Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

If Gov. Cooper won’t debate Berger on Medicaid, I know a few thousand who will

Prepare for the right to make hay about this. And prepare for Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to continue to pressure North Carolina legislative leaders behind the scenes to roll over on Medicaid expansion, an issue that may divide the Republican caucus, if virtually no one else.

The editorial boards of the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh’s News & Observer have called upon Cooper and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, North Carolina’s Medicaid miser-in-chief, to debate the issue. Berger’s office has indicated its willingness, but Cooper’s office says legislators should focus instead on responding to his budget proposal.

Cooper should debate Berger, no question, but in his absence, I can imagine hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, those blockaded by the GOP’s political stranglehold over Medicaid, would be happy to step in.

Berger and the governor have spoken quite a bit, but it’s those residents of this state continually dehumanized by the blockade who deserve a microphone.

For the better part of a decade, Republicans have insisted that the federally-funded expansion is a financial liability in waiting, even if the expansion’s healthcare and economic benefits are about as nebulous as simple arithmetic.

I know it may seem as if the federal government will not endure the smoking crater in the White House, but it will, and so will Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Holding out, as North Carolina Republicans have, is intractable buffoonery. It’s mindless and heartless.

Here’s a portion of the Observer’s editorial from this morning:

The governor and other advocates believe expanding Medicaid here would provide health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, increase jobs and help struggling rural hospitals. Cooper has intensified his public push for expansion by meeting affected parties in Raleigh and across the state. “I believe straight up Medicaid expansion is the best option,” he said earlier this month, “but I’m willing to discuss concerns of leaders in both chambers to ensure that more North Carolinians can get access to affordable health care.”

Berger, in an op-ed last month, said he thinks expanding Medicaid is an economic risk that would result increased health care costs and increased wait times at medical offices. He and House speaker Tim Moore have declined to give their blessing to compromise legislation that Democrats believe might get enough Republican votes to pass.

Yes, it’s possible that a debate won’t change the immediate political dynamic. It might even cause each side to dig in further on Medicaid rather than risk the impression of a debate loss. But there’s also the possibility that the debate could reveal to each side — and North Carolinians — at least a little common ground that could provide a foundation for compromise.

We’ve given the governor’s and Senate leader’s offices a heads up on our debate invitation. Berger spokesman Pat Ryan told the editorial board Monday that the senator is agreeable to debating the governor. Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told us the governor is not going to debate, and that Republicans should respond to Cooper’s compromise budget proposal. We agree. But we also think the the governor has a good case to make and defend on Medicaid expansion. We hope he decides it’s one that worth debating.

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

Donald Trump, a New York racist, communes with Southern racists

Donald Trump’s “fine people,” in their element, August 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. (Wikimedia Commons)

The question has not been — for some time — is Donald Trump a racist?

Donald Trump answered that question before he even announced his candidacy, in his putrescent championing of the “birther” movement, the nakedly prejudiced conspiracy theory concerning former President Obama.

As The Atlantic‘s David A. Graham noted this week, “bigotry has been a part of Trump’s public persona since he’s had a public persona.”

The better question is: How racist is the United States, and how racist is the political party that allows him to roam unchecked?

As you’ve likely noticed by now, the president brought his road show to Greenville Wednesday — “Have bigotry, will travel” — and made headlines, as he often does, for his supporters as much as his rambling message.

“Send her back,” the crowd chanted when the president remarked upon Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who’s spurred Trump’s ire this week. Omar’s election marked a whole host of firsts, but being the first naturalized citizen from Africa to win a seat in Congress seems to be the one that Trump supporters are latching onto.

It’s racist. It doesn’t get any more racist. And there’s a closing of the loop, if you will, to see this New York-born racist courting Southern racists, demolishing at least those geographical barriers.

But, in one of the finest commentaries I’ve seen on the subject this morning, The Charlotte Observer‘s editorial board says we should all pause before making the statement that what we saw in Greenville last night “is not North Carolina.” There’s more to it than that.

