Commentary

Charlotte Observer editorial: Thom Tillis is no moderate

Be sure to check out a new Charlotte Observer editorial that’s running this morning in the Queen City and here in the Observer’s McClatchy twin, Raleigh’s News & Observer. In “Thom Tillis the moderate? Be skeptical,” the authors rightfully call out Tillis for his recent, pre-2020 election posturing and pretenses of moderation.

After documenting how Tillis keeps sponsoring bills with Democrats and touting his supposed “bipartisanship” on multiple issues, but then backs away when the chips are down, the editorial concludes with this on-the-money assessment:

This is the problem with Tillis’s move to the center. He boasts of bipartisanship and files bills with Democrats on smaller-ticket issues, but when the big moments arrive, Tillis doesn’t. At least not as a centrist.

So it is with immigration this week. So it was with a bill last year on protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation — a measure that Tillis introduced but has declined to forcefully pursue. Tillis also has been anything but centrist on significant policies Americans support, such as basic gun control measures and protecting Obamacare. He voted against his party only 1.8 percent of the time last Congress, ranking him 95th among all senators, according to ProPublica.

Most importantly, when his country needed Republican senators to stand up to the president’s reckless statements and policies the past two years, Tillis has too often been quiet. In fact, he said this two weeks ago to the Huffington Post: “I’m going to defer to the president on the best strategy, and I would never vote to override a veto on something that the president didn’t think was the best approach.”

We understand the challenge Tillis faces. If he votes against the president on high-profile issues, he risks losing the support of N.C. voters who are passionately behind Trump no matter what. He has apparently chosen a different strategy: Keep those Trump backers happy, but talk a good centrist game in hopes of grabbing enough moderates to win. Will it work? Perhaps. But Tillis should own who he is, and North Carolinians should recognize what he isn’t.
Commentary, NC Budget and Tax Center, Trump Administration

As shutdown lingers, unemployment insurance claims for N.C.’s federal workers in holding pattern

President Donald Trump (Credit: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

As highlighted last week in The News & Observer, the federal shutdown is having another ripple effect through North Carolina.

That’s because recent state policy changes make it harder for agencies to respond to community needs that arise when the unexpected occurs.  Federal workers’ claims to receive unemployment insurance are not being paid, leaving a critical stabilizer to household budgets and local economies unavailable to far too many in our state.

The article noted that the state unemployment insurance system is accepting claims but not currently issuing payments for claims made by federal workers affected by the shutdown. A look at weekly claim numbers confirms that there is, as yet, no spike in the number of claims issued over the extended federal shutdown.

In part that is due to the complicated nature of the shutdown, where some federal workers are showing up to work without pay, while others are furloughed. In the case of those essential workers working without pay, current guidance suggests these workers are not able to claim unemployment insurance.

However, questions remain about the urgency for federal workers, enough so that Gov. Gavin Newsome in California is considering providing unemployment insurance to these workers. Guidance says furloughed workers can receive unemployment insurance benefits, but will need to repay the benefits when the shutdown ends and back pay is received.

Many states have proactively made clear the guidelines for those federal workers affected by the shutdown, including prominent placement on websites about the claims process and making clear their willingness to support workers through this difficult time.

In North Carolina, state changes make the matter even more complicated. New requirements state that the Division of Employment Security must give employers 10 days to respond to a claim before moving that claim forward. But right now, many employers themselves are difficult to reach because they are not at work. A second requirement — reporting on the number of work searches —is impossible for most federal workers to meet because they are not looking for work but instead waiting to be recalled.

For contract workers and others whose employers have been impacted by the federal shutdown, their job loss, through no fault of their own, leaves them to access a flawed North Carolina unemployment insurance program — one that replaces the lowest share of lost wages of any state in the country for the fewest number of weeks, and with the lowest recipiency rate in the country.

A number of states are taking steps to ensure federal workers and those affected by the shutdown are able to access unemployment insurance.  Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico proposed waiving work search requirements. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is weighing providing unemployment benefits, including tapping into state funds to do so, so that people have the security of dollars coming in to stabilize their budgets.  Read more

Commentary

Veteran journalist: Why we should heed MLK’s message to “be an agitator”

In case you missed it, there was an on-the-money commentary posted over the weekend by longtime NC Policy Watch friend and all-around great American journalist, Hedrick Smith about Martin Luther King, Jr. Smith, who covered King during his lifetime and who later went on to serve as the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, reminded readers that it’s simply wrong to remember King in the warm and fuzzy way he is now so frequently portrayed. King, Smith reminds us, was a man dedicated to raising heck.

