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Calendar flexibility would allow Aug. 17 school start

RALEIGH — The House Select Committee on COVID-19 Education working group has approved an education omnibus bill providing regulatory relief and support for North Carolina’s K-12 and higher education systems.

Committee members unanimously signed off on a variety of waivers for state tests, teacher licensure, K-3 class size reductions, and education program requirements. The omnibus bill includes school calendar flexibility, which would allow schools to start as early as Aug. 17.

All of the provisions are temporary and apply only to the 2020-21 school year, co-chair Rep. John Fraley, R-Iredell, said.

The calendar flexibility and summer jump-start program are still in the works, Fraley said, and will require some persuading to get the Senate on board.

The working group co-chairs will meet with the Senate in the next few days to work out differences and agree on the omnibus bill, Fraley said. The bill will be filed once the short session convenes Tuesday, April 28.

“In the past, the House has been much more willing than the Senate to consider changes to North Carolina’s restrictive school calendar statute,” said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “I suspect that the Aug. 17 start date provision in the draft omnibus legislation may have limited support in the Senate.”

The working group’s job isn’t done, the Iredell lawmaker said.

More legislative action will depend on new information about COVID-19 from Gov. Roy Cooper and the federal government.

State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis shared a $380 million budget request to help the K-12 public school system weather COVID-19.

The challenge North Carolina’s education system faces is akin to the Great Depression. Financial help from the General Assembly would make a difference, Davis said.

Money is needed to support the child nutrition service, school support services, remote teaching and learning, exceptional children, the summer jump start program, residential schools, and cybersecurity.

The Department of Public Instruction will need to hire an internal auditor to make sure relief money is going to the right places, Davis said.

The State Board of Education approved the budget request earlier in the day during a remote meeting.

“We are moving from a reactive phase to a proactive phase to ensure we return strong to school in the fall,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said during the SBE meeting.

The education working group won’t approve an appropriations bill, but the chairs will take the budget requests to leadership for further discussion.

The policy changes will probably see more agreement between the chambers than the budget requests, Stoops said.

“Waiving rules and regulations is easy,” Stoops said. “Deciding how to spend money is not.”

Cooper will make an announcement Friday, April 24, about K-12 schools. The governor closed all public schools until May 15, but he may well follow other states in keeping schools closed longer.