Commentary, Education, News

Study: North Carolina pre-K expanding, but still lags national average

A new study says North Carolina Pre-K is on the rise, but there’s still a great deal more work to do.

The report should provide new fodder for North Carolina lawmakers, who’ve been debating expanded public access to Pre-K for several years.

From WRAL’s report Wednesday:

North Carolina has increased state preschool funding and enrollment, but access has hovered at 23 percent of 4-year-olds – below the national average, according to new research released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The State of Preschool 2018 annual report, based on 2017-18 academic year data, found that North Carolina boosted pre-K spending by nearly $6 million in 2017-18, with plans to continue increased funding. However, the state “needs to both expand access and restore funding per child to pre-recession levels to help close the pay gap between pre-K and K-3 teachers with the same qualifications,” the group wrote.

“North Carolina is moving in the right direction,” NIEER founder and senior co-director Steven Barnett said in a statement.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers discussed a possible three-year virtual early learning pilot program called “UpStart” that would give at-risk, preschool-age children access to online pre-K classes at home.

Earlier this year, North Carolina business leaders, including CEOs at Red Hat and SAS, pushed for more slots for students in pre-K.

Across North Carolina, about 30,000 children participate in the NC Pre-K program, which focuses specifically on educating at-risk 4-year-olds. Teachers in the program have to be certified in early reading, a criteria that has been recognized across the country for success, according to SAS CEO Jim Goodnight.

The positive impacts of early childhood education are well-documented, and the under-funded programs might have the potential to decrease achievement gaps as well.

Meanwhile, questions also persist about pay for pre-k educators.

More from WRAL:

Nationally, the group found that just a third of 4-year-olds and 5.5 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs, with virtually no change in years. Meanwhile, state funding “is failing to keep pace with even the slow increases in enrollment and state spending per child has decreased, when adjusted for inflation,” the group reported. “Inadequate funding undermines classroom quality, and most states fail to pay pre-K teachers comparably to K-3 teachers.”

Barnett said he is “disappointed by the lack of progress and concerned about the number of children missing the quality early learning experiences.”

This year’s report includes a special section on policies affecting the preschool teacher workforce, focusing on salary and benefit parity.

Enrollment has more than doubled since 2002 – with almost 1.6 million children enrolled nationwide – but expansion has slowed in recent years, according to the report. “In some states, slow growth is due to a shift from part-day to full-day programs, which can better support child development as well as family work schedules, but nevertheless leaves many children unserved.”

For North Carolina’s state profile in the new study, go here.

Commentary, News

Report: Allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County predated District 9 controversy

"Vote" pin

A lengthy new report from WRAL’s Tyler Dukes details how allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County long predated the District 9 ruckus, begging questions about local prosecutors in the eastern North Carolina county.

According to that report, published Tuesday morning, state election investigators held evidence that appeared to indicate a candidate for local elected office may have paid voters to go to the polls. But the local district attorney — who defends himself in the story — did not prosecute.

The emails that raised eyebrows in 2015 didn’t concern the 9th Congressional District, which made national headlines in 2018. Instead, they focused on a nonpartisan race for city council in Lumberton, where one candidate accused her opponent of paying three voters to cast ballots in exchange for $7 apiece.

Robeson County, of course, was tied up in the allegations of ballot harvesting that forced a new election in Congressional District 9 this year.

But today’s reporting lends further credence to the notion that Robeson County — and the District 9 region — may have been ripe for election malfeasance.

The most important questions, though, involve how state officials will approach these cases in the future. The reporting delves into that as well:

[Former Robeson County D.A. Johnson] Britt’s decision in 2016 was not the first time local prosecutors – or even state and federal ones – have declined to pursue charges over allegations of election improprieties.

In 2010, for example, a special deputy attorney general with the state Department of Justice declined a request from Bladen County’s top prosecutor to look into vote-buying allegations there. Despite allegations of “voter fraud and assorted trickery,” the DOJ lawyer wrote, most alleged victims were elderly and unreliable – they weren’t credible witnesses.