Read the editorial below:

It happened in the first half of Wednesday’s speech. Donald Trump, our president, began to talk about Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic from Minnesota who was among the four women of color he had attacked Sunday in a racist tweet. Everyone knew Trump would speak about the women at some point to the Greenville, North Carolina crowd. Did we know what would come next?

“Send her back.”

The chant rose quickly from a handful of voices to a chorus of bigotry. It was a chilling moment. It was “lock her up” in a white hood. It was despicable.

“Send her back.”

It could have happened at any Donald Trump rally. It might have happened in any state, north or south. But it happened in Greenville, in our state, and it was one of North Carolina’s darkest moments.

“Send her back.”

Or perhaps not. Maybe the chant will be absorbed in the vortex that is Donald Trump. In a presidency of so many shameful moments, of so many new lows, the singularly awful ones tend to lose their significance. It’s possible that North Carolina might be forgotten when the chant inevitably spreads to the next rally. But North Carolina shouldn’t forget.

For a state that likes to boast membership in the new South, we have difficulties shedding the old stench of discrimination. We were the last U.S. state to ban gay marriage just seven years ago. We were the first state to pass a transgender bathroom bill with HB2 four years after that.

And yes, we had a bit of a progressive wave here last year. We sent more people to Raleigh who think bills like HB2 are a blight on our state. But we still struggle with segregation in our cities. We still are burdened by economic disparity. We also still have overt moments like Wednesday, and we can’t blame it all on Donald Trump.

“Send her back.”

There will be a temptation for some today to point to Wednesday’s rally and say that’s not who we are in this state. We hear that kind of thing a lot these days when our president, but not only our president, acts contrary to the values we think this country shares.

But there was some backlash this week when people pointed to the president’s Sunday tweet and declared that it wasn’t who we are. Because it is, of course, part of who we always have been in America. And in North Carolina. It’s who we were in Wilmington in 1898. It’s who we were when Dorothy Counts made that first walk to Harding High. It’s who we were when we redlined blacks out of white neighborhoods decades ago. It’s who we were on a July night in Greenville, and it could be what’s coming to Charlotte next summer.

“Send her back,” Donald Trump’s supporters chanted, without seeing the irony that it was they who were moving backward. “Send her back,” they cried, and it was both a reminder and a warning that here in North Carolina, in America, going back is not that far of a journey.

Commentary, Education

Looking for sense in Mark Johnson’s IStation saga? Look elsewhere.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Whatever you may think of North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson, the IStation saga makes zero sense.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

My friends, this is “Waterworld” level bonkers, although Kevin Costner’s legendarily soggy sci-fi is making an unpleasant amount of sense in retrospect.  

Charlotte advocate Justin Parmenter authored a tortuous rundown of the IStation proceedings this morning, a head-spinning collection of allegations and denials and genuinely, supremely confusing events concerning Johnson’s awarding of a multi-million dollar contract for a K-3 reading test.

It’s impossible to make this “long story short,” so I’ll let Parmenter tell you the details.

From his post today:

Last week, the NC Department of Public Instruction finally released informationrelated to the procurement process which ended with Superintendent Mark Johnson unilaterally awarding a three-year, multi-million dollar contract for North Carolina’s K-3 diagnostic reading assessment to Istation.

Both Johnson and DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson had previously claimed that an advisory committee assembled in the fall of 2018 had failed to come to a consensus or make a recommendation on the contract. The records provided by DPI show those claims are absolutely false.

The documents also reveal some important details about the path Johnson took as he disregarded the input of the team of evaluators.  However, the release omits records which will be crucial in substantiating DPI’s version of events.

Here’s what we know based on the records DPI released:

On October 5, 2018, the Request for Proposal (RFP) evaluation team first met under the direction of co-business managers Pam Shue and Amy Jablonski to discuss background for the project, evaluation ground rules, and how the process would work. The team included both voting members and non-voting members and was made up of DPI employees and a broad collection of subject matter experts.

