Commentary, Courts & the Law, Legislature

Editorial: NBA All-Star Game returns, but has N.C. really changed?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

What a difference three years makes, or does it?

As a new Charlotte Observer editorial points out, the NBA All-Star Game returns to North Carolina’s largest city this weekend, roughly three years after the state legislature’s ultra-offensive HB2 derailed league leaders’ plans to hold their annual festivities in Charlotte.

But has North Carolina, and more importantly, the N.C. General Assembly changed? A timely question, given new legislation filed by Republican lawmakers that scoffs at the U.S. Supreme Court’s milestone 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

North Carolina’s new bill is pungent, to be sure, like finding unwashed gym clothes in your bag.

But it seems likely that GOP legislators aim to put marriage equality back on an increasingly calcified, conservative Supreme Court’s docket. Social conservatives lost the public opinion battle long ago, but they may prevail on a post-Kavanaugh, post-Gorsuch SCOTUS.

The editorial rightly examines HB2’s odious replacement too, which banned local non-discrimination ordinances.

The NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, may look out on a drastically changed North Carolina, but close observers of the legislature know better.

Read The Charlotte Observer‘s editorial below:

Three years ago, the NBA announced it was moving its 2017 All-Star Weekend out of Charlottebecause of HB2, a North Carolina law that allowed for discrimination against the LGBTQ community, including transgender individuals. The NBA’s decision prompted a flurry of action; the NCAA and ACC soon canceled events in North Carolina, as did entertainers and convention gatherings. Charlotte and the state likely lost hundreds of millions in business and tax revenue.

Now HB2 is gone, sort of. Convention business has returned, as have NCAA events. On Friday, Charlotte and North Carolina will come full circle with the NBA bringing back the All-Star Weekend it so startlingly yanked.

But have things really changed?

On the surface, no. HB2 was rescinded, but its replacement forbids cities from adopting non-discrimination ordinances as Charlotte did before HB2. In fact, HB142 does not do one thing to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination. It was a compromise in name only — a way to get the offensive HB2 off the books and let organizations like the NBA justify doing business in North Carolina again.

Still, different types of change have come. First, N.C. Republicans have largely shown a reluctance to take on the kind of divisive legislation they’d embraced with HB2 and in years before. (Other states’ lawmakers, such as those in Kansas this week, haven’t shown such restraint.) Is North Carolina’s legislative reticence a response to the NBA, NCAA and so many others crossing the state off their list three years ago? Does it have something to do with whispers that Amazon and Apple cast a wary eye at the embarrassing national headlines N.C. Republicans generated? Perhaps, but whatever the reason, those kinds of headlines are now far less frequent. That’s good.

Time also has brought another kind of change, the kind that comes regardless of whether lawmakers give permission. In the years since the transgender bathroom debate first roiled North Carolina and the country, we’ve seen extraordinary progress on transgender awareness in this country. Discriminating against any member of the LGBTQ community is now widely seen as discriminating against all.

This is what history looks like sometimes — not only the big moments and legislation that we mark, but the smaller moments of change that often pave the way. Friday, coincidentally, not only brings All Star festivities to Charlotte, but also an anniversary of sorts: 10 years ago, Presbyterian church leaders representing the Charlotte area officially ratified a proposal allowing gays and lesbians to become pastors and elders. It was a big deal then, but now it doesn’t seem that way. Other churches have followed suit. The country has moved forward. Progress has come.

This also is true: When progress does arrive, it’s usually led not by legislation, but by people and organizations standing up and demanding change. That’s what the NBA did three years ago. It was a decision that was both courageous and jarring. It mattered. Welcome back.

Education, News

Governor’s school safety committee: Trained police, threat assessments, mental health funding needed to combat school shootings

A state committee established after last year’s shooting at a Florida high school says North Carolina should place a trained police officer in every school, conduct more rigorous threat assessments, and expand funding for mental health services.

The committee, formed last year in the Governor’s Crime Commission, made their recommendations in a new report for Gov. Roy Cooper. 