MLK’s message: “Be an agitator!”

Washington – Back in the 1960s, when I was covering Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights activists for The New York Times, I heard die-hard segregationists try to bait him as an “outside agitator” stirring up trouble.

“You’re comin’ into our town,” they would bellow, meaning Birmingham or Albany, Georgia or St. Augustine, Florida. “Things were quiet and peaceful. Our people were happy. But you come in here and stir up trouble. You’re agitating our people.”

They made it sound criminal – and in fact, several cities arrested Dr. King for “Agitating.”

Wondering how he would respond,, I would go to the mass meetings organized by his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in black churches all across the Deep South. And inevitably, Dr. King would get around to the racist name-calling.

“Do You Know What an Agitator Is?”

“They call me an agitator,” he would cry out from the pulpit, voice rising to suggest the force and menace intended by his detractors. “Well, they’re right,” he shot back defiantly. “I am an agitator.”

Then he’d ask puckishly: “Do you know what an agitator is?” He let the question hang in the air for a moment or two. People looked at each other, puzzled and uncertain.

“Well, look inside your washing machine,” he went on. “There’s an agitator in there.” And he would hold out his right arm, crooked at the elbow like a muscle man showing off his might with his fist thrust upward. And then Martin – that’s what his close friends called him – would twist his right fist sharply left-right, left-right, imitating the jerky circular motion of the shaft inside a clothes washer. “That agitator is in there, stirring up the water, knocking the dirt out of your clothes.”

“Well, that’s what I’m doing, too” Dr. King declared, still jerking his fist left-right. And the audience, catching his drift, would start to laugh. “I’m agitating to knock the dirt out of our society – racism, segregation, Jim Crow. So they’re right. I am agitating – agitating to clean up our democracy. That’s what all of us need to do. Be agitators. Agitate for a better America, a freer America, a fairer America.”

From the audience came a roar of laughter and engagement, an easy understanding that MLK was flinging the weapon of bigots back at them by turning their intended insult into his own battle cry.

A New Generation of Agitators

That wake-up call – “Be Agitators” – would be Martin Luther King’s sermon for today’s America. For if Dr King were among us today, he would be issuing fresh calls for new generations of agitators, from millennials to seniors, launching new movements for social justice and to fix our broken democracy. Read more

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, Education

Over-funded Opportunity Scholarship vouchers continue to drain resources from underfunded public schools

Data from the North Carolina Education Assistance Authority shows that North Carolina’s largest voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship, was over-funded by approximately $16.8 million in FY 2017-18. The state appropriated $44.8 million to subsidize tuition costs for students attending private schools last fiscal year, but issued only $28.1 million in vouchers.

That $16.8 million is money that could have otherwise been put to productive use in our public schools. Per student funding for North Carolina’s public schools remains five percent below pre-Recession levels when adjusted for inflation. Our schools receive fewer teachers, instructional support personnel, and assistant principals than they did prior to the 2010 change in General Assembly leadership. Funding for textbooks, supplies, and teacher assistants are all down more than 35 percent from pre-Recession levels.

Despite the lack of demand for the program, legislators increased funding for the Opportunity Scholarship program by an additional 22 percent ($10 million) for FY 2018-19. Funding increases continue to outpace demand. As a result, the level of voucher funding that will sit untouched is likely to increase to about $19.3 million in FY 2018-19.

Absent action from the General Assembly, funding for the under-subscribed program is set to increase by $10 million per year through FY 2027-28. The Opportunity Scholarship voucher program is the only educational initiative for K-12 students with guaranteed funding increases.

Of course, the financial hit to North Carolina’s public schools extends beyond the millions of dollars sitting needlessly unused in state coffers. Researchers from NC State found that nearly half of all families who applied for, but failed to receive a voucher, ended up sending their child to a private school anyway. That implies that almost half of the $54.8 million of Opportunity Scholarship funding is being wasted, subsidizing activities that people were going to do anyway. The remaining $28 million or so is also wasted if the voucher students are getting a worse education in private schools. Unfortunately, policymakers refuse to allow any serious evaluation of the program.