Commentary

Parkland, one year later: What some South Florida high school shooting survivors want you to know

(Editor’s Note: This piece was first published by our sister publication, The Florida Phoenix, on Dec. 19, 2018. It was compiled by Jeff Foster, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. It was written by students Isabel, 17; Jacyln, 18; Jacob, 18; Jenny, 18; Marcus, 17; Olivia, 18; and Shai, 17. This week, as the nation observes the one year anniversary of this tragedy, their words carry as much impact as ever)

“This past Valentine’s Day, I was lucky enough to escape – along with 30 of my students – the senseless massacre that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where I’ve taught Advanced Placement American Government for the last 20 years. I recently asked some of my students to share their thoughts and emotions about what they all lived through that day, what they now relive every day – and what they believe must be done to stop it from happening again. The following is the compiled (and gently edited) words of my students” — Jeff Foster

On Feb. 14th, 2018, 17 of my peers, coaches, and teachers were killed at my school. Finding peace after February has been difficult as alarms no longer represent the possibility of leaping flames, but the threat of something much more sinister. We must now turn our attention to preventing the irrational – yet premeditated – human decision caused time and again by utilizing the weapons that murderers covet the most.

Assault weapons, or semi-automatic assault rifles, were once banned under U.S. law from 1994-2004. The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, commonly called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB and AWB 1994), was enacted in September 1994.

The ban, which included high-capacity magazines, became defunct (expired) in September 2004 per a 10-year sunset provision. During those ten years, there was a direct correlation between the law and fewer mass shootings. Gun massacres fell by almost 40 percent during that decade and quickly returned to previous levels after the ban lapsed. This evidence is too strong to ignore, and we believe that the country is undeniably safer if the ban is re-installed immediately.

A common argument against the assault weapons ban is that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This is absurd, as no human being would have the ability to destroy human tissue and explode arteries like a grenade without an assault weapon, among the most powerful weapons in the world. The hard-to-swallow truth for the opposition is that people kill people…with guns.

We clearly see a common thread between many of the mass shootings in this country — the AR-15. This killing machine was used in Las Vegas, Newtown, Sutherland Springs, Orlando, San Bernardino, and in our home, Parkland. These shootings could have either been prevented or resulted in less casualties if the original assault weapons ban had continued.

Writing this today, not even a year later, is incredibly difficult. Read more

Commentary, Education

Experts: Why we should reject efforts to break up NC school districts

In case you missed it the other day online or today in the hard copy of Raleigh’s News & Observer, be sure to check out an outstanding essay by Duke University professor of law Jane Wettach and her student, Grace Thomas. In “Big is best for school districts,” Wettach and Thomas lay out several compelling and common sense reasons for retaining North Carolina’s commitment to large, countywide school districts and resisting efforts pushed by some on the right to break them up — most notably the imperative to resist efforts by wealthy, whiter communities to wall themselves off. This is from the essay:

Throughout the South, large county-based school districts have enhanced economic equity and racial integration. Several decades after the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, it determined that integration efforts could not cross school district lines. Large rural school districts in the South contained a sufficient racial mix of students to effectively desegregate, unlike smaller, more mono-racial districts in the North. The urban districts in the South, which were often split between mostly-black city schools and mostly-white county schools, eventually consolidated to counteract this de facto segregation. In 1976, for example, Raleigh and Wake County merged, led by members of the business community who were concerned about negative economic impacts from the racially split districts. Integration of schools throughout the county ensued.

Since then, integration of our large districts hasn’t held steady and much re-segregation has occurred internally. Nevertheless, large districts, with their greater mix of students, still have the most power to resist re-segregation. Once district boundaries are redrawn, that protection is gone. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctified school district lines, small, racially homogenous districts can be immune from legal challenges that they are unconstitutionally segregated.

Wettach and Thomas also point out that there are good economic reasons to keep bigger districts:
The scourge of re-segregation is not the only reason to oppose the dismantling of our large school districts. The economies of scale with larger districts are real, not only in construction but in administration as well. Three or four superintendents cannot be hired for the cost of one. Indeed, a number of states with many small school districts are encouraging school district consolidation to save money and enhance efficiency. A study in Illinois projected a $130 million annual savings were the number of small school districts there reduced by half. In North Carolina, which ranks 39th in the nation in per-pupil funding and already has an $8 billion backlog of construction and repair work needed at schools across the state, the potential savings from retaining our large school districts should not be minimized.
Their bottom line take:
The arguments supporting smaller districts are ephemeral at best. Taken as a whole, social science research does not show a causal relationship between smaller districts and higher academic performance….On the long list of issues facing North Carolina schools, the size of districts should be near the bottom.
Click here to read the entire op-ed.
Commentary, News

House members introduce bill to raise NC’s minimum wage, improve worker rights and incomes

In case you missed it, State Representatives Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe)  introduced some long overdue legislation yesterday to dramatically improve the treatment of workers in North Carolina. House Bill 46 — the “Economic Security Act of 2019” — would make the following changes to state law:

  • it would increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour over five years;
  • it would add North Carolina to the list of states that guarantee pay equity by barring employers from paying employees of one gender less than employees of another gender for the same work;
  • it would require employers to provide workers with paid sick days and family medical leave (with some exemptions for small employers);
  • it would increase the tipped minimum wage;
  • it would enact new protections against “wage theft” by employers;
  • it would enact new “ban the box” protections to bar employers from inquiring into the criminal history of job applicants on initial application forms;
  • it would repeal the state’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees;
  • it would reinstate the state earned income tax credit and state child care tax credit.

