A legislative committee met briefly Tuesday to endorse a handful of education proposals, but a meatier discussion will take place Thursday when Republicans gather behind closed doors to talk about an education agenda for the upcoming session.
House and Senate Republicans have a six-hour session scheduled for Kannapolis and have invited education experts to speak. Included on the speakers list are Mary Laura Bragg of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh and Julia Freeland of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation in California.
Education is a major state issue and is the subject of intense debate every year. The legislature has had at least two committees hearing presentations and working on draft legislation this fall and winter.
The committees have put forth suggestions for new laws on topics such as health insurance coverage for retired teachers who return to work, and waivers to the state school calendar law for local districts citing specific educational needs.
Republican legislators said the idea for a joint Republican caucus meeting sprung from Senate leader Phil Berger and presumptive House Speaker Tim Moore.
Moore said the meeting will give House members and senators the chance to hear from experts and “see where the two bodies agree” on education.
It is appropriate for education discussions to be held in private as well as in public, Moore said.
“These are just the internal policy discussions that have occurred for years and years,” he said, and no agenda will advance “until and unless a bill is filed.”
In an email, a spokeswoman for Berger said caucuses are not subject to the state open meetings law, which requires all official meetings of public bodies be open to the public. “No official action or public business can take place in caucus meetings,” she wrote.
Jane Pinsky, director of the N.C. Coalition for Government Reform – a group that promotes government transparency – said she understands why Republicans would want to meet privately if they intend to talk about strategy.
But if the meeting is informational, “then they benefit from inviting the public,” she said. “If you really want citizens to think you are operating on their behalf, you should be as open as possible.”
The Hunt Institute is sponsoring an invitation-only education retreat for legislators, as it has in past years. Legislators of both parties are invited to that event, which will be held over two days next week.
Judith Rizzo, Hunt Institute executive director, said legislators don’t make any decisions while there, and setting the retreat outside the public eye allows for “a safe environment where they can probe and ask questions.”
Pinsky said the Hunt Institute, as a “quasi-government” agency, “may need to operate almost to a higher standard” for openness. The institute, named for former Gov. Jim Hunt, is affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill.
The Republicans’ meeting will include policy and political discussions, Moore said, and political discussions are not appropriate for official legislative meetings.
Moore said that the Republican legislature “did a lot for education last session” but that the public got a different take from some media reports and political ads.
“We as Republicans need to make sure we are messaging properly,” he said.
Jonathan Jones, director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, said the political discussion could be held separately to “allow the public to hear what sounds like a very important discussion about education policy in our state.” The coalition, based at Elon University, is made up of media, government, and public interest groups interested in government transparency. The News & Observer is a member.
The meeting “might not qualify as a public body under the open meetings law,” Jones said. “Even if it clearly doesn’t qualify as a public body, then there’s still no reason to exclude the public from that discussion, especially when you’re dealing with education.”