The Robeson County case stands out in some respects, said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. But he said it’s also emblematic, in some ways, that the agency sometimes has a difficult time “getting traction” with local prosecutors.

Lawson said his agency is doing its part. State elections officials have ordered at least nine new elections since 2016.

Yet criminal charges like those in the 9th Congressional District investigation remain a rarity – and are well outside the legal purview of the board.

“We’re not trying to cast blame on anybody,” elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said. “But what can happen if these things are allowed to linger and keep happening without any repercussions, the offenders get more brazen. Things that appear to have happened in Bladen this year will happen.”

And if a local prosecutor declines to bring criminal charges – whatever the reason – the board essentially has no recourse.

“Until something happens to change the culture in those areas, we’re going to continue to have to repeat this conversation over and over again,” Gannon said.

Former Robeson District Attorney Britt said one potential fix is a change in state law. Legislators could give the authority to prosecute election law violations to the state attorney general’s office, or even the Wake County district attorney, where the state elections board is based.

That tactic worked for the 9th District, where Wake County’s district attorney took over the investigation after Bladen County’s top prosecutor recused himself.

“You put it in the hands of the people who are most familiar with it,” Britt said.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

A must-read: New series shows long odds for sexual assault convictions in NC

From time to time, good reporters go above and beyond in their public service.

Case in point: A new four-part series publishing this week details the stunningly long odds of a sexual assault conviction in North Carolina today. And in some counties, it’s near impossible.

The numbers indicate, quite frankly, what many advocates have long believed to be the case: the criminal justice system is stacked against victims. 

From Carolina Public Press’ synopsis of the series:

Analysis of 4 ½ years of North Carolina court data shows that about 1 in 4 sexual assault defendants who were charged and had their cases resolved in that time window were convicted of either sexual assault or a reduced and related charge. Of those cases in that time period, 50 defendants went to trial; 23 were found guilty. But individual counties had different outcomes. More than 30 of the state’s 100 counties had no sexual assault or reduced-charge convictions at all. A few were well above the statewide level.

A collaborative investigative project spanning 6 ½ months and including 11 news organizations analyzed statewide court data and conducted extensive interviews with sexual assault survivors, victim advocates, medical professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors and state officials across the North Carolina.

The result is Seeking Conviction, an investigative series examining sexual assault convictions in North Carolina, the challenges to successful prosecution, the differences across jurisdictions and the issues state court rulings create when it comes to consent.

Keying on its exhaustive analysis of court records, the series found that the prospect of a sexual assault conviction varies depending on your zip code.

Indeed, in some counties, suspects face very little chance of a conviction, while in others, the chances are markedly higher.

This week’s series is a call to action. Make it the first of many, many conversations.

Courts & the Law, Governor Roy Cooper, News

Gov. Cooper names appeals court judge, Mark Davis, to N.C. Supreme Court

Newly appointed state Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis

North Carolina will soon have a full state Supreme Court, after Gov. Roy Cooper announced his appointment Monday of state Court of Appeals Judge Mark Davis to the high court.

Davis will fill the seat once occupied by new Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Cooper named Beasley to the chief justice role last month when the former chief justice, Mark Martin, retired at the end of February to take a job as the dean of Regent University’s law school.

Davis will take over Beasley’s former associate justice position, arriving in time to hear oral arguments when the state Supreme Court convenes in April. He also intends to run for election to a full eight-year term in 2020.

“I know Judge Davis is dedicated to his work and to serving the people of North Carolina, and I know he will continue to serve with distinction as an associate justice on the Supreme Court,” Cooper said.

This is the second time Davis, a registered Democrat, has succeeded Beasley. He was appointed to her Court of Appeals seat by former Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012, and won election to a full eight-year term in 2014. Davis was previously Perdue’s general counsel and, before that, served as a special deputy attorney general at the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Davis, who was born in Onslow County, also worked for more than a decade in the litigation section of the Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice firm, now Womble Bonds Dickinson.

