Raleigh, N.C. — Skeptical state lawmakers on Monday put the brakes on draft legislation that would allow North Carolina families to choose to send their children to any public school statewide.
The move by the Joint Program Evaluation Oversight Committee doesn't kill the school choice effort but makes it less likely to come up during the short session of the General Assembly, which starts next week.
The bill, authored by Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, would have allowed students to enroll in the school of their choice, either in their home districts or in other districts, beginning in the 2015-16 school year.
State and local per-pupil funding would follow the student to his or her choice of school, even across district lines.
Carol Shaw of the legislature's Program Evaluation Division said districts could still deny a student from getting his or her choice in schools for reasons such as overcrowding or previous disciplinary issues. Also, students wouldn't be allowed to switch schools to get on a different athletic team, per North Carolina High School Athletic Association guidelines, she said.
"It's not a guarantee that they would have the option to apply to go to any school," Shaw said, but districts would be required to draw up policies for handling school choice applications.
Still, Reps. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, and Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, expressed reservations about opening up enrollment across their districts – let alone across the state.
"This bill, I think we may need to spend a little more time discussing," Holloway said, noting lawmakers probably need to talk to their local school superintendents about the logistics of a school choice program.
"I think it would just throw school systems into utter chaos. Especially if you have school systems where you have schools that are full and they can’t hold any more children," Starnes told WRAL News.
"You’re going to have students competing for a very limited number of seats, and the parents want to put their children into the best school, and so if they perceive that their school is not a good school, then they’re going to move it over," Starnes said. "I just don’t know how you’d ever manage that."
Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, said he was also concerned that the proposal would only encourage, not require, districts to provide bus transportation for students choosing to go to a school other than the one to which they're assigned. That might preclude students of "meager means" from participating in a choice program, he said.
The North Carolina Association of School Administrators also is skeptical of the bill, noting students moving across district lines might affect funding disparities between districts, given that counties provide different levels of local support – both operational costs and school construction funds.
The Wake County Public School System tried school choice briefly in 2012. The short-lived experiment resulted in a chaotic enrollment process and busing problems that lasted for weeks.
Starnes said when he read about the proposal, he could tell it would be a problem in his Caldwell County district. “I wouldn't even want to think about what would happen in Wake County,” he added.