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Graduation policy of 40-plus years up for tweaks by state board

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(The Center Square) – North Carolina’s state Board of Education is moving forward on several fronts in response to actions in the General Assembly, with issues including early high school graduation, a Parents’ Bill of Rights, and charter school decisions.

Sheha Shah-Coltrane, director of advanced learning and gifted education, discussed a new policy at Tuesday’s board meeting that comes in response to a provision in the recently approved state budget that prohibits local school boards from exceeding minimum graduation requirements. Since 1978, the state board has allowed schools to develop more stringent requirements.

“That caused a lot of outcry from school districts,” Coltrane said, because “it is the middle of the school year and we don’t make changes typically to graduation requirements or any major policies this time of the year, but also because of the precedent that we have had for over 40 years.”

Coltrane said officials are working with lawmakers “to move forward with a different approach” aimed at supporting the intent of the legislation – to allow students who choose to graduate early to do so – “but also to continue to support local school districts to meet their needs.”

The changes officials aim to include in a technical corrections bill next month would allow schools to exceed minimum graduation requirements, while giving students the ability to apply for a waiver. The board is expected to take action on the policy next month.

Other discussions centered on draft procedures for parental concern hearings mandated by a new Parents’ Bill of Rights that became law over Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto in August. Lawmakers subsequently delayed implementation of the bill in the state budget until January.

Allison Schafer, general counsel for the board, outlined a draft procedures manual that “is making it clear what is appealable, and the other part is process.”

Some parental appeals are handled by local boards under the law, while others are taken up by the state board. The manual clarifies state board appeals are limited to failures by schools to notify parents of health services offered to students; notify of appeal procedures; provide copies of health screenings and questionnaires; notify changes in mental, emotional or physical health; and notify changes to name or pronoun use in school records or by school personnel.

“They mostly have to do with health and safety issues, mental health and emotional health, and other safety issues,” Schafer said. “We wanted to be really clear in the policy this is the limited list that can be appealed.”

The board is expected to approve the manual next month, and to create a form for parents with the limited appeal options, Schafer said.

Another proposed policy deals with the appeal process for charter school applicants rejected by a newly formed Charter School Review Board.

House Bill 618, also approved by the General Assembly over Cooper’s veto in August, shifts the authority over charter school decisions from the state board to the new review board. That prompted gubernatorially appointed board members to adopt a policy last month requiring state board approval to fund charter schools.

The General Assembly in the state budget clarified the state board cannot withhold funds from schools approved by the review board, with limited exceptions. That restricts the state board to an appellate role for charter school applicants rejected by the review board.

The proposed policy outlines how those appeals will be conducted, and a timeline for the process. It’s slated for approval on Wednesday, rather than the typical process of waiting until next month, to put the rules in place as the review board continues to vet 15 charter school applications in 2023, Schafer said.

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