RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – An unexpected move by Republicans in the North Carolina House to gut a Senate bill and replace it with controversial language about public schools took another unexpected twist when the bill disappeared from the calendar just before a scheduled committee hearing on Wednesday.

With the biennial state budget held up in “very high level” discussions by leaders of the General Assembly, some elements about public education in each chamber’s proposals were inserted into Senate Bill 90 and scheduled for a late-afternoon hearing in the House Education K-12 Committee.

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But just about the time the House gaveled into a voting session, SB 90 was withdrawn without explanation. What happens with it next is unclear.

Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), the chair of the committee, told The News & Observer in Raleigh that members “had not had the adequate time to kind of review and see what impact it does. We’re gonna come back on it, we’re in no big hurry.”

State Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Randolph), the House minority leader. (WGHP)

Before Wednesday morning, SB 90 was a two-paragraph measure about student searches that unanimously passed the Senate on March 28. By midday, when Democrats were gathering in front of microphones to protest the absence of a final budget, it had morphed into significant policy changes for public schools that could allow for parents to have superintendents fired and public librarians to be prosecuted.

The proposed bill included language that suggested the standoffs – sometimes orchestrated by the right-wing “extremist” group Moms for Liberty – that have led to some of the more volatile confrontations at school board meetings across the state and nation.

It’s unclear why SB 90 was withdrawn after the new language had been posted so abruptly, which had caused much consternation among some progressives on social media. Rep. Ashton Clemmons (D-Guilford), the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said late Wednesday she didn’t know why the bill was pulled.

Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance), one of the bill’s original sponsors, wrote in an emailed response to questions from WGHP that she “did not have any input into the PCS for SB90 and was not consulted about the House’s plans to amend the bill.”

The gut-and-fill move by Republicans with SB 90 surprised Democrats.

“We had no warning it was coming; we don’t know what the process is,” Rep. Robert Reives III (D-Randolph), the House minority leader, during a press conference earlier in the day designed to address the absence of a budget and the accompanying Medicaid expansion. “We are doing everything we can to stop …. taking away opportunities for children through public education.”

Torbert to WNCN-Ch. 17: “We’re just trying to make sure that parents understand what their rights are and give them full access and give them an opportunity to make sure their children are educated the way they would like their children to be educated.”

This bill would be required to pass the Education Committee and move through the Rules Committee before going for a vote on the floor of the House. An adapted bill would have to be approved by the Senate and then subjected to an almost certain veto by Gov. Roy Cooper. With the current schedule and backlog – including overrides of other vetoes and that missing budget – that process would take at least two weeks.

What’s in the bill

The “proposed committee substitute” – or PCS, as it typically is called – has grown to 13 pages and 15 entirely new sections (sometimes denoted by Cardinal and sometimes Roman numbering). This proposal very specifically would alter the ways schools operate, how parents would interact, require specific behavior by school districts and open up the school districts to lawsuits and the removal of superintendents.

The specifics as outlined on the cover sheet of the PCS include:

  • Various changes to school discipline policy requirements, including specifying issues that would not mitigate suspensions.
  • Create a Standard Course of Study Advisory Commission to recommend academic standards to the State Board of Education.
  • Allow parents to request a student be reassigned to another school in a district as long as the student was up to grade, there was capacity and no punishment. This could not be used for athletic reasons.
  • Stipulate what would be taught about human growth and development. In grades 4 and 5 that includes “single-sex instruction groups.” In seventh grade, reproduction and sexuality content must be posted for parents to review. In all three grades, parents can opt-out their students.
  • Establish procedures for the “selection of both library books and instructional materials related to health and safety, require an instructional materials repository in each public school unit and require detailed syllabi be made publicly available for all courses in public school units at the beginning of each semester.”
  • Remove “the affirmative defense” for schools and public libraries for disseminating materials deemed harmful to minors.
  • Require public libraries to restrict access to materials deemed harmful to minors, and require parental consent for minors’ access, including library records.
  • Limit a minor child’s ability to consent to mental health care, unless there is a threat to the student or others, and limit the examination of minors without parental consent “when abuse or neglect is suspected.”
  • Establish a legal path for parents to sue in superior court “for violations of the fundamental right to parent,” which includes how the school board administers student discipline, violations of laws or policies, including not advancing students, and “any other decision that by statute specifically provides for a  right to appeal to the local board of education.”
  • Require that contracts for superintendents include options for dismissal or salary reduction “after 5 successful claims of violations of the fundamental right to parent.”
  • Would require parental permission or a student to participate in extracurricular activities.
  • Would require parents to consent about “a student well-being questionnaire or health screening form.”
  • Require licensed school personnel to inform parents if they believe a child is at imminent risk of suicide or is self-identifying as a gender different from the biological sex.
  • Would clarify that referring to and raising a juvenile in a manner consistent with the child’s biological sex, “including related mental health or medical decisions, would not by itself be considered abuse or neglect.”
  • Would stipulate that charter schools “are not state actors,” which means they can avoid being subject to state statutes affecting public schools, including the Teachers’ and State Employees’ Retirement System.

Effects of the bill

“Every first-world country on earth has recognized the need to educate everyone,” Reives said. “Some of them [Republicans] don’t want to have science taught, but we are recruiting bioscience companies.

“One of these days, voters are going to need to decide. … We are going to continue to see this type of legislation. … People ought to be running up here and protesting.”

Rep. Julie Von Haefen (D-Wake) (WGHP)

Rep. Julie Von Haefen (D-Wake), speaking at the same press conference, decried the absence of a completed budget and its effect on education with about six weeks remaining before students return to campuses. She said the budget delay was “a $124 million budget cut” because school districts couldn’t hire, speak clearly about salaries and fill their needs, with some 5,000 openings statewide.

“Schools don’t even know state appropriation to their districts. …. We don’t know when and how much teachers will be paid. … We have an impasse. … School personnel are getting the worst option: nothing at all. Would you start a job with an undefined salary?

“Yet we have found time to pass bills interfering with our classrooms, like Senate Bill 49 [the controversial “Parents Bill of Rights” vetoed by Cooper]. SB 90 will be heard in House Education. …  I can’t begin to talk about all the bad parts of this.”

But later, when pushed by questions, Von Haefen said the “most worrisome” aspect is “the attack on superintendents,” citing the new legal path for a parent to have them fired.

“It’s extremely worrisome,” she said. “The overall view at school board meetings, book banning, curriculum, hiring … mental health for students … restricting access for students. … There are a lot of things that were in the budget bill, a lot of things are pulled out and put into a standalone bill. … We had debated those items … ran amendments.”

She cited the 5% raises discussed for teachers and everything they would be subjected to doing or facing based on this bill. “I can’t fathom that would be a recipe for success for hiring five thousand teachers,” she said.

Rep. Amos Quick (D-Greensboro) (NCGA)

Rep. Amos Quick (D-Guilford), who formerly served on the Guilford County Board of Education, added one other potential cost.

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“Superintendent tenure is about 2.8 years,” he said. “That’s not a long time … It makes North Carolina less attractive, and there is a nationwide shortage.”

He also noted the new pathway for lawsuits – which could subject the school districts to $5,000 minimum damages, plus attorneys’ fees and other relief.

“A lot of school board attorneys are paid by the hour,” Quick said. “If we spend more money defending lawsuits, then we will be spending less on classrooms.”