Senate bill would make all students eligible for vouchers intended to help poor families pay for private schools

A senate bill filed Tuesday would remove income eligibility requirements for the state’s so-called “Opportunity Scholarships” created to help low-income families pay private school tuition.

Senate Bill 711 was filed by Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican. Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton and Sen. Norman W. Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, are co-sponsors.

Hise did not respond to an email message about the bill on Wednesday.

SB 711 was quickly denounced by Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County.

“It seems particularly callous right now to make this a priority,” Marcus said. “increasing funding for a program that is already over-funded, that’s taking money out of the coffers that will be needed in so many other places right now. It’s just not the right priority. Funding more private school vouchers is not a critical need right now.”

The program has never used its entire state allocation since launching in 2014.

Marcus noted that the state is facing an estimated $2 billion budget shortfall.

“At a time when our state revenues are taking a huge hit, and we didn’t even pass a state budget this year and we’re not going to, and we haven’t given teachers the much overdue raise that they deserve as well as all the COVID-19-related expenses we’re going to have, this is particularly egregious in my mind, to file a bill like this,” Marcus said.

She said the bill appears to be another attack on public schools and a blow against the mandate in the state’s constitution to provide all students with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

“This is part of a pattern for them [conservative lawmakers],” Marcus said. “They’d rather funnel money into these private schools that have very little accountability to the state about what they teach, who is teaching there and about any kind of outcomes for kids.”

Marcus said she’s not against private schools, only against spending “taxpayer money” to support them.

“I hope that people will see that this bill is an attempt to make North Carolina taxpayers bankroll private school education for an even greater number of families at a time when we’re taking a $2 billion hit in our budget,” she said.

SB 711 would pour millions more into the program that provides as much as $4,200 year for families to send children to private schools.

Hise’s bill would add an additional $2 million to the program’s budget each year beginning next school year through the 2026-27 school year.

The program, for example, is set to receive $74.8 million next school year. It would $76.8 million under SB 711.

State law mandates that the program’s budget increases by an additional $10 million each year. It would increase by $12 million next school year to incorporate the additional $2 million, then increase $10 million each subsequent year until the 2026-27 school year. The cummulative effect over seven years would be an additional $14 million above the amount originial authorized.

The program’s budget would jump another $10 million — from $136.8 million to $146.8 million — for the 2027-28 school year. The $146.8 million would establish a “base” budget for the program.

This school year, 12,283 students received $47. 7 million to attend 451 private schools.

The previous school year, 9,651 recipients received $38 million in private school vouchers.

Public school advocates contend the voucher program weakens public schools by shifting valuable resources to private schools. They also say there’s no evidence that students who received them perform better. They also complain the program fosters school segregation and lacks academic accountability.

Meanwhile, voucher proponents say the scholarship provide low-and moderate-income families with financial assistance to flee failing schools and to choose schools that better fit their children.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Here’s what he had to say about the scholarships in a PEFNC newsletter in February.

“These scholarships provide up to $4,200 each year for students from over 12,000 low-income and working-class families to flourish in the educational environment of their parent’s choice,” Long wrote. “That is a privilege that more fortunate North Carolina families already enjoy — those with the incomes high enough to buy a house in a good public school district or pay private school tuition on their own. Without Opportunity Scholarships, low-income families can remain stuck.”

 

Pandemic recovery, expanded health insurance are priorities for NC Senate Democrats

North Carolina Senate Democrats who offered a broad outline of their priorities for the legislative session said the state can afford to make meaningful changes with billions in accumulated revenue.

North Carolina has more than $4.2 billion in unspent revenue, mostly due to the lack of agreement on an overall state budget in the last two years, and more than $240 million in unspent federal COVID-19 relief funds.

During an online news conference Wednesday, Senate Democratic caucus leaders outlined their priorities, which include helping small businesses and families hurt in the pandemic, a school construction bond, a redistricting process that includes meaningful citizen involvement, criminal justice reform, and providing more people with health insurance. They did not preview any bills.

Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Senate 28-22. The November election gave Democrats a net gain of one seat.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders are talking about more cooperation this term.

The Senate’s Democratic leader, Dan Blue of Raleigh, said everyone is approaching the session with a different attitude.

“We don’t want to run this state without a budget,” Blue said. Democrats are ready to work with Cooper and the Senate Republican leadership, he said. “It’s about compromise.”

Getting more people health insurance remains a top priority for Senate Democrats, Blue said.

An estimated 250,000 people have lost employer-sponsored health insurance during the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of adults in the state would qualify for Medicaid if the state expanded the government health insurance program.

A Council for Health Care Coverage that Cooper brought together in December developed some guiding principles for getting more people insured but did not endorse any specific proposals.

“We have too many people without healthcare coverage and something has to be done about it,” Blue said.

Pandemic profiteers: Report highlights stunning recent wealth growth of U.S. billionaires

A new report from analysts at the Institute for Policy Studies finds that the collective financial gain of 660 billionaires during the COVID crisis could pay for all of the working family relief in President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response plan.