Notice the importance of selecting an effective dyslexia screener in the initial project scope as presented to the RFP evaluation committee.  Some of the strongest outcry that has followed Johnson’s selection of Istation has been about the tool’s inability to flag children who are at risk for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. DPI representatives have responded by explaining that dyslexia screening is outside the purview of Read to Achieve and is not the state’s responsibility, as DPI Director of K-3 Literacy Tara Galloway told the State Board of Education last week.

Individual team members were given until mid-November to evaluate the four vendors (Amplify, Istation, NWEA, and Curriculum Associates), at which time they were expected to be prepared to meet, discuss their findings, and come to a consensus ranking which would later be presented to Superintendent Johnson.

The consensus meeting took place on November 19 and 20, 2018. Notes from the records release indicate that participants were reminded at the outset of the meeting that their goal was to arrive at a consensus on which product should be selected, and that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity.”

The team discussed their findings in painstaking detail before ranking the products. They agreed unanimously that Amplify was the best choice. Istation came in second.

On December 4, 2018, Amy Jablonski, Pam Shue, DPI Procurement Officer Tymica Dunn, and Project Manager Srirekha Viswanathan met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to present the committee’s findings in a PowerPoint, which is included in the released DPI records. They told Johnson that the team had selected Amplify’s mClass tool as its top choice to be used as the K-3 reading diagnostic assessment in all of North Carolina’s schools.

The next records DPI provided are from a meeting on January 8, 2019, between Johnson and the members of the evaluation team. According to state records, the gathering was characterized as a “consensus meeting to recommend finalist for negotiations,” which is odd since the team had already presented its unambiguous recommendation to Johnson the month before.

According to the notes, Mark Johnson began the meeting by thanking those present for their input on the K-3 screener selection. He gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. As this was his first reaction to the team recommending that schools continue using the Amplify tool, Johnson’s comments could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the team toward changing their recommendation to Istation (a computer-based tool which Istation advertises as requiring minimal class time). Johnson then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for the second time and stepped out of the room “to maintain integrity of the process.”

On March 8, 2019, another meeting was held to discuss the procurement. This time only 8 of the 10 DPI voting members who had been at the previous meeting were present. Superintendent Johnson was not in attendance, but new General Counsel Jonathan Sink was.After the superintendent exited the room, team members wrote their choices on sticky notes, and the project manager tallied the results. Amplify again easily came out on top, with six people recommending negotiations proceed with Amplify only, three with Istation only, and one voting that negotiations continue with both companies. Pam Shue was tasked with informing Johnson of the committee’s recommendation the next day.

Sink — a former attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore’s office and the newly-named executive director of the state Republican Party — informed those present that the procurement process was being cancelled. According to the notes, he gave two reasons for the cancellation. The first reason was that a voting member of the evaluation committee had breached confidentiality on the procurement process. The second reason provided was that there had been no unanimous consensus in selecting a vendor for the K-3 reading assessment.

There are a couple of important things to note here. First of all, Sink gave no additional detail on the alleged confidentiality breach at the meeting, and the records DPI released include no information about exactly what the breach was or the identity of the person responsible.

Given DPI’s pattern of dishonesty on the procurement and Mark Johnson’s apparent desire to award the contract to Istation, it’s fair to wonder whether a breach really occurred. If it did, records detailing the breach should have been provided to the public as information relevant to the procurement process. Nothing in North Carolina public records law prevents DPI from releasing that information and corroborating the claim.

Secondly, remember that the evaluation team had been informed from the beginning of the RFP process that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity,” so the lack of unanimous agreement does not seem to be a valid reason for cancelling the procurement.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine procurements in general being successful if the process required those involved to unanimously agree.

After the March 8 meeting, the RFP process was cancelled and restarted with a smaller evaluation committee which had very little expertise in literacy or teaching. The new committee selected Istation as the vendor, and Mark Johnson announced the contract award to the public on June 7.

