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Gaston County lawmaker talks about education vision with a hometown crowd

House Ed Stanley principal.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Stanley Middle School Principal Rebecca Huffstetler welcomes the House committee studying North Carolina's future education system to her school Monday.

State Rep. John Torbett brought the special committee he chairs to his hometown of Stanley Monday evening to talk about reinventing public education.

"What we are looking at is if there was no education going on in the state of North Carolina today and you were tasked with creating (a system) to last the next 100 years ... what would you do to create an education system today?" he asked about 50 people who attended the public hearing.

School choice was a theme at Monday's session. Gaston County Superintendent Jeffrey Booker talked about creating choices within the public school system, while some public speakers talked about supporting charter schools and using public money to pay tuition for parents who choose private schools.

Jeffrey Baldwin LIBRE.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Jeffrey Baldwin of the LIBRE Initiative, a national Hispanic advocacy group that recently expanded to Charlotte, speaks to state lawmakers in Stanley on Monday.

Jeffrey Baldwin of the LIBRE Initiative, a national Hispanic advocacy group that recently expanded to Charlotte, said many immigrant families see education as their only hope of realizing the American dream.

"We want to see freedom. Educational freedom," Baldwin said. "Educational freedom that empowers families to make decisions instead of bureaucrats."

Three members of the League of Women Voters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg urged the legislators to support the K-12 and early childhood education systems the state already has.

"I implore this committee to move swiftly to show our teachers that we need them, we value them and that we will provide funds in all parts of our state to address student needs," said league member Sara Baysinger.

Common themes emerge

Monday's session was the third of four hearings the House Select Committee on an Education System for North Carolina’s Future has scheduled around the state. Fewer than a dozen people spoke in Stanley, but Torbett told the group he's hearing some themes emerge from hearings and online messages.

House Ed Stanley close.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Committee Chair John Torbett (center) and members of the House committee on the future of education listen to speakers in Stanley on Monday.

Improving teacher pay is one that he considers vital, he said. People are also talking about empowering teachers and restructuring classrooms so students can master material at their own pace.

"We’re also looking about how the testing is done, end-of-grade testing for example, which currently eats up about six weeks of a year," he said.

After the meeting, Torbett said one of the most frequent topics of concern is the state's school calendar law. It requires most public schools to wait until late August to start classes, which pushes first-semester exams to after winter break.

"And we’re hearing that’s a concern of the parents," he said. "They want to see the calendar bill be adjusted so you can get all your testing done before the Christmas break. We’ve heard that in several locations."

Every session, bills are introduced to provide more calendar flexibility, but so far none have passed.

Torbett says his committee could make suggestions for the short session that begins in May. But he expects any big changes to be introduced in 2023.

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Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.