North Carolina General Assembly Week in Review

December 15, 2023

The North Carolina General Assembly was not in session this week, resulting in no legislative activities in Raleigh, though the political landscape continues to shift as candidates for office in North Carolina continue to file for election to state and local office. The candidate filing period ends today, Friday, December 15, at noon. Already, there have been several surprises, as some legislators have announced their retirements, and otherwise unknown candidates for federal office have begun to rack up high profile endorsements.

2023 Session Overview: Education Policy

Since Republicans took control of both chambers of the General Assembly in 2010, education policy has been one of their main focuses for reform. Specifically, there has been a focus on increasing the number of choices available for students and their parents. For example, in 2011, the cap on the number of charter schools that could exist in the state was lifted; since then, 103 new charter schools have opened in North Carolina.

The coronavirus pandemic further stressed the need for reforms to the state’s educational system, as more students opted to move from traditional public schools to private, charter, and home schools. Over the last several legislative sessions, lawmakers have attempted to balance the needs of public schools with the influx of new educational options as well as new advancements in the ways to teach students. Bolstered by a new Republican supermajority in both chambers, immune to a gubernatorial veto, the 2023 long session saw substantial changes to the state’s educational system.

The state budget, enacted in October, made investments in educators and traditional public schools. The budget included base salary raises for teachers, ranging from 3.6% to 10.8% over the next two years. Larger raises will go to beginning teachers. Retired educators will also see a 4% bump in their cost-of-living adjustments and principals will also receive a 4% salary increase. The budget also provided raises to school staff, including $4.8 million in recurring funds to provide a 6% raise for bus drivers.

The state provides additional educational funds to low wealth counties and counties with small populations. The budget did not change the funding formula for low wealth counties, but it did substantially increase funding for small population counties.

Mental health in schools was also a focus of lawmakers, and some significant reforms were made in the budget to increase access to mental health services for students. The school psychologist allotment was modified to include social workers, nurses, and school counselors, meaning more state funds can be spent on these positions. An additional $10 million was allotted to school health. School nurses are no longer required to have a four-year degree and the budget modifies the definition of school counselor and school health personnel.

Lastly, the budget focused on providing more educational options to parents and students. The North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program, which became law in 2013 and essentially acts as a voucher for parents sending their students to private schools, was drastically expanded in the budget. Initially the program was established to provide funds for qualifying low-income households. The 2023 state budget expands eligibility to any family that wants to opt for private education, with voucher amounts ranging from $3,200 to $7,500 per child, depending on family income. Funding for the program increases each year, reaching an estimated $520 million per year by 2032.

In addition to the state budget, various bills were passed that affect public schools or local educational districts. Many of the bills were specific to local jurisdictions and did things like convert local Boards of Education to partisan elections or change district lines, or modify terms of office for members of local Boards of Education. There were several other bills, though, that altered the state’s educational system, including:

HB 142: Protect Our Students Act addresses sexual offenses against students in North Carolina. It classifies all sexual activities with a student and indecent liberties as Class G felonies, expanding the definition of a student to include individuals who were in school within the past six months. The bill also intensifies penalties for failing to report child misconduct, making it a Class I felony for certain school administrators to not report known or suspected misconduct.

HB 166: American Indians Graduating with Honors Act allows American Indian students to wear cultural objects at public school graduation ceremonies.

HB 219: Charter School Omnibus introduces various changes to charter school regulations in North Carolina. The bill removes the impact on local education agencies from the criteria for charter school approvals and renewals, shifting the focus to student subgroup performance for some renewals. Additionally, it eases growth restrictions for charter schools that are not underperforming and allows the State Board of Education to consider expansions greater than 20% for those that are low-performing. The bill allows charter schools to admit out-of-state and foreign exchange students, broadening their student base and includes provisions for early admissions to charter schools for children associated with certain preschools and those of active-duty military personnel. Furthermore, the bill aims to prevent local boards of education from discriminating against charter school students and authorizes counties to use property taxes for funding charter school capital needs, enhancing financial support for these institutions. Democratic Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, saying the state should “continue to cap the enrollment growth of low-performing charter schools until they can show that they improve student achievement.” The legislature voted to override the veto and the bill was enacted into law.

HB 574: Fairness in Women’s Sports Act introduces specific regulations for participation in middle school, high school, and collegiate athletics. The bill prohibits male students from playing on teams designated for females, women, or girls and mandates that a student’s sex for the purposes of athletic participation be determined solely based on reproductive biology and genetics at birth. Additionally, the bill establishes a civil cause of action for students who suffer harm or face retaliation for reporting violations of this bill. Governor Cooper vetoed the bill, saying it inflames “political culture wars.” Lawmakers voted to override the Governor’s veto and the bill was enacted into law.

HB 618: Charter Schools Review Board transfers the authority to approve charter schools from the State Board of Education directly to the Review Board. However, it would also allow for a right of appeal to the State Board of Education, ensuring an additional layer of oversight in the charter school approval process. Governor Roy Cooper vetoed the legislation, calling it a “legislative power grab” that will turn the responsibility of approving charter schools over to “a commission of political friends and extremists appointed by Republican legislators.” The Governor’s veto was overridden and the bill was enacted into law.

SB 49: Parents’ Bill of Rights introduces a comprehensive “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” focusing on the rights of parents in the domains of education, health, privacy, and safety of their children. The Parents’ Bill of Rights mandates that public school units supply parents with detailed information about their involvement in schools, legal rights concerning their child’s education, and resources to aid student achievement. Additionally, the bill requires schools to notify parents about aspects of their child’s physical and mental health and ensures age-appropriate instruction for students in kindergarten through 4th grade. It also establishes mechanisms for parents to address any concerns regarding the implementation of these requirements. Furthermore, the bill stipulates that health care practitioners must obtain written consent from a parent before treating a minor child. Governor Cooper vetoed the bill, calling it a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that “hampers the important and sometimes lifesaving role of educators as trusted advisers when students have nowhere else to turn.” The General Assembly voted to override the Governor’s veto and the bill was enacted into law.

Several bills that affect various facets of the state’s educational system, including healthcare in schools, appointments to boards overseeing education, licensure changes, curriculum, and child abuse did not pass by the time the legislature adjourned in October. However, many of these bills remain eligible for reconsideration when the General Assembly reconvenes for the short session in April of 2024.

Upcoming Legislative Meetings

No legislative business is scheduled for next week.