Here are some excerpts:

The combined fortune of the nation’s 660 billionaires as of Monday, January 18, 2021 was $4.1 trillion, up 38.6% from their collective net worth of just under $3 trillion on March 18, 2020, the rough start of the pandemic, based on Forbes data compiled in this report by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF). There have been 46 newly minted billionaires since the beginning of the pandemic, when there were 614.

At $4.1 trillion, the total wealth of America’s 660 billionaires is two-thirds higher than the $2.4 trillion in total wealth held by the bottom half of the population, 165 million Americans….

The $1.1 trillion wealth gain by 660 U.S. billionaires since March 2020 could pay for:

  • All of the relief for working families contained in President Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue package, which includes $1,400 in direct payments to individuals, $400-a-week supplements to unemployment benefits, and an expanded child tax credit.
  • A stimulus check of more than $3,400 for every one of the roughly 331 million people in the United States. A family of four would receive over $13,000. Republicans in Congress resisted sending families stimulus checks most of last year, claiming we couldn’t afford them.

Meanwhile, the report notes, “ordinary Americans have not fared as well as billionaires during the pandemic.” As it points out: Read more

Tillis calls impeachment effort ‘unwise’

Less than three weeks after pro-Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, a majority of Senate Republicans voted Tuesday to support a motion by Sen. Rand Paul questioning the constitutionality of the impeachment trial.

The procedural move failed (55-45) with five Republicans joining Democrats rejecting Paul’s attempt to end the trial even before it could begin.

North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, who sided with Sen. Paul, said afterwards it would be ‘unwise’ to attempt impeachment now that Donald Trump is a private citizen.

Here’s an excerpt from Tillis’ statement:

“The impeachment power can be turned into a political weapon, especially if it is primarily used to disqualify an individual citizen from running for public office. My Democratic colleagues would have rightfully objected to Republicans – when they controlled Congress – using the impeachment power to disqualify former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from running for president in 2016 because of her email controversy.

The great hallmark of our Democratic Republic is self-government, and I have faith in the American people to assess the qualifications of presidential candidates and make an informed decision themselves, just as they have done every four years since George Washington was elected as our first president. Congress should not dictate to the American people who they can and cannot vote for.”

Trump’s impeachment trial is slated to begin on February 8th. Democrats would need 17 Republicans to convict.

Last week, Senator Mitch McConnell said the mob that stormed that Capitol on January 6th was provoked by Trump’s rhetoric.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Unrepentant Hawley pushes ethics probe of U.S. Senate Democrats who filed complaint against him

Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-MO), speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (Photo by Carolyn Kaster-Pool/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON—Seven U.S. Senate Democrats urged the chamber’s ethics panel to investigate Sen. Josh Hawley’s role in the pro-Trump assault on the Capitol, and the Missouri Republican is now asking the committee to do the same.

In a Monday letter, Hawley argued that the seven Democrats filed an improper complaint last week against him and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Both Hawley and Cruz objected to Electoral College votes that solidified President Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election.

“In sum, this complaint is none other than a transparent attempt by seven Senators to punish a political opponent for the entirely lawful representation of their constituents,” Hawley wrote.

“The Committee should discipline these Members to ensure that the Senate’s ethics process is not weaponized for rank partisan purposes,” Hawley said.

The seven Senate Democrats who signed the Jan. 21 letter to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics are Tim Kaine of Virginia, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Mazie Hirono of Hawai’i, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Former President Donald Trump made baseless claims that the election was stolen and many GOP members objected to Electoral College results from one or more states prior to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Lawmakers, the vice president, journalists and staff had to barricade themselves for hours until law enforcement secured the building.

Five people died and more than 50 officers were injured and multiple investigations are underway, with numerous defendants already charged in federal court.

Hawley argued that his objection to Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes was not inappropriate. He said that because the state had a massive mail-in ballot movement, it violated Pennsylvania’s state constitution, which is a claim that has been debunked by PolitiFact.

The state Supreme Court threw out those legal challenges and the state’s constitution does not prohibit mail-in voting. Due to the pandemic, more voters sent in their ballots by mail.

Hawley also said the Democrats were peddling conspiracy theories by insinuating that he and his staff coordinated with the rioters who attacked the Capitol.

Democrats did not charge coordination, but asked the committee to investigate if Cruz and Hawley had any communication with any organizers who were in D.C. on Jan. 6 for the “Save America Rally,”  where Trump spoke and urged his supporters to go to the Capitol.

“Three members of the House of Representatives who coordinated with Senators Hawley and Cruz to object to the electors, Reps. Andy Biggs, Paul Gosar, and Mo Brooks, have been identified as alleged co-architects of the rally,” Democrats wrote in their letter Jan. 21.

A “Stop the Steal” organizer has said he planned the rally with all three congressmen. Biggs and Gosar, both Arizona Republicans, preemptively sought pardons from Trump for their roles in the insurrection, according to media reports, but the pardons were not issued before Trump left office.

Hawley also asked the ethics committee to question if the seven senators in preparing their complaint had been in contact with groups including the Lincoln Project, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, MoveOn, Voto Latino and the Sierra Club. He also asked about contacts with Democratic leaders and the White House.