by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
On Monday evening, the N.C. Senate failed to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s Friday news dump veto of Senate Bill 37: In-Person Learning Choice for Families. Cooper’s veto came nearly two weeks after passage of the legislation that would expand in-person instructional options for families.
Senate Bill 37 is a reasonable measure designed to balance the needs of school districts with the demand for in-person instruction among students and parents. The bill would require all school districts to offer parents the choice of in-person, remote, or hybrid instruction consistent with NC Department of Health and Human Services’ requirements published last month. The bill has four main components. Special-needs students would be allowed to return to school under Plan A, which requires minimal social distancing. Districts could offer Plan A or the more restrictive Plan B to all other students. The bill would allow school boards to shift to remote instruction if staffing levels or infection rates make it necessary. It also would permit boards to grant alternative work assignments or work modifications to teachers and staff at high risk from COVID-19.
The legislation passed with bipartisan support. Three Democratic senators and eight Democratic representatives joined their Republican colleagues to pass the bill. Democratic Sens. Ben Clark, Kirk deViere, and Paul Lowe and Reps. Cecil Brockman, Terry Garrison, Charles Graham, Joe John, Graig Meyer, William Richardson, Shelly Willingham, and Michael Wray became the focus of intense lobbying efforts on both sides of the issue. Overriding a veto requires a 3/5ths majority of present and voting members. Republicans needed the support of two Democrats in the Senate to override Gov. Cooper’s veto of Senate Bill 37. Sen. Lowe changed his vote and Sen. Clark was a no-show. Sen. deViere’s support was not enough, and the veto override failed by a vote of 29 to 20.
This weekend, the John Locke Foundation commissioned a flash poll of 600 likely North Carolina voters. The results reflected widespread support for Senate Bill 37. Overall, 59% supported the legislation, and 28% opposed it. Moreover, pluralities opposed Gov. Cooper’s veto of the bill (49.1%) and would support overriding the veto (48.8%).
The poll also included questions about instructional preferences, Gov. Cooper’s handling of school reopening, and the role of parental choice. Only 18% of respondents believed that schools should be closed or providing only virtual instruction. Nearly 30% supported partial reopening for in-person instruction, and over 48% would like to see schools completely reopened for in-person instruction.
A plurality of respondents did not support Gov. Cooper’s handling of school reopening. Those who disapproved outnumbered those who approved by a margin of 46.7% to 43.3%. A significantly higher percentage of North Carolinians strongly disapproved (37.1%) than strongly approved (27.3%) of Cooper’s reopening strategy. This split is similar to the January 2021 poll that found plurality opposition to Cooper’s handling of school reopening (33.8% strongly disapproved vs. 22.2% strongly approved).
Finally, nearly three out of four respondents believe that the child’s parents or guardians are best suited to decide whether a child should attend in-person or virtual school. Overall, 74.3% would give decision-making authority to parents or guardians. Only 16.6% percent believed that local school boards should make student attendance decisions.
This week, the State Board of Education will hear a testing and accountability presentation by Catherine Edmonds and Tammy Howard of the NC Department of Public Instruction. Edmonds and Howard will present data on the fall administration of NC Math 1, NC Math 3, English II, and biology end-of-course tests, and the Beginning-of-Grade 3 Reading Test. These test scores should be interpreted with caution because they represent only a snapshot of the overall state testing results that state education officials will release later this year. Despite these shortcomings, policymakers should take these student proficiency rates very seriously.
Compared with test scores from the fall semester of 2019–20, students performed significantly worse on most end-of-course tests administered this school year. The percentage of high school students who failed to reach proficiency in biology increased from 42.1% last year to 54.5% this year. Additionally, a significantly higher percentage of students were not proficient in NC Math 1 and NC Math 3 this year. English II proficiency remained similar from last school year to the current one. Proficiency declines in biology and math crossed racial/ethnic and socioeconomic categories and regions.
The Beginning-of-Grade 3 Reading Test offered equally worrisome results. For example, the percentage of students scoring at the lowest achievement level (Level 1) increased from 49.8% to 58.2%. This year, only around one in four students earned a score that placed them at grade level (Level 3 and above). As with the English II results, students’ overall performance on the Beginning-of-Grade 3 Reading Test was similar to the previous year’s. As a state, we may find that students will need minimal help in reading and extensive remediation in math and science.
Senate Democrats had an opportunity to improve the well-being of North Carolina children by overriding Gov. Cooper’s politically motivated veto of Senate Bill 37. Instead, they pledged unwavering allegiance to the North Carolina Democratic Party, the N.C. Association of Educators, and the advocacy groups that ignore the overwhelming support for in-person instruction and the mounting academic and social/emotional needs of public school students.