Among its recommendations, the panel urged state leaders to fund enhanced mental health training for those school resource officers, or SROs. Officers should also work with schools to prep for an “active shooter” and conduct drills.

The committee also backed the creation of gun violence protection orders, offering a legal process to “temporarily remove guns from a dangerous individual,” Cooper’s office said. State Rep. Maria Morey, a Durham judge turned lawmaker, urged legislators to adopt such a proposal last year. 

“When parents send their kids to school they expect them to be out of harm’s way, and we owe it to these kids and their families to make sure our schools are safe environments for learning,” Cooper said in a statement Thursday. “I appreciate the work of this committee and I look forward to continuing to work with them as well as other parents, law enforcement officers and educators to push for safer schools.”

The committee — which included law enforcement, juvenile justice experts, educators and state officials — also urged lawmakers to fund Cooper’s 2018 budget proposal for $55 million in spending on mental health in schools, including cash for more nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers.

It shares some similarities with a much-criticized report finalized last year by Republican lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly, including a focus on mental health in schools, although legislators resisted calls to discuss guns during their sessions, instead pushing for greater civic education and first-aid training for students.

Gov. Roy Cooper

Meanwhile, the Cooper committee is likely to field criticism from advocates who point to emerging evidence that a greater police presence in schools increases the likelihood that students — particularly Black students — will leave school with a criminal offense that might otherwise have prompted school discipline.

School police are also disproportionately called on Black students in schools, data show, feeding what’s referred to by youth justice advocates as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which students are siphoned out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

Cooper’s panel urged community dialogue on the SRO controversy, as well as specific guidelines for police activities in schools and improved data collection of school violence.

Other recommendations from the report:

  • “Vulnerability assessments” of schools to identify ways to make them safer, including placement of security cameras and alarms
  • Development of “multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams” that meet to discuss possible threats
  • A statewide tip line for reporting school threats
  • Training law enforcement and educators to “communicate more effectively” about school threats
  • Work with experts to develop best practices for SROs and educators in “distinguishing the difference between bad behavior and criminal conduct”

The committee began its work last spring, holding five public forums in Greenville and Greensboro. It was co-chaired by Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger and former Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.

Commentary, Education

Teacher: North Carolina charters are draining traditional schools

One of today’s best commentaries comes from Charlotte teacher and occasional Policy Watch contributor Justin Parmenter, who wrote this morning for Capitol Broadcasting Company that, like it or not, North Carolina’s booming charter school industry is draining traditional schools.

It’s an appropriate topic this week, with school choice advocates celebrating National School Choice Week.

State lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly have been keen on charter growth since they lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. By next year, the state is expected to include more than 200 charters, and the influx of charter students is wreaking havoc on traditional public school finances, Parmenter points out.

Read the full commentary below:

This week is National School Choice Week, and you’re going to hear a lot of charter school proponents talking about what a great thing choice is for families when it comes to education. Folks who are opposed to unchecked charter expansion will be derisively labeled ‘anti-choice,’ as if their views run counter to American democratic values. But the charter movement in our state is deeply problematic, and it’s important that we have a fact-based conversation about it.

On its face, choice sounds good. We expect it when we go to the store for salad dressing, when we’re looking at books at the library, or when we’re holding the tv remote. What kind of person could possibly be against others having the freedom to make choices when it comes to their children’s education? But what happens when the choices I’m making have a negative impact on those around me? What happens when those choices don’t occur in a vacuum?

Charter schools were originally intended as places of innovation, where educators could develop new approaches in a less regulated setting and collaborate with traditional public schools to improve outcomes for all. In some states, charter schools have been able to stay relatively true to that mission. Not so in North Carolina.

On a systems level, the good that charter schools are able to do is determined 100 percent by the policies that govern them. In North Carolina, charter school policy is a mess, and that mess is leading to some really bad outcomes for our children.