Needless to say, the measure faces an uphill battle in the GOP-led General Assembly, but if there was ever a bill around which North Carolina working families could and should rally in 2019 and beyond, this is it.

Commentary, News

AFL-CIO unveils its 2019 “Good Jobs Policy Agenda”

The good people at the North Carolina AFL-CIO are unveiling the group’s “Good Jobs Policy Agenda” for 2019 today at a conference in Raleigh that Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to attend and address.

Among the highlights of the agenda:

  • Raising our poverty-level state minimum wage, as a majority of states have done.
  • Raising the wage for tipped workers, which is currently a paltry $2.13/hour.
  • Adding public school employees to the list of state employees who are entitled to a minimum wage of $15/hour.
  • Improving our laws to better eliminate the deliberate “misclassification” of workers as independent contractors—a practice that cheats employees as well as lawful employers, and it also cheats our state government out of tax revenue.
  • Restoring the level and duration of unemployment benefits, now that the Trust Fund is more than solvent, so that they are no longer among the lowest in the country.
  • Allowing municipalities to require employers in their communities, and particularly contractors doing work for those municipalities, to pay more than the state minimum wage, or to require workplace benefits or safeguards greater than what state law requires.
  • Requiring employers that receive tax incentives to provide jobs that will raise, not lower, the standard of living of working families.
  • Restoring the film industry rebate program to expand film jobs in our state.
  • Making employers that relocate call centers overseas ineligible for state subsidies and requiring that call center work contracted by or for state agencies be performed within our state.
  • Requiring that domestic and agricultural workers be covered by minimum wage, overtime, and recording-keeping laws. Maintaining a stable workers’ compensation system that pays adequate benefits to those injured on the job. This includes increasing the maximum allowable amount for permanent injury to body parts including the heart, lungs, and brain—a maximum that has not be raised in a quarter century, and creating certain presumptions for firefighters injured in the line of duty.
  • Requiring employers to provide work breaks—something not currently required under state law.
  • Requiring two-person crews on trains and creating strong penalties for those who assault transportation employees on the job.
  • Ensuring workplace safety for all workers, including our migrant workers. Guaranteeing a minimum number of paid sick days for workers to care for themselves and their loved ones, including expanding the definition of “family” in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to allow leave to care for siblings, grandparents or grandchildren, while preserving the exemption for family farms.
  • Providing funding for child care subsidies to offset costs of affordable, quality childcare for low income workers and those pursuing education and training.
  • Creating work-sharing programs that will keep people employed, preserve the skills of our workers, and reduce both lay-offs and costs to employers.

The agenda also includes a number of other important recommendations, including supporting public education, healthcare for all, an end to big money domination of our elections. Click here to read the entire list.

Commentary

Columnist: Speaker Tim Moore’s legal work raises ethics issues

In case you missed it this morning, journalist Colin Campbell of The Insider has a good piece in this morning’ News & Observer about the problems arising from House Speaker Tim Moore’s far flung law practice. As Campbell points out, it raises serious ethical issues when a powerful politician represents multiple private and public clients on the side.

While some local governments pay lobbyists to represent them in Raleigh, Moore’s home county decided it would be smarter to pay one of the most powerful people in the state to attend every commission meeting. Moore also serves as attorney for his county’s public utility.

Moore’s legal client base extends far outside Cleveland County. The North Carolina Bail Agents Association paid him $10,000 for work involving the N.C. Department of Insurance in 2012. Later that year — after Moore was no longer on the group’s payroll — the legislature passed a law that gave the association a monopoly in providing required bail bond training. Moore recused himself from the vote, but anonymous allegations that claim he was involved behind the scenes have drawn the interest of the FBI.

Moore also did legal work for Durham businessman Neal Hunter, a few years after Moore sponsored legislation that intervened on Hunter’s behalf in a dispute with Durham officials over a new development project, The News & Observer reported.

Moore’s work for the businessman and the bail association prompted a review from Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who announced last month that she’d “found no misuse of public office for private gain or other wrongdoing as to these payments.”

Moore’s actions appear to be perfectly legal, according to Freeman. But it’s still likely some of Moore’s clients are hiring him because of his political power instead of his legal prowess. And while Moore may be following ethics rules and keeping legal work separate from legislative work, the current system is easy to abuse.

Campbell’s correct in highlighting Moore’s work as highly problematic and in identifying a couple of possible solutions:

There’s an easy solution to this: Elected officials should be required to list all legal clients on their ethics forms. They’re already required to list their business interests, major investments and real-estate holdings, so legal work should be no exception.

Lawyers, of course, will claim that such a rule would violate attorney-client privilege. That problem would be easily solved by having elected officials’ legal clients sign a form agreeing to the public disclosure.

Or we could go a step further — make serving in the House and Senate a full-time job with full-time pay, and ban legislators from taking on outside employment while in office.

Taxpayers would spend more on legislative salaries, but they’d know that their representatives are working exclusively for them. We’d have fewer political scandals and greater confidence in government.

And House Speaker Tim Moore wouldn’t have to worry about answering questions from the FBI, or making sure the legislative session is over in time to attend a county commission meeting three hours away.