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NC bill would let students attend any public school

By T. Keung Hui
khui@newsobserver.com
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MLewis - N&O file photo
State Sen. Fletcher Hartsell

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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 Mecklenburg County student wishes to attend a charter in Iredell County, Mecklenburg County cannot object and must provide its share of the student’s funding to the receiving school in Iredell County.

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.”

‘Easier said than done’

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

Bill Anderson heads the nonprofit advocate MeckEd, which works closely with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He recalls when CMS tried to implement public school choice in the fall of 2002.

“It failed miserably,” Anderson said. “It is easier said than done.”

Adding to existing student capacity and food service represent initial hurdles, he said. But whether preference is given to students who live nearby – and where to put students at overcrowded schools – are other elements to consider, Anderson said.

“Can (a school) stop enrollment? If it’s designed for 1,500 students and 3,000 apply, who gets in?” he said.

Hartsell said 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.

Option in 21 states

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.

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

Tim Morgan, vice chairman of the CMS school board, said if the draft bill protects schools that are already at capacity or overcrowded, he believes CMS will feel a minimal impact.

But he questions what would happen to a high school student from another county who is attending a CMS school when it reaches capacity. “Do they get sent back because we have to serve the Mecklenburg County students that are there?” he said.

Morgan also has concerns about unintended funding repercussions, particularly if students from counties with lower funding levels travel to districts previously operating with larger budgets. Observer staff writer Hilary Trenda contributed.

Hui: 919-829-4534
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