Politics & Government

NC House passes several education-reform bills. See what could change in public schools.

North & South Carolina schools get a C-

As controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos settles into her new job, she's overseeing education in a nation where school performance has stagnated.
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As controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos settles into her new job, she's overseeing education in a nation where school performance has stagnated.

The state House overwhelmingly approved four education-reform bills on Wednesday that affect everything from school calendars to how North Carolina’s public schools are graded.

Three of the bills impact the way schools are held accountable under the state’s A-F school performance grading system. One bill challenges the state’s tourism industry by allowing schools to start the school year earlier in August.

The bills approved were backed by education groups. It’s unclear, though, whether the Senate will act on any of the bills, which were approved in the past by the House as well.

Changing how schools are graded

North Carolina’s public schools are currently given A-F letter grades based primarily on how well they perform on tests. State test scores account for 80 percent of the grade, with 20 percent based on how much growth students are showing on the tests.

Supporters say the A-F grades make it easier for parents to see how schools are performing. Critics say the system is flawed and primarily shows that high-poverty schools do much worse than more affluent schools.

Three school performance bills were passed by the House:

House Bill 266 would give schools two letter grades — one for achievement and one for growth.. They currently get one grade that counts both.

House Bill 354 would change the weight given to the school grades to 50 percent achievement and 50 percent growth.

House Bill 362 would make permanent the 15-point scale now used for setting school performance grades. Some television news stations had incorrectly reported that the bill changes student letter grades. No, these grades are for schools, not individual students.

“It is very important that we capture what’s actually taking place in in our schools with our performance grading system,” said Rep. Dennis Riddell, an Alamance County Republican. “The growth component is grossly understated right now and underweighted.”

All three bills can’t become law because elements of each contradict each other. House members have said they want to give the Senate different options to choose from.

Challenging the school calendar law

Since 2005, most North Carolina public schools have been required to start the school year in late August. The change was pushed by the tourism industry and some parents who complained that summers were getting shorter due to school districts starting classes in early August.

Under House Bill 79 passed Wednesday, any school district would be able to start earlier to match the calendar used by its local community college. This would typically mean starting in mid-August as opposed to the Monday closest to Aug. 26, which is now the law.

Supporters say that the bill will make it easier for high school students to take courses at community colleges. They say that it will also improve academics by allowing high school students to take fall semester final exams before winter break.

“What we can provide is the impact that a longer summer has on summer learning loss for kids in the lower socio-economic strata,” said Rep. Harry Warren, a Rowan County Republican.

But critics said the bill could have disastrous consequences on the tourism industry.

“Think about an industry in your county that you’re cutting off 10 percent,” said Rep. Frank Iler, a Republican from Brunswick County, on the N.C. coast. “That costs jobs and everything else.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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