School Choice Expanding in North Carolina

North Carolina bill would let students attend any public school

School Choice

RALEIGH — A state legislative subcommittee wants North Carolina students to be able to attend any public school in the state, allowing them to cross district lines without having to pay tuition or receive permission from the school system they’re leaving.

A subcommittee of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee sent a draft “open enrollment” bill Wednesday to the full committee.

The proposed legislation would require school districts to set up plans allowing families to request a seat in any school in their home district or in any of the state’s other districts. School districts could deny the request for only a few reasons, with lack of space the principal one.

The bill would allow students who want to transfer to another traditional public school the same right as those who want to attend charter schools. Students may attend any charter school in the state at no cost. For example, if a Wake County student wishes to attend a charter in Durham, Wake County cannot object and must provide its share of the student’s funding to the receiving school in Durham.

Also as with charter schools, the bill would not require districts to provide transportation for families who took advantage of the open enrollment option.

“Districts have become siloed,” said Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Cabarrus County Republican and chairman of the subcommittee. “Charters have become siloed. All we’re trying to do is create a parity between these various institutions to meet the needs of the children and not the institutions.”

‘No idea how’ to manage

Leaders from the traditional public schools are worried about how they could be affected by students leaving or coming into their districts.

“I have no idea how we would manage that,” Wake County school board member Bill Fletcher said at a meeting Monday. “I have no idea how other districts would manage it.

“We’ve got a competent staff that deals with student assignment. I just can’t imagine what would happen if a neighboring district all of a sudden had 1,000 of our kids wanting to go to Franklin County.”

Hartsell said that the bill will be presented to the full committee, which he co-chairs, on Monday. He said it’s too soon to say whether the committee will recommend that the bill go before the General Assembly during the short session that begins May 14.

Similar to ALEC proposal

The draft bill has similar language to one proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a largely private conservative group backed by major corporations. The group proposes model legislation for lawmakers to introduce across the country. Several bills were introduced in the General Assembly last year that matched or were similar to ALEC legislation.

Hartsell said the bill was not inspired by ALEC and that he’s not a member of the group. He said the bill arose from a study of the Douglas County school system in Colorado. The subcommittee was called the Douglas County School District Subcommittee.

A high-profile fight over school reform has drawn national attention to Douglas County, which has ended its contract with the teachers union and switched to merit pay. The county also started a pilot plan to provide vouchers for students to attend private schools that has been stalled by legal challenges.

The North Carolina bill represents the latest effort by Republican lawmakers to expand options for families. A bill passed last year authorizing vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools has been held up by court challenges.

5 out-of-county students pay

The requirement that parents pay tuition and receive permission from the sending district means few North Carolina students attend traditional public schools outside their home communities. In Wake County, the state’s largest school district, only five out-of-county students, all high-school seniors, are paying the $2,597 tuition bill this school year.

According to the Education Commission of the States, 21 states already have a mandatory inter-district open enrollment program. Many of those states put restrictions on who can take advantage of the policy.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the bill will provide more choice, especially to low-income families.

“What we have right now – the status quo – is not working for low-income children,” he said. “The schools they’re zoned to are often bad.”

But Paige Sayles, a Franklin County school board member, said it won’t help the schools that families leave because they perceive them to be low-performing or undesirable.

“It won’t fix the underlying problems,” she said. “It will fragment the systems more,” she said.

Athletic enforcement difficult?

Sayles said that families of special-needs students, who are more expensive to educate, might try to get into districts that offer more services. She also questioned the enforceability of the sections in the bill that say that it “shall not be construed as to allow students to transfer” to another school “for athletic participation reasons in violation of eligibility requirements.”

During the subcommittee meeting, Leanne Winner, the lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, said her members aren’t supportive of the bill.

“I have rarely ever seen a school district that was particularly interested in changing the status quo,” replied Hartsell, who was a school board attorney for 20 years.


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