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N.C. House Gives Initial OK to School Reform Bill

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Facing a deadline next week for the state to apply for up to $400 million in federal grants, the state House gave initial approval Tuesday to legislation sought by Gov. Beverly Perdue laying out options for local education leaders to improve low-performing schools.

The House voted 68-45 in favor of legislation adopting federal guidelines by allowing the State Board of Education to give school districts four ways to retool more than 130 public schools where less than half of the students met expectations in standardized tests two of the past three years.

The biggest change would allow districts to "restart" a typical school by giving it the same flexibility as a charter school without making it independent from the district. Charter schools are exempt from many rules of most public schools and can test innovative learning techniques or focus more on children at risk of failure.

The bill, which could receive final approval Wednesday, wouldn't lift the state's cap of 100 charter schools that's been in place since 1996. Lawmakers have been nervous about raising or eliminating the cap on the traditional charter schools, which also are run by private boards.

The measure instead would offer the ability to create "charter-like" schools, in addition to other methods to help continually low-performing schools. The other three are increasing learning time and improving teacher performance; removing the principal and many teachers; and simply closing the school.

"What this does is give multiple options for reform," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, the bill's chief proponent in the House. "There are more reforms out there than the charter model."

Perdue sought the change by June 1 — that's when her administration has to file an application to seek the second round of "Race to the Top" federal education reform grants. North Carolina finished well out of the money for the first round of applications in March. The state didn't score well when it came to charter schools and other innovative schools.

Several Republican House members criticized the proposal as simply window-dressing to impress the judges in the U.S. Department of Education competition. They said school districts already had the ability to rework schools using the other three options beside the charter-like method. The charter-like schools wouldn't count toward the cap of 100.

"It's a fig leaf," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake. "It's not really reform."

Boosters of charter schools held a news conference to argue the proposal won't do enough to help the state's next Race to the Top application because it doesn't lift the 100-charter cap. The House approved a separate bill last year to raise the cap 106 but it's languished in the Senate ever since.

Darrell Allison, president for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, a pro-charter school group, said while the bill approved Tuesday isn't awful, it fails to get at the root problem that about 18,000 children are on waiting lists for traditional charter schools.

"North Carolina is once again positioning itself to forfeit hundreds of millions of dollars due to its inaction in moving strong on public charter school policy this legislative short session," Allison said.

Perdue said the bill isn't necessary for the application, but it will "strengthen North Carolina's case for making all schools successful and making sure all students receive a quality education," Perdue spokesman Tim Crowley said.

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