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Monday September 20th

NCGA Weekly Roundup: School choice, redistricting and vaccinations

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This is part of a series that looks at bills the state legislature has introduced, the progress they have made in the chamber and what their impact might be on the state moving forward. Read last week's roundup here.

The North Carolina General Assembly remains in session, and they’ve had plenty of bills to consider over the past week.

Read last week's roundup here.

Most prominent of the bunch is a contentious school choice bill that aims to loosen the eligibility criteria for students to be eligible for private school vouchers. Also on the agenda are two bills that aim to depoliticize the redistricting process and a bill that aims to prohibit the governor from making vaccinations mandatory via executive order.

Backlash over school choice

House Bill 32, named the “Equity in Opportunity Act,” passed in the House on its second reading on April 13 in a partisan 69-49 vote. The bill would expand the criteria for students to receive the state’s Opportunity Scholarships, which help families who make below a certain amount of income pay tuition at participating private schools. 

House Republicans, like N.C. Rep. Erin Paré (R–Wake), see the bill as a way to increase educational opportunities for students across the state. 

In a Twitter thread, she said the state had already seen the disastrous effects of students not getting the education they needed over the course of the pandemic. She also said the bill represents her effort to fight for the expansion of school choice for all children, especially those with financial hardships or disabilities. 

“School choice helps families find the right option for their child,” Paré tweeted. “And this bill will give them more opportunities to achieve.” 

Eric Houck, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Education, said the bill perpetuates the mistaken idea that public schools are failing the state’s students and that private schools are the solution. 

He said the reason Republicans in the General Assembly are expanding eligibility requirements for the scholarship was that the program has not used up all of the funding appropriated to it for each of the past five years. 

He criticized a provision of the bill which would allow students enrolled in private schools for the previous year to be eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship, essentially granting them a state-subsidized move from private school to private school. He also said a section allowing funding appropriated for scholarships to pay for the administrative fees of contractors organizing the program contributed to his disdain for the bill.”

“It doesn’t sound so much like ‘educational opportunity',” Houck said, “It sounds like ‘educational grifter opportunity.’”

Rethinking redistricting 

Democrats in both chambers have launched initiatives to reframe the rules for congressional redistricting. House Bill 495 and Senate Bill 716 each attempt to make strides to depoliticize the state’s process. 

The former aims to codify the N.C. superior court ruling in the 2019 ruling Common Cause v. Lewis where the state’s congressional maps were struck down as unconstitutional. The bill puts forth baseline criteria for congressional districts, which include preventing district maps from establishing an advantage for any party.

The latter is a more ambitious proposal, proposing the establishment of an independent redistricting commission. It also includes provisions to make the election of state supreme court and appellate court justices a nonpartisan process.  

However, Michael Bitzer, professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said it would be one of the great surprises of this legislative session if these bills pass.

He said the Republican majority is keen to control the redistricting process as much as it can, and would be very reluctant to give up any ground in that arena. The governor’s inability to veto redistricting legislation, he said, would allow them to do just that.

“Redistricting is the most political activity in American politics,” Bitzer said in an email, “and it’s bound to stay that way for some time.” 

Potential ban on vaccine mandates

The proposals above were joined by many others on the legislative agenda, including a bill barring the governor from issuing vaccination mandates via executive order.

House Bill 558 would also make it illegal for schools and child care facilities to mandate the vaccination of children attending them and would require the state to secure the express written consent of individuals in order to track or record information about whether they have received certain vaccinations. 

Chris Cooper, head of the political science and public affairs department at Western Carolina University, said the bill’s prospects are grim.

He said the bill is yet another in the growing list of bills aiming to limit the governor’s powers, as is shown by the specific mention of executive orders in the ban on vaccine mandates. 

But this might be the bill’s undoing.

“The odds that Governor Cooper would agree to sign a bill that would limit his powers is extremely low,” Chris Cooper said in an email. “It also seems unlikely that the bill would draw enough Democratic support to allow for a veto override.” 

Other bills that have made their way into the legislature include a bill to observe Daylight Savings Time year-round and a bill to appropriate funds to provide free breakfast and lunch to students in the state’s public schools — both of which already have the support of over 30 House members.

What awaits those two bills in committee, though, remains to be seen.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com 

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