose them.
The legislation was a discussion topic among State Board of Education members last week. NCDPI leaders are in the process of rewriting eligibility rules for middle school and high school athletics and are weighing several policy options as they wait to see how the bills banning transgender athletes from women’s sports shake out.
Currently, transgender athletes can appeal to participate in sports when their gender identity is different from the gender listed on their birth certificate. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said there has been about 17 appeals. Only one was denied, she said.
Truitt has often expressed concerns about allowing transgender athletes to compete in women’s sports citing her experience as the mother of two female athletes. She wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona opposing a proposed federal Title IX regulation banning school policies that prohibit transgender students from participating on sports teams that align with their gender identity.
“This proposed rule robs female athletes of those very opportunities Title IX is supposed to protect as this reconstructed mandate reduces her odds for a podium finish,” Truitt wrote.
Truitt cited medical studies that show an average 10% to 12% performance gap between elite males and elite females. She said testosterone affects muscle size strength and heart size and that its production is “fundamental to the discrepancies in athletic performance typical of men and women.”
Truitt complained to state board colleagues last week that the federal guidance is contradictory.
“It does not provide clarity; it tells districts that they cannot categorically ban something but then on the other hand tells them that they must look at these instances on a case-by-case basis and that is incredibly contradictory, and so we’re putting our district leaders in a bad situation,” Truitt said.
Opponents of such legislation like veteran women’s sports journalist Nancy Colasurdo say supporters — Republicans in the U.S. House have advanced a similar bill — have cherry-picked statistics to create a paternalistic solution to an illusory problem, while ignoring the longstanding inequity in funding for girls’ and women’s sports.
Leah Carper, the 2022 Teacher of the Year and state board adviser, said that she’s often asked if decisions about allowing transgender athletes to compete on teams that align with their gender identity is best left to districts.
Carper believes there must be statewide rules governing transgender athletes.
“It has to be consistent from district-to-district to protect our school leaders and district leaders from getting sued,” Carper said.
The tip of a big iceberg
More than 70 K-12 education bills made the May 4 crossover deadline and that doesn’t include those with a budgetary component or those that deal with fees.
“There are some bills we will probably see in the Senate budget … so that does not mean that there’s just 70 bills that we’re tracking,” Jamey Falkenbury, director of government affairs for the state board and NCDPI, told the board last week. “We’re tracking probably close to 150 bills out there.”
Six K-12 bills have already become law, including House Bill 11, which wrested oversight from the state board and created a new board of trustees to oversee the Governor Morehead School for the Blind and the North Carolina School for the Deaf.
HB 11 became law without Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature.
“This bill unconstitutionally attacks the State Board of Education by putting partisan political appointees of the legislature in charge of our NC schools for the deaf and blind, and I will not sign it. In addition Republican legislators have put forth other proposals that encourage politics to interfere with public school curriculums, and I urge them to stop these efforts that lead to controversial book bans, rewriting history, erasing science and other obstacles to student learning,” Cooper said
For Democrats and Republicans, there’s a lot at stake in Raleigh this year. SB 406, HB 574 and several other K-12 bills have the potential to change the state’s public system of education for generations of students.
In addition to the bills to expand the school voucher program, several bills would increase charter school enrollment and to change the way they are governed.
House Bill 618, a Cotham-sponsored bill, would create a new Charter School Review Board to replace the Charter School Advisory Board. The new board would take on oversight duties currently held by the state board, such as approving new charter schools, renewing charters and revoking them.
And House Bill 219, is a Charter School Omnibus bill that would allow low-performing charters to increase enrollment and enroll out-of-state students. It would also prohibit the State Board from considering impact statements from local districts when deciding whether to grant a new charter or renew, amend, or terminate an existing one and require local per pupil spending to be the same for charters as traditional public schools.
One issue notably absent from most discussions at the General Assembly thus far in 2023: funding for the Leandro comprehensive school improvement plan that lawmakers remain under a state court order to fund. While Gov. Cooper included funding for the plan in his budget proposal, GOP legislative leaders continue to insist that state courts lack the power to require such an appropriation.
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