Since the cap on charter schools was lifted by North Carolina’s state legislature in 2012, the number of charter schools in the state has nearly doubled. This year we have 185 charter schools in operation, serving more than 100,000 students across the state (overseen by a staff of 8 people). Next year we’ll have 200.

The rapidly expanding charter schools siphon money away from traditional public schools and reduce what services those public schools can offer to students who remain, according to a recent Duke University study. As students leave for charters, they take their share of funding with them–but the school district they leave is still responsible for the fixed costs of services such as transportation, building maintenance and administration that those funds had supported.

Districts are then forced to cut spending in other areas in order to make up the difference. In Durham, where 18 percent of K-12 students attend charter schools, the fiscal burden on traditional public schools is estimated at $500-700 per student. As the number of charters increases, so will that price tag.

While charter schools in some states have been used successfully to improve academic performance for low income students, in North Carolina they’ve been used predominantly as a vehicle for affluent white folks to opt out of traditional public schools. Trends of racial and economic segregation that were already worrisome in public schools before the cap was lifted have deepened in our charter schools. Now more than two thirds of our charter schools are either 80 percent or more white or 80 percent or more students of color.

Charter schools are not required to provide transportation or free/reduced-price meals, effectively preventing families that need those services from having access to the best schools. Academic achievement in these hyper-segregated schools has played out how you’d expect, with charter schools serving primarily white, wealthy families outperforming traditional public schools and those serving mostly low-income families trailing behind them.

I don’t believe that charter schools are inherently bad, and I recognize that there are charter schools doing good work in North Carolina–even a handful that serve low income students and do so well. However, if our state legislators are really serious about providing families with good choices, they must enact policies that move us in the direction of racial and economic integration and don’t damage traditional public schools. Until that happens, let’s stop pretending that school choice is good for everyone.

Commentary, Environment, News

Editorial: It’s past time for North Carolina lawmakers to embrace clean energy

An insightful new editorial from Capitol Broadcasting Corporation says North Carolina lawmakers should take heed of the growing demand for a state-mandated rebate program for solar power users.

The piece examines how the program’s popularity among consumers — Duke Energy received 2,000 applications over a two-day period this month — far exceeds the number of rebates that are available.

Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg has documented legislators’ reluctance to embrace clean energy programs, as well as the messy clean-up associated with the state’s not-so-clean energy production.

Now, quite clearly, it’s time for state policymakers to approach clean energy with the same excitement as North Carolina businesses and residents.

Read the editorial below:

In just two days earlier this month Duke Energy received about 2,000 applications for a share of $10 million in rebates to North Carolina homeowners, businesses and non-profits to install rooftop solar power panels.

That was way more applicants than money – about $10 million – available.

In the second year, of a five-year, $62-million state-mandated program, the company expects to distribute more than 1,700 rebates. The program opened Jan. 2.By the end of the week the program was sold out…  Last year, the first year of the program, it awarded about $8.5 million – more than 90 percent of the 1,700 rebates to homeowners.

What’s the impact of the program? A year ago, there were 5,700 Duke rooftop solar customers. Today there are more than 9,000 – a nearly 60 percent increase. “Our rebates are driving solar adoption in the state,” said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless.

The rebates are significant – up to $6,000 for homeowners, $50,000 for businesses and $75,000 for non-profits such as faith-based facilities. The rebates are in addition to a federal tax credit of 30 percent (which drops to 26 percent in 2020).

This program is a win all around. Electric power is generated without nuclear or fossil fuels. Consumers and the company avoid significant costs for both the fuel burned and the proper storage or disposal of the waste generated. No dealing with radioactive trash or toxic coal ash.

Consumers both get a break on the cost of installing the solar panels and on their utility bill. Duke Energy increases its generating capacity without the significant investment of building new power plants.

Public officials along with public and private energy generators and distributors should take notice and look for appropriate ways to encourage expanded residential use of renewable energy. Gov. Roy Cooper has noticed and has been leading efforts to grow the clean energy economy.

