Commentary, COVID-19

North Carolinians deserve more information about the State Treasurer’s bout with COVID-19

State Treasurer Dale Folwell

Let’s make it clear at the outset that everyone should be pulling for State Treasurer Dale Folwell to make a swift and complete recovery from COVID-19 and that no one is blaming him for falling ill.

As the disease continues its rampage through American society, almost everyone is at risk even when taking significant precautions.

It’s also true that hindsight is 20/20. While one wishes that Folwell had been more alert and cautious and not decided to head back to work after returning from a trip to an undisclosed location with his son with illness symptoms he dismissed as a typical cold or allergy, fallible humans often make mistakes. What’s more, while others in his office have subsequently tested positive for the illness as well, we do not know at this point if they worked with or were exposed to Folwell. (As a side note, one fervently hopes that, wherever he and his son went on their trip, Folwell notified as many people as possible with whom he came in contact.)

All that said, this situation raises some important legal issues about which North Carolinians deserve some additional information.

First and foremost is the matter of whether Folwell is actually exercising his constitutional and statutory duties or is even capable of doing so at this critical time for investment markets. Folwell is the sole overseer of a huge, multi-billion dollar public pension fund and has responsibility for a state health plan that serves more than 700,000 members. Raleigh’s News & Observer reported on Monday that Folwell has not responded to a text inquiry and a spokesperson said he was “under the care of doctors.” We do not know exactly what that means.

As the same N&O story also reported:

“[On March 26] Folwell said he could not answer a call from [the paper] because of the severity of his symptoms. ‘I am really focused on saving my energy by not talking which (agitates) my cough and lungs,’ Folwell said in a text message directing further questions to [Treasury Department spokesperson Frank] Lester.

On Sunday [March 29], Folwell did not answer a text message seeking an update on his condition.

Lester said Monday that Folwell remains sick and under the care of doctors. When asked if Folwell was hospitalized he said he had no further information he could provide. Lester said he is relying on Folwell’s family to tell him what they’re comfortable with the public knowing….

Lester said there is no succession plan while Folwell is out sick but that Chief of Staff Chris Farr has been leading the office.”

If Folwell is truly incapacitated, this raises important matters of state law. As a prominent North Carolina attorney recently pointed out in an email to Policy Watch, Article III, Section 7, Subsection 5 of the state constitution says the following:

Read more

Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

Image: AdobeStock

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more

Commentary, COVID-19

NC Attorney General takes welcome action to ease financial pressure on struggling households

Attorney General Stein

In case you missed it, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein took some welcome actions late last week to help ease some of the financial pressures afflicting households across the state.

In a news release, Stein announced that he has suspended “all of the North Carolina Department of Justice’s collections efforts of state debts effective immediately and until further notice.”

In addition, the A.G. issued a request to “all local and municipal utilities to commit to maintaining access to water, power, gas, and other vital services for residents.”

As Stein noted in his statement:

“North Carolinians who are struggling with their health, have been laid off from their job, or are facing cuts to their income in the wake of COVID-19 should not have to bear additional burdens that will further harm their health or their finances.”

The A.G. is on the mark. The last thing people need in the current environment is to face lawsuits and losses of essential services due to debts the crisis has made it impossible to pay back for the time being.

Let’s hope Stein’s action helps spur similar action by other governmental and private entities (e.g. landlords, loan companies) in the days and weeks ahead.

Commentary, COVID-19

Experts: Health pandemic exposes failure to expand Medicaid, reliance on employer-provided insurance

In case you missed it, there was a fine story on NBC News last week that highlighted North Carolina’s failure to expand Medicaid, and the huge and unnecessary problems it was causing for uninsured people even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Among other things, “Coronavirus challenges states that rejected Medicaid expansion, leaves uninsured with few options” tells the sobering story of a family physician who practices in Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s district confronting the crisis.

William Luking, a doctor in rural North Carolina who runs a clinic with his brother about 25 miles north of Greensboro, said he treated one of his regular patients last week who had a dry, hacking cough and trouble breathing. The longtime patient turned scarlet when Luking said he should go to the hospital.

Amid wheezing and a severe fever, Luking’s patient said he couldn’t afford that kind of care. He didn’t have insurance.

“How many folks with this virus are going to be making the same decision?” Luking asked, noting that Medicaid expansion would have provided his patient hospital access. “That same scenario will play itself out here real quickly with folks soldiering on doing their minimum wage work while carrying the virus without seeking care. It has all the makings of a disaster.”

Luking and doctors like him have gone to great lengths to treat their patients and made personal sacrifices because, as he said, “We’re not going to fold up shop now.”

But there’s a risk that they may have to. Luking said because he will mostly have to move to doctor’s visits over the phone, he will see fewer reimbursements and payments and a greater number of uninsured patients. He’s prepared to zero-out his own salary but fears he may soon have to lay off members of his staff to keep his facility afloat.

Meanwhile, in today’s Washington Post, Prof. Jonathan Gruber of MIT lays out three steps the U.S. must take to care for the huge surge in uninsured sick people that’s coming — both as a result of the failure to expand Medicaid in states like North Carolina and the huge number of people who are becoming uninsured through job losses. Here’s the conclusion:

First, we should suspend insurance network restrictions for covid-19 patients. Patients should be able to go to the provider that is best for them, and for the community, regardless of network restrictions. Read more

Commentary, COVID-19, NC Budget and Tax Center

Three reasons why federal aid to state, local governments is not enough

Last week, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, which was immediately signed by the President.

While the bill has many good provisions, it misses the mark in many ways, like prioritizing tax breaks for big companies over federal aid to state and local governments.

Of the approximately $4 billion North Carolina is expected to receive, the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities estimates that $3.5 billion will go to the state and only about $481 million to local governments. This is largely a result of the allocation formula, which only provides allocation to local governments if the population is above 500,000 residents.

State and local governments are on the front lines of trying to keep communities healthy and to protect people from losing income and access to basic needs. Prior to the passage of the CARES Act, the NC League of Municipalities wrote letters to state leaders calling for additional resources to make up for declining revenue and meet the growing need for public safety personnel and broadband access. In a letter to Congress, the National League of Cities outlined four recommended improvements the CARES Act: enact a stabilization fund for cities and states, make local governments eligible for tax credit to offset costs of paid leave, stabilize the municipal bond market, and repeal state and local and property tax deduction caps.

Although the state and local aid in the CARES Act is a meaningful and important first step, it is likely to be insufficient to support North Carolina’s increased expenditures from combating COVID-19, as well as the potential loss in revenue from an economic downturn. Read more