North Carolina schools could look and operate differently next year if the state Legislature eventually passes a handful of bills that made it out of a key committee on Tuesday.
One of the bills that advanced would require every public school in the state to prominently display signs containing the phrases "In God We Trust" and "To Be, Rather Than To Seem."
In God We Trust is the national motto, and To Be, Rather Than To Seem is the English translation of the state motto, which is Esse Quam Videri.
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Another bill would check to make sure that schools are still teaching cursive writing, even though it's not part of the new Common Core curriculum the state adopted several years ago. It would also automatically send elementary school students with high test scores into advanced math classes.
Finally, a third bill would expand the controversial Innovative School District program, in which the control of low-performing schools is taken away from local school boards and handed over to charter school operators. The bill would also allow school districts to hire the spouses of their superintendents, which critics said could lead to ethical problems.
In God We Trust
Republican Rep. Bert Jones of Rockingham County, the main sponsor of the bill requiring the new signs, defended his proposal from past criticism levied by the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union. The civil liberties group told The News & Observer that signs mentioning God in schools would make non-Christian students feel "that they are second-class or not welcome."
"When you see the words 'In God We Trust,' certainly no one is compelling you to worship a god … or to practice any particular religion," Jones said.
Democratic Rep. Cecil Brockman of Greensboro said the ACLU had a good point, that "we have a right to believe whatever religion we want, but we also have a right to not believe anything at all.”
But Jones said even if people see the word God in school, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to think about the Christian God.
“To some people that could be a cow," he said. "To some people that might be a tree."
And Republican Rep. Kevin Corbin of Macon County said it's more about patriotism than religion.
“At the end of the day it’s our national motto," he said.
Math and cursive
Republican Rep. Pat Hurley of Randolph County has been the General Assembly's champion for saving cursive education.
"If you can't write it, you can't read it," she said Tuesday.
She sponsored a previous bill to save cursive, as well as multiplication tables, since they weren't required by the new Common Core standards. This year she has a new bill that would strengthen the requirements on schools to report that they are indeed still teaching those topics.
A bigger change in the bill is a proposal added by the committee on Tuesday, to automatically send children to advanced math classes if they score high enough on their end-of-year math tests. It won strong bipartisan support.
Republican Rep. Hugh Blackwell of Burke County said, "There's a tremendous amount of data to show that children who are challenged rise to the level of their challenge."
Currently, school administrators choose which students go into advanced classes. Good scores don't necessarily guarantee a spot in an advanced class. And a recent News & Observer investigation found that low-income children with high test scores were less likely to be chosen for those classes than their wealthier classmates who had similar or even lower scores.
Charter takeovers and nepotism
The third bill that passed through the education committee Tuesday would expand the Innovative School District program.
It was originally called the Achievement School District program, based on a Tennessee program of the same name, but legislators here changed the name last year after Tennessee officials announced they were scaling down the program in the fact of underwhelming results.
The program allows charter school companies to take over traditional public schools that are failing. Last year just one school was chosen. Its control went to a company that's closely tied to a national charter school network and an Oregon man who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to North Carolina Republican politicians and groups that support them.
The bill that advanced on Tuesday would expand the Innovative School District program, allowing even more low-performing traditional schools to be turned over to charter school operators. The program's currently capped at five schools but this bill would remove that cap.
It would also change state anti-nepotism laws to allow school boards to hire the spouses of their superintendents.
Supporters said it will help alleviate problems in the state's tiniest districts, where the school board sometimes appoints a new superintendent who's already married to a teacher. Lawmakers in the committee questioned whether the bill could lead to unethical situations like a superintendent directing contracts to a spouse.