Education board chairman: ‘Public schools under attack’

Legislators trying to take away local control
By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | May 08, 2013
Artwork by: Kim Perry

Haywood County School officials can’t help but feel nervous about the future of public education as legislators in Raleigh introduce a number of bills to change the system.

Everything from providing vouchers for private school to changing funding to clearing a path for more charter schools to altering the school calendar to requiring measures but providing no funding is in the mix.

“Public schools are under attack,” said Chuck Francis, chairman of Haywood County Board of Education.

A few pieces of legislation could bring positive change to the Haywood County School system but many would do more harm than good, according to local school officials.

Charter schools

Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte said it seemed that legislators who ran on a platform of supporting more local government were trying to take away control from local school systems.

“I’m personally concerned that we have elected officials who ran on a ticket of less government but are creating a whole new division of government for charter schools,” he said.

Republican sponsored Senate Bill 337 proposes creating the NC Public Charter Schools Board to govern charter schools in the state. Charter schools are currently governed by the State Board of Education.

Charter schools are public schools that receive public funding but receive more flexibility with curriculum and other programs. Nolte said he didn’t understand why the traditional public schools aren’t afforded the same options. For example, charter schools have the ability to hire a percentage of teachers without a teaching certificate as long as they are “highly qualified.” Nolte said that option would help the traditional public schools fill specialty positions in foreign languages or for a unique science course.

“If there’s truly something to be gained academically or economically with giving the flexibility associated with charters, we would definitely like to have that same flexibility in public schools,” he said.


Tuition vouchers

House Bill 944 proposes to spend $90 million over the next couple of years to give “scholarships” to families who want to send their child to private school.

Francis, who also serves on the North Carolina School Boards Association, said the association was opposed to the bill. While the $4,200 annual voucher may help some families send their children to private school, he said the amount still wouldn’t be enough for many low-income families.

“My opposition is I feel like its going to widen gap between the haves and the have nots,” he said. “Families with the ability will go to alternative schools and others won’t be able to.”

Francis also has a problem with taxpayers’ dollars going into the private sector.

Superintendent Dr. Anne Garrett pointed out that the scholarship money would not come back with the student if that student chooses to return to public school half way through the year.

Public Schools First NC, a group of citizens, parents, teachers, businesses and organizations advocating for a first-rate public education system, also voiced opposition to the bill, stating that vouchers don’t work.

“What many people don’t realize is that vouchers are an effort to educate our kids on the cheap,” said Nick Rhodes, PSFNC board member. “Currently North Carolina spends only about $8,400 per child to educate students in the public schools, which ranks us 48th nationally in terms of per pupil spending. Now the proponents of this bill are saying our kids can be educated for half that amount. Why don’t our kids deserve a high quality education?”


Teacher tenure

Sponsors of S361, The Excellent Public Schools Act, say the bill would strengthen student literacy, improve graduation rates, increase accountability in the classroom, reward effective teachers and give parents tools to make better informed decisions about their children’s education. It would also eliminate teacher tenure.

Some legislation proposes to phase out tenure over five years while other bills would eliminate it immediately. Nolte said stopping tenure for new teachers would be fine, but eliminating it immediately would probably spur lawsuits from tenured teachers “because you’d be taking it away from someone who’s already earned it.”

Nolte said the state set up a system years ago under the Teacher’s Tenure Act that allowed teachers to earn tenure status by making it through a probationary four years and completing certain requirements. Like college degrees, he said tenure was a property right that couldn’t be taken away from you.

“I’m concerned more about the economic situation were in and spending money frivolously,” he said. “I don’t want to take a property right away from people and fight lawsuits.”

Garrett said tenure meant that a teacher was entitled to keep their job unless he or she conducts an act of gross negligence, is insubordinate or can no longer perform his or her job duty. Tenured teachers also are entitled to due process, meaning they receive a hearing before they can be terminated by administration.


Home schoolers in sports

H228 would allow homeschool and charter school students to participate in the public school’s extracurricular and interscholastic sports. The principal of the local school would make the final decision whether to allow a homeschool student to participate.

“I’m concerned some schools will take very good athletes so they can win and other students will get bumped off because someone in homeschool is participating,” Nolte said.


Outlandish bills

Francis said about 28 bills have been introduced to change the school calendar.

S595 would mandate schools start after Labor Day and end the last Friday before Memorial Day. Those requirements would be nearly impossible for mountain communities because of winter weather.

“If we have a normal winter we will go late next year — the second week in June,” Nolte said. “It doesn’t seem important now, but it will be then.”

The Back to Basics Act introduced would require all schools to teach cursive and have students memorize the multiplication tables. Garrett said Haywood County chooses to still teach cursive because teachers believe in the practice.

“But that (bill) is getting very involved in local education,” she said. “Those decisions should be left to educators.”

S236 would allow counties to assume responsibility for construction, improvement, ownership and acquisition of public school property. Francis said this was the result of a feud occurring between county government and public schools in Wake County. “Our county is not in favor of it because they’ve got enough on their plate and we feel we’re doing an adequate job,” he said.


School supported bills

In light of the Sandy Hook incident, Garrett said the 2013 School Safety Act initially included funding for more school resource officers and counselors in elementary schools, but it was later pulled.

Garrett said Haywood schools already practice many of the provisions the legislature is trying to put in place, including lockdown drills and more staff development training. The Governor’s Crime Commission came to Haywood for two days this week to conduct safety training with Haywood administrators and teachers.

School administrators and the School Boards Association also support S374, named the “NC Public Schools Budget Flexibility Act.” It would eliminate limits of class sizes in North Carolina Schools. While they are not necessarily in favor of larger classrooms, Francis said the association supports maintaining local control over class sizes based on local needs.

Garrett said the bill would give the local system more flexibility at the beginning and middle of the school year instead of having to completely reorganize classrooms to meet state standards to accommodate incoming students.


The status of these bills can be found at Bills have to crossover over to the other chamber by May 16 to have a chance of passing.