Last summer I kicked myself for paying too little attention to the legislative session. Like many others, I struggled to figure out changes to tenure, teacher pay, charter school rules and other developments in public education after lawmakers had gone home and everything was a done deal.
This year I vowed to make sure readers knew about education proposals in time to react. But I'm no longer sure that's possible.
I set out with good intentions, dutifully trying to keep up with the education bills being introduced.
In June I spent a week in Raleigh covering the General Assembly. Mostly I learned that not being there isn't as big a disadvantage as I'd thought. The legislative web site has a lot of great information, including audio links to key discussions. After scurrying around to grab a seat in the chambers, I discovered that the more experienced political reporters often stayed in the press room following the discussions on audio.
So it's great that we can do that from Charlotte. But I've concluded that the volume and complexity of this system makes it nearly impossible to keep up, even in this ostensibly short and simple off-year session.
A search for education bills in the 2013-14 session gets 532 results. I'm pretty sure that only those in the lighter typeface are active in 2014, but that's still a long list.
Sometimes the content changes dramatically as it moves through the system. House Bill 1224, for instance, began life in May as "an act to modify the job maintenance and capital development fund provisions." But when it went to the Senate Finance Committee last week it morphed into a bill that could kill the Mecklenburg County commissioners' plan to hold a referendum on a sales-tax hike to boost Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools salaries.
I've paid especially close attention to Senate Bill 793, which has been through five versions, 11 proposed amendments and 39 actions since it was introduced in May. It's the one that, depending on the day, either ensures that charter schools will follow the same personnel disclosure and privacy laws as other public schools, removes all references to said topic or blocks disclosure of charter school employees' names. (Meanwhile, the Observer finally completed the database of Charlotte-area salaries last week, when Lincoln Charter provided its information.)
Because I was dogging that bill, Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, realized that his protect-the-names amendment has consequences far beyond his intentions. He says he asked the conference committee to delete the amendment he got the House to pass. Best I can tell, there's been no action since that committee was created July 1. What will emerge is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, a search for charter school bills turns up 47 other options to keep track of.
In my efforts to serve as a better watchdog, I've ended up feeling like a mutt trying to chase a forest full of squirrels. Even with the state's press corps doing their best, I can't help wondering what surprises may emerge after the last gavel bangs. (Public Schools First NC is doing the best job I've seen of tracking education proposals. Last week's summary filled nine pages.)
I voiced my frustration to Tom Tate, the CMS board's senior member, when we were talking about something else.
"I don't know how anyone is keeping up with it at this point," Tate sympathized. "Even the legislators themselves."