Our legislative leaders have been out of step with both North Carolinians desires and our neighboring states energy policies. Virginia and South Carolina have looked to expand opportunities for solar capacity and offshore wind energy development while appropriately remaining highly skeptical at efforts to make our coastal waters open to fossil fuel exploration and development.

North Carolina’s legislators have passed laws making it more difficult to deploy offshore wind energy – even though studies have shown the state has one of the best resources for it on the east coast. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has designated two areas off the state’s coast appropriate for wind energy development.

These solar rebates were gone in a flash. It should be a bright signal to North Carolina policy makers. It is past time to expand opportunities to embrace renewable energy and put the state back on the road to national leadership in growing its clean energy economy.

Commentary, Legislature, News

Editorial: General Assembly was right to seat Rachel Hunt

Newly-seated state House member Rachel Hunt

A new editorial from The Charlotte Observer says the N.C. General Assembly was right to dismiss calls from a conservative advocacy group to block newly-elected lawmaker Rachel Hunt from a seat.

The opinion piece follows the N.C. Values Coalition’s last-minute plea to block Hunt after she ousted influential Republican Bill Brawley by a minuscule margin in November, claiming that they had zeroed in on hundreds of “questionable” absentee ballots.

But if the group was hoping for an outcry similar to the calamity in District 9, they’re surely disappointed. There’s a problem with their claim: The ballots they’ve targeted did not, apparently, clash with the state law.

The piece goes on to examine how North Carolina may approach the questions about absentee ballots, which clearly will be due for a once-over with state leaders in the coming years.

From The Charlotte Observer:

Rachel Hunt was sworn in as a member of the N.C. House on Wednesday, with a cloud hanging over her not of her own making. She earned the seat, and House leaders were right not to deprive her of it. But a challenge to her victory raises larger questions that go to the heart of voters having trust in North Carolina’s elections and that need to be addressed.

Hunt, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, knocked off incumbent Republican Bill Brawley by a mere 68 votes out of 38,000 cast in November. That caught the attention of the North Carolina Values Coalition, a conservative advocacy group. It had a sister organization, the Institute for Faith & Family, comb through absentee mail-in ballots in Hunt’s district, House 103.

The group found more than 300 cases in which there was a discrepancy between the date the voter signed the ballot envelope and the date the witness to that vote did. That, the Values Coalition argued, suggests possible fraud and should have blocked Hunt from being seated.

One problem with that: State law does not require that the dates match. In fact, state law does not mention witnesses dating their signatures on absentee ballots. And the state board of elections had suggested to county boards last April that they not throw out a ballot just because the voter and witness dates differed. Given all that, the Mecklenburg board hand-inspected absentee ballots after Election Day, including the 300 in question, and approved them. The county board and the state board certified the results, making Hunt the legitimate winner.

Still, the whole episode suggests some changes are needed. Witnesses weren’t asked to date their signatures on absentee ballots until 2018. The state board of elections initiated that practice after the 2016 election as a tool to help identify voter fraud. After all, though it’s not illegal, a discrepancy between the voter and witness dates does raise questions about whether the vote was actually witnessed.

State elections officials say that date discrepancies may be fodder for an investigation. Yet at the same time, they emphasize to county boards not to pay such discrepancies much mind.

And so the Mecklenburg Board of Elections didn’t, and isn’t. Were the questionable absentee ballots only in Hunt’s House 103, or were there similar ballots in races across the county and state? Were there one or two witnesses signing the ballots in question, or many? Were these ballots mostly from voters of one party or the other?

Mecklenburg Elections Director Michael Dickerson can’t say, because he hasn’t inspected the 300 ballots to look for patterns. He told the Observer editorial board Wednesday he’s happy to do so if the state or his board want him to.

By themselves, the differing dates found by the Values Coalition hardly suggest the House 103 results are tainted. It’s unlikely they are. But many voters at least want to know that nothing’s being swept under the rug. A state board spokesman said that office has opened an investigation into the ballots the Values Coalition flagged. That’s good; a closer look would be valuable, as would more consistent and precise guidance from the state.