July surprise: GOP lawmakers unveil sweeping bill to remake public education in NC
Abruptly scheduled public hearing, however, is postponed till next week
North Carolina General Assembly (Photo: Clayton Henkel)
In a sudden and extraordinary flex of political power, Republican legislators unveiled an expansive education bill Tuesday night that would dramatically overhaul and greatly disrupt the way public schools operate in North Carolina, and likely alter forever the state’s approach to K-12 education.
The bill, a “committee substitute” to Senate Bill 90, contains many ideas that have long been championed by the political right, both in North Carolina and across the nation, but seldom have been enacted into law.
Building on a theme that Republicans have emphasized throughout the 2023 legislative session — including in the recently vetoed “Parents Bill of Rights” — the bill seeks to clarify and reinforce the rights of parents to raise their children in a manner that they see fit. Among other sweeping changes, the measure also would expand “school choice” by further empowering charter schools, and restrict what students in early grades can be taught about sex education.
Media reports about SB 90 sent shockwaves throughout the state’s K-12 community.
“I want y’all to understand how wild this is and how unstable it will make school districts,” NC Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly tweeted Wednesday.”
Wake County parent Renee Sekel, a prolific critic of the Republican-led legislature’s conservative education agenda, tweeted that SB 90 eliminates book fairs because it requires “prior review” of all books sold.
“Reading the gut-and-amend version of S90, and it’s cartoonishly bad. I’ll do a thorough thread later, but some things I’ve noticed off the bat: functionally eliminates the book fair by requiring a prior review of all books to be sold,” Sekel said.
SB 90 was originally titled “An Act to Standardize the Procedures for Searching Students in Public School Units.” It spelled out the rules administrators must follow while searching students suspected of violating school rules or policy.
The House Education Committee was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed legislation Wednesday afternoon, but it was pulled from the calendar after committee co-chair John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, said lawmakers needed more time to read and understand the bill, WRAL News reported.
- Establish a right for parents to appeal to Superior Court if they believe school officials have violated their fundamental right to raise their children as they choose; parents can win damages of at least $5,000 and attorney fees.
- Allow county school superintendents to be fired or lose pay after five successful claims that the superintendent violated the fundamental right to parent.
- Require parents to give consent to participation in a student well-being questionnaire or health screening form.
- Require licensed school personnel to inform parents if they believe the child is at imminent risk of suicide or is self-identifying as a gender different from the student’s biological sex.
- Clarify that referring to and raising a someone under 18 in a manner consistent with the child’s biological sex, including related mental health or medical decisions, would not by itself be considered abuse or neglect.
- Forbid districts from teaching fourth and fifth grades about gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality. Students would be taught about puberty and how the male and female reproductive systems work. The bill allows parent to opt in to those lessons.
- Clarify that charter schools are not governmental bodies subject to certain confirmations related to the Teachers’ and State Employees’ Retirement System.
- Establish the Standard Course of Study Advisory Commission to make recommendations to the State Board of Education regarding the standards and competencies of the courses of study. Twelve members of the 19-member panel would be appointed by the General Assembly.
- Create an exception to library record confidentiality to allow parents to access the library records of their child. It would also require public libraries to keep material deemed harmful to minors in an age-restricted portion of the library. Public libraries could lend books to minors only with written prior consent of the minor’s parents, which could be demonstrated by consent to receive a minor’s library card.
The provision providing for the easy removal of superintendents provoked the most alarm in public education circles. Stuart Egan, a veteran Forsyth County public school teacher and popular education commentator who writes at the website Caffeinated Rage, called the idea an “Orwellian construct to allow the loudest, most easily irritated people to have so much political power that they can literally shut down a public school system….”
If the bill were to pass in its present form and make it to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk, it is almost certain to be vetoed. If Republicans unify around the proposal, however, it would likely become law — subject to any court challenges — because the GOP controls both chambers and has the votes to override the Democratic governor’s veto.
Veto override vote delayed
In other business Wednesday, a scheduled override vote on Cooper’s veto of House Bill 618 stripping the State Board of Education of most charter school oversight responsibility was withdrawn.
As Newsline has previously reported, the review board would replace the Charter School Advisory Board, which makes recommendation to the state board for new charters, terminations and renewals.
The state board currently gives final approval for new charters, terminations and renewals. It would retain accountability, appellate review, as well as funding and rulemaking responsibilities if HB 618 becomes law.
Democrats contend that the current system works well. They argue that the state constitution gives the state board the oversight authority for public schools, including charter schools.
Meanwhile, bill sponsor Rep. Tricia Cotham (R-Mecklenburg) and other HB 618 supporters contend the change will make the charter application process more efficient and cost effective.
SBE Chairman Eric Davis expressed concern about the bill in a recent letter to lawmakers.
“The SBE is uniquely positioned to weigh the issues for all NC student within charter request,” Davis wrote.
Davis said the current process “clearly shows that quality charter school proposals with the recommendation of CSAB and the background provided by the [NC Department of Public Instruction] DPI’s Office of Charter Schools, are receiving a fair review.”
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