If the superintendent indeed worried that he would stain the “integrity of the process” with his handling of the IStation fiasco, we can all see why. And the documents turned over by the state agency make for an uncomfortable narrative — in which it would appear the superintendent jettisoned his own processes once they became inconvenient for him.

It’s nice to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but the doubts are fast outpacing the benefits here. Either’s someone’s pants are on fire or they’ve badly mixed up their timeline.

A discussion of IStation vs. Amplify or any other tool is, truly, for another day. But a discussion about the power in Johnson’s office, and what he chooses to do with it, is for this day.

This is not the first time Johnson’s processes and motives have been questioned. A Policy Watch report last year detailed the criticisms of Johnson’s abrupt purchase of $6 million in Apple iPads, weeks after the tech Goliath wooed Johnson and state lawmakers in Silicon Valley.

As much as that story puts our ethics laws in a broader spotlight, it should invite closer scrutiny of the state’s murky contracting processes, and whether our state leaders require more oversight before they’re entrusted with dishing out millions in public dollars.

There may be more documents forthcoming, but in the meantime, everything about this story is offensively befuddling.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

With the Supreme Court ruling small, N.C. leaders must think big on gerrymandering

“I don’t agree with gerrymandering either,” Republican gerrymandering czar David Lewis uttered, moments after last week’s diminutive ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court — which we’ll refer to, punitively, as the lowercase supreme court for the remainder of this post.

We are out of time and we are out of patience for Lewis’ plaintive protestations. It’s not much of a mystery that Lewis and his cohorts atop the legislative food chain would gleefully take advantage of the court’s meandering sense of judicial power and decency.

But don’t expect the people of North Carolina to hold much respect for those who, recognizing the law offers no protection against such abuses of power, legislate themselves into a democracy-proof majority.

All this to say that the supreme court — which, in this ruling, comported itself like a lost and frightened child in the woods — was not our last hope in North Carolina.

All eyes turn now to a state court challenge of our gerrymandered districts, in which opposing parties are battling over the fate of a smorgasbord of computer files once held by the GOP’s late mapmaker, Thomas Hofeller. Policy Watch’s Melissa Boughton is covering this as we speak, and you’d do yourself a favor by following her live coverage on Twitter. 

It’s possible this case has a more optimistic outlook in state courts, which may provide some incentives to North Carolina legislators like Lewis to go along with a spate of reform bills — creating citizen commissions and constitutional amendments — in the batter’s box.

Republicans and Democrats — lawmakers like Robert Reives, John Hardister, Erica Smith, Chuck McGrady, Jeff Jackson, Sarah Stevens, Terry Van Duyn, Marcia Morey and Harry Warren, to name a few — deserve to be applauded for recognizing that this path will require bipartisan legislators willing to take the first step.

To that end, WRAL has a must-read roundup of the legislative efforts to address our partisan woes. Happy reforming…

Read more below:

The U.S. Supreme Court may have been unequivocal last week about the federal courts no longer playing a role in partisan gerrymandering cases.

But Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion also put a major emphasis on the responsibility of states to curb their own power to draw highly partisan district lines.

In the North Carolina General Assembly, there are no fewer than seven attempts to do just that – depending on how you count.

The competing measures feature a range of tactics aimed at reducing the influence of politics in the construction of voting district maps. Introduced by Republican and Democrats in both chambers, all of them seek to limit the role of partisan data in map-making and remove – at least to some extent – legislators from the process.

Some call for amendments to the North Carolina Constitution. Others seek those goals through changes in state law.

Yet, none has seen much movement since they were introduced in the early months of the 2019 legislative session.

But with the Supreme Court decision now in the books – and the uncertainty of 2020 looming – the reform bills’ time in legislative purgatory may be coming to an end.

“We are open to anything that is an improvement in the process,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the House’s lead mapmaker, said during a press conference shortly after the Supreme Court decision.

On that, advocates seem to agree.

“We’ve reached a point where almost any change is better than what we already have,” Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said.

