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NC committee tables bill that would allow students to attend any public school

By T. Keung Hui
khui@newsobserver.com

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RALEIGH A state legislative committee put on hold Monday a bill that would let North Carolina students attend any public school in the state, a proposal that critics said would cause chaos for school systems.

Members of the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee voted to postpone the bill, saying more study is needed, but sent forward three other bills that would expand opportunities for families at nontraditional schools. Supporters of the open enrollment bill said it would provide families more choices, but opponents cited concerns about school districts’ abilities to fulfill the bill’s provisions.

“I just think there are some questions that need to be answered,” said Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Stokes County Republican who introduced the motion to postpone the bill. “Members may need more time to talk to local superintendents.”

The bill isn’t officially dead because it’s supposed to get additional review. Several committee members said it’s unlikely the bill would be referred to the General Assembly during this year’s session.

The bill 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 being the main one.

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

Following Colorado’s lead

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a committee co-chair who wasn’t at Monday’s meeting, has said the bill was not inspired by ALEC. He said the bill arose from a study of the Douglas County school system in Colorado.

The bills that are still going forward would:

• Restore the ability of local school boards and individual schools in the University of North Carolina system to give preliminary approval to charter-school applicants. Final approval would remain with the N.C. State Board of Education. Hartsell is the attorney for a group whose online charter school was initially approved by the Cabarrus County school board but rejected by the state.

• Establish a process for charter-school applicants to appeal when they are rejected.

• Set aside $2.6 million to allow private-school and home-schooled students to take up to two free online courses a year from the N.C. Virtual Public School.

‘Utter chaos’ predicted

Legislative staff said the open enrollment bill was modeled after Colorado’s statewide school choice program. According to the Education Commission of the States, 21 states already have a mandatory interdistrict open enrollment program.

Relatively few North Carolina students cross district lines to attend other traditional public schools because they need the permission of the sending district and typically pay tuition to the receiving district.

Rep. Edgar Starnes, the Republican Majority Leader from Caldwell County, said the bill would have caused “utter chaos” for school systems.

“It would have made it very difficult for school boards to manage the populations of their districts,’ he said.

Rep. Marvin Lucas, a Cumberland County Democrat, said the bill would have shut out low-income families because school districts weren’t required to provide bus service to students who participated in the program.

“It would have widened the chasm between affluent schools and poor schools,” he said.

Hui: 919-829-4534
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