Davis’ appointment shifts the balance of the Supreme Court to a 6-1 Democratic majority. Martin, the former chief justice, was a Republican, and GOP leaders had been hopeful Cooper would appoint a Republican to the high court to keep some balance. Cooper has said before that he would appoint the best person for the job.

Both Beasley’s and Davis’ seats will be up for election in 2020. Davis’ appointment also leaves a vacancy on the state Court of Appeals. Cooper will have the power to fill it.

Several people have already announced their intentions to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court, including the only Republican on the court, Justice Paul Newby, who will challenge Beasley for the leadership position.

Other likely candidates in 2020 include Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals – he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – and former state Senate member Tamara Barringer, a Wake County attorney.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(Note: Managing Editor Billy Ball contributed to this report.)

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, News

What this week’s court order means for N.C.’s unpaid $730 million tab to school districts

Running out the clock, it seems, is not an option for remedying North Carolina’s $730 million technology tab to local school districts.

That’s the takeaway from Wake Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier’s order this week extending a hefty judgement against the state for civil penalties unconstitutionally diverted from schools from 1996 to 2005.

A judge sided with local districts in their case against the state in 2008, but that order was set to expire last year until school board leaders filed a new suit.

Meanwhile, the state — which is not contesting its lingering bill — has been non-committal in addressing their debt. Funds would be used exclusively for school tech.

At least 30 percent of school districts say they don’t have the money to meet the state’s goal for replacing mobile devices every four years, according to the N.C. School Boards Association, which advocates for local boards of education.

Minnie Forte-Brown

“In this ever-changing, high-tech world, that’s unacceptable,” Minnie Forte-Brown, immediate NCSBA past president, said in a statement this week.

The 2008 ruling set the bill, but the courts agree they do not have the power to direct the state in the manner of how they repay their debt. State agencies have only paid about $18 million of the original $750 million ruling.

That leaves school boards waiting to see if and when North Carolina lawmakers take action, no sure thing when state school leaders regularly wage bruising battles with legislators over K-12 cash.

At the very least, the expired ruling means lawmakers won’t get a pass by virtue of the clock.

Read Ed NC‘s report on the ruling below:

A Wake County Superior Court Judge extended a nearly $730 million judgment against the state today for failing to give money received from civil penalties to school districts.

A 2008 court decision said the state owed the public schools almost $750 million in civil penalties collected by state agencies. Since the decision, the state’s public schools have only received about $18 million.

The crux of the issue revolves around the time period between 1996 and 2005, when the state held back money that the courts later said was owed to the state’s public schools under the state constitution. While schools have been receiving the money they’re owed since then, districts are still trying to collect on money owed prior to 2005.

Back in August, The North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) and other plaintiffs refiled the lawsuit because the original judgment was only valid for 10 years and a second lawsuit had to be filed to keep it alive.

“We are pleased that the court extended the judgment against the state,” said Billy Griffin, president of the NCSBA and chairman of the Board of Education in Jones County, in a press release. “These funds are vitally important to public schools across the state because there is certainly no shortage of needs for technology.”

The money from the judgment is meant to be spent on technology, because that is what it was originally meant to be used for.

Historically, the General Assembly has taken no action to repay the money from the judgment, but that appears to be changing. A provision in the House construction bond bill filed by Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, addresses the issue. It says that funds used from the construction bond for school technology shall be credit against that $730 million judgment.

“NCSBA continues to stress to the General Assembly the need to develop a payment structure to return the funds due to the public school students of this state for technology. We are encouraged by the inclusion in Speaker Moore’s bond proposal that any funds used for technology will be credited against the judgment. This is the first of several steps necessary to address the judgment for several years,” said Leanne Winner, NCSBA director of governmental relations, in a press release.