N.C. School Choice Takes Small Step Forward

Published November 2, 2009

The movement to allow greater access to educational alternatives and programs by expanding charter schools, providing tax credits for educational expenses, and giving homeschooled students more opportunities to participate in public school sports did not advance this year in North Carolina.

However, says House Republican Leader Paul “Skip” Stam (R-Wake), for the first time in many years some of these proposals made it out of committee, and one had an up-or-down vote on the House floor. It’s a small step for a big concept, but it’s a start.

Access to Sports Blocked

One of the more dramatic proposals was House Bill 1116, “Home Schoolers Participate in School Sports.” HB 1116 would have opened public-school athletics to homeschooled students, though final decisions on access was to remain with the local principals. Currently the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) bars students from playing on teams of any school they don’t attend. Both private- and homeschooled students are shut out of public-school programs, which has led them to develop leagues for nonpublic school students.

Even so, nonpublic school sports are less available in rural than in urban and suburban areas—though the collegiate success of Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, a graduate of homeschooling in Florida, has continued to stoke interest in several states.

Athletic Association Opposed

The NCHSAA has long opposed any broadening of eligibility in this way, however, partly to prevent sports recruiting across school district lines but also because of the documentation load that would inevitably result. NCHSAA officials said the constant checking and reporting of students’ academic status and eligibility is a burden even when the students’ records are filed in the same district as their team. Accessing records from other districts, private schools, or homeschooling parents, they said, would further complicate a thankless task for athletic directors. The bill narrowly lost in the House Education Committee, 16-17, with 23 members absent.

Both Republican and Democratic representatives sponsored the bill, but members of both parties also voted to defeat it.

More Charters? Maybe Later.

House Bill 486, the “Modify Charter School Law,” was sponsored almost entirely by Democrats, including state Reps. Marvin Lucas (D-Cumberland), Larry Bell (D-Sampson), and Douglas Yongue (D-Scotland); Laura Wiley (R-Guilford) also joined the proposal.

This bill would have raised the state’s cap on the number of charter schools from 100 to 106. It passed the House on May 13 with 102 in favor and only six opposed. The Senate never considered the bill, however.

There are deeper undertones in this issue. The federal stimulus package includes a $4 billion “Race to the Top” initiative led by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama, who have indicated states blocking the creation or expansion of charter schools may find money from the program delayed or withheld. North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue (D) has criticized the federal guidelines.

Tax Credit Defeated

Two other bills sought to give tax credits to families whose educational choices save fellow taxpayers money. House Bill 687, “Tax Credits for Children with Disabilities,” sponsored by Stam, Wiley, and state Representative Shirley Randleman (R-Wilkes), would have given a credit of up to $3,000 per semester, or $6,000 per year, to families who educate their special-needs children at home or in a private school.

To be eligible, a student would have had to spend at least two semesters in public schools and have been diagnosed with a learning disability. A student who had always been homeschooled or attended a private school would not qualify. The analysis from the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division said nearly 180,000 North Carolina students have diagnosable learning disabilities. Even discounting the first-year startup costs of the program, taxpayers could potentially save as much as $5 million annually at the state level, with similar savings possible for local school districts. Even so, the House Education Committee divided along party lines and defeated the bill 21-26.

‘Tax Fairness’ Defeated

Finally, Stam, along with state Reps. Danny McComas (R-New Hanover), Ric Killian (R-Mecklenburg), and Jeff Barnhart (R-Cabarrus), introduced a bill to bring “Tax Fairness in Education.” House Bill 335 would have provided a tax credit of $1,250 per semester and $2,500 per year to families who withdraw their children from public schools in favor of a private option. As in HB 687, students already homeschooled or enrolled in private schools would not be able to take part. The official estimate found state and local governments could save as much as $60 million annually under the program, but this measure too was defeated in the education committee on a party-line vote, with 13 Republicans in favor and 16 Democrats opposed.

Stam said these bills should return to the legislative calendar soon. Although the sports access and charter cap bills are likely gone for the remainder of the 2009-2010 session, the tax credit bills—both of which have been introduced before—are revenue-related and may be reintroduced in next year’s short session.

Hal Young ([email protected]) is a contributor to Carolina Journal, published by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, where a previous version of this story appeared. Reprinted with permission.