News: CJ Exclusives

House Leaders Flummoxed Over Ed Reform Bill

Chamber passed measure 117-0 only to be blocked in Senate

RALEIGH — Two of the state’s most powerful lawmakers are perplexed that their education reform bill passed unanimously in the House but immediately was assigned to the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, a graveyard for legislation.

“We were kind of surprised because of that. It was a 117-0 vote,” said Gregg Sinders, spokesman for Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, one of the primary sponsors of House Bill 587, the School Flexibility Act.

Stam is House speaker pro tem, the second-highest ranking post in the chamber. Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also is a primary sponsor of the bill.

Among other things, the bill would authorize school districts to convert low-performing traditional schools into facilities operated similar to charter schools. It would allow qualified individuals who have professional experience but lack a teacher license to teach at traditional public schools using an “emergency” license while completing the necessary certification to get a full teaching license.

And the bill would require the state Department of Public Instruction to inform school superintendents of budget flexibility they might not know they possess.

“We were disappointed to see it get assigned to Ways and Means. We were hoping it went to Rules, and we could have conversations, and we’re still hopeful those conversations can exist,” Sinders said.

“I think it’s on us now to go across to the Senate and explain what our intentions were,” Sinders said. “But we’re still hopeful that we can move portions of that bill through either provisions in the budget or getting the Senate to move [H.B.] 587.”

Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, referred questions about the bill to committee chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. Apodaca did not return repeated requests for information. Spokesmen in their offices said Ways and Means is where bills are placed that the Senate has no intention of passing.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, did not respond to requests for comment.

During House Education Committee debate April 28, Lambeth said school districts “may make applications to the State Board of Education converting existing schools to charter schools.” The bill states that it “provides local school administrative units with flexibility similar to charter schools with the local board of education maintaining control of the board.”

Joel Medley, director of the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools at DPI, explained how the new schools would be structured.

Medley said current law authorizes a “restart model” to operate “with the same exemptions from statutes and rules as a charter school … or under the management of an educational management organization that has been selected through a rigorous review process.”

Employees of the school would remain employed by the local school district and maintain job protections in place under existing law.

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, did not respond to requests for comment.

Lambeth, who served as chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Education for 18 years, said during that time he noticed “a lot of angst about the flexibility that charter schools had, and [traditional] public schools didn’t seem to have.”

Last session he introduced a bill creating a pilot program allowing school districts to authorize and operate charter schools.

“It was a 50-page bill, it was very complicated, and because it was so complicated it didn’t go anywhere,” Lambeth said after the April 28 committee meeting.

So he and Stam met to retool the measure, responding to local superintendents’ complaints that they need more operational flexibility.

In meeting with school administrators, lawyers, and state educational staff, they discovered that superintendents had more flexibility than they realized. H.B. 587 authorizes a series of regional workshops to bring those areas to light.

“My goal is to simply make it as easy as possible for them, as we’re trying to make the charter school movement easy from a regulatory standpoint, so let’s cut through some of the regulation,” Lambeth said.

Lambeth said restrictive teacher licensing rules erect a barrier to qualified individuals, and handcuff school administrators when hiring. He used as an example a Broadway professional with 20 years of theater experience being barred from teaching high school drama.

“And so what they’re asking for is some flexibility that would allow them to hire for those hard-to-fill positions … especially if the person is qualified, that they can come in and give them that flexibility on some special license” in addition to existing lateral entry opportunities, Lambeth said.

Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, would not comment on the measure.

Lambeth hopes the legislation would calm a “general undercurrent” among traditional public schools that they are unfairly hamstrung by regulations while charter schools have more options.

“Given some history now that the charter schools have, the public schools could learn from some [innovations] the charter schools have actually implemented,” he said.

He believes giving charter schools greater freedom for innovation and creativity created a natural friction with traditional schools.

“The purpose of this bill is to relax some of that tension, and to try to create an environment where the public schools actually welcome the charter schools as an option to be able to ultimately transform public schools as well,” Lambeth said.

Another area addressed by the bill is budgeting. It directs the state workshops to inform school officials of ways to implement “differentiated pay and other initiatives to improve student achievement,” he said.

And while superintendents may be unaware of the flexibility they have to spend portions of their state-allocated money, Lambeth would like to expand that discretion. “I’m a proponent to say let’s give them a pot of money, and let them use it however they want to,” Lambeth said, including teacher allotments, teacher assistants, or some other necessary purpose.

Ultimately, he would like to see “more of a block grant concept, where the state’s willing to invest $8,000 per student, here’s your allocation this year, you get to do with it what you want,” Lambeth said. “They know the needs better than the state.”

At the same time, local school boards and superintendents would assume greater accountability because they are making more decisions, and would not be able to blame the General Assembly for bad policies or unwise spending, he said.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.