 

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, News

Why Kamala Harris’ thrashing of Joe Biden matters to North Carolina’s racially segregated schools

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California)

When presidential hopeful Kamala Harris tore into Joe Biden last week, the California senator exposed the fundamental schisms, even among liberals, on school desegregation.

“[It] was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country,” Harris told Biden during last week’s rowdy primary debate.

“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

For his part, the former vice president bristled at Harris’ characterization of his position on “busing,” although the tale of the tape is not so kind to Biden here either.

But, in the fallout from Harris’ timely take-down, pundits have missed the point, focusing instead on what the senator’s comments mean for her candidacy.

Perhaps, our time would be best spent analyzing the willingness of politicians and policymakers — from any political party — to truly consider the sickly decline of diversity in U.S. schools. Indeed, resegregation is a malady felt keenly in North Carolina, creating two different school systems and two offensively contrasting outcomes.

I’m not talking about the idea of school diversity. The most moderate to conservative politician — outside, perhaps, of a seemingly xenophobic Dan Forest — can espouse some appreciation for a multi-cultural student body while doing virtually nothing to make such a thing possible.

I’m talking about real steps, real reforms, the sort that made diversity initiatives a model in places like Berkeley, Wake County and — under a judge’s order — Charlotte in the 1970s.

I’m talking about understanding why those initiatives worked, and why leaders have allowed that progress to stall or founder.

History professor Matthew Delmont contributed his own sepia-toned analysis of the debate at The Atlantic Monday morning, explaining how our own eroding understanding of segregationist history — and the widely despised but efficacious “busing” programs — leaves us with a skewed perspective even among policymakers on the left.

From The Atlantic:

By invoking her own story, Harris highlighted a generational gap between people who lived through school desegregation as students and those, like Biden, for whom the feelings and opinions of white parents and constituents are paramount. As scholars such as Amy Stuart Wells and Rucker Johnson have shown, the generation of students who experienced school desegregation firsthand in the 1970s and 1980s benefited greatly. In public-policy debates and popular memory, though, the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians. As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.

When Harris boarded a school bus in the fall of 1969 to attend Thousand Oaks Elementary School in an affluent part of North Berkeley, busing was already a hot-button political issue. The controversy was driven by white opposition to school desegregation, not by the use of school buses. Students in the United States had long ridden buses to school. Buses made the modern public-school system possible, enabling multigrade elementary schools and comprehensive high schools to replace one-room schools. Buses had long been used in the South—as well as in New York, Boston, and many other northern cities—to maintain segregation. This form of transportation was not controversial for white parents. Put more starkly, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; busing was not.

White parents in New York City organized in the late1950s to oppose plans to bus black and Puerto Rican students from overcrowded schools to white schools with open seats. The parents used euphemisms such as busing and neighborhood schools to maintain segregated schools without explicitly saying they did not want their children to go to school with black or Latinx students. Similar antibusing protests occurred in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities in the 1960s.

Northern congressmen responded to the anger expressed by many of their white constituents by writing antibusing provisions into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These amendments were designed to keep federal civil-rights enforcement of school desegregation focused on the South and away from the North. While the Civil Rights Act finally pushed to the South to comply with Brown v. Board of Education by enabling the withholding of federal funds, cities in the North, Midwest, and West routinely flouted federal authority.

Antibusing rhetoric spiked in 1972, the year Joe Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate. White protesters such as Irene McCabe of Pontiac, Michigan, received massive amounts of media attention for their defiance of court-ordered school desegregation. President Richard Nixon called for Congress to pass a busing moratorium and used televised presidential addresses to signal that he would limit federal oversight to unconstitutional de jure segregation, most commonly associated with the South, to set the terms of the busing debate. Nixon also warned his appointees and the lawyers and officials who worked in the Justice Department and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that they could either support the administration’s evolving school-desegregation policies or lose their jobs. When Biden came to the Senate and began introducing his own antibusing amendments, he was building on more than 15 years of white parents and politicians using busing as a code word to oppose school desegregation.

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