Education, News

WRAL: With thousands of teachers descending on Raleigh, records show Superintendent Mark Johnson wrestled with how to respond

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

If you haven’t yet, head over to WRAL for an in-depth exploration of N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson’s emails and texts in the days before more than 20,000 teachers and K-12 advocates swarmed Raleigh last month.

Here’s one highlight of the WRAL report, which included a review of almost 100 pages of Johnson’s texts and emails:

Johnson consulted with three public relations advisers in the weeks before the protest “to explain to the public why he didn’t support the rally and wouldn’t be attending. He worked to highlight ways he has supported teachers and pondered where he should spend the day on May 16 as thousands of educators descended on downtown Raleigh.”

Of course, it’s not unusual for a public official in Johnson’s position to huddle with P.R. advisers to prepare a response to a major political event like this. But the top public school administrator rankled some when he opted last month to speak out against the protest and spent the day reportedly visiting schools more than 100 miles away in Craven County.

The event, which was led by public school advocates in the N.C. Association of Educators, forced 42 of the state’s 115 school districts to close as teachers headed to Raleigh. It was an unprecedented gathering, which directed blistering criticism at mostly Republican leaders in the state legislature over a decade of waning state funding.

From WRAL:

The records revealed he received both praise and criticism from the public for his decision not to attend the rally. Some thanked him for refusing to support an event that “hurts the kids and has caused undue hardship,” while others viewed his refusal to participate as a “lack of support” for teachers.

The superintendent did not respond to all emails from the public. But when he did, he promised to listen, even to those he disagreed with, and shared a list of his top education priorities, including more literacy support for students and reducing over-testing.

Johnson, a Republican, also wrote about his strained relationship with the North Carolina Association of Educators, which organized the teacher rally, and said he and Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, “actually agree on a lot of issues when it comes to education.”

Superintendent: ‘So this is growing’

Johnson and his staff watched closely as school districts across the state began announcing they would close May 16 due to teachers’ requests to take a personal day to attend the rally. Durham canceled first and was quickly followed by Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

“So this is growing,” Johnson texted his public relations advisers. “Will definitely need a statement for Monday.”

Over several days, the superintendent and his team work-shopped potential comments to send to the media. Johnson’s first draft, which included a reference to “partisan tactics,” was soon shortened and softened.

Drew Elliot, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, was one of three advisers helping Johnson craft a statement and work on messaging about the rally. The superintendent also sought help from Graham Wilson, his community outreach coordinator, and Jonathan Felts, who chaired his transition committee after the election and occasionally helps with political messaging on a volunteer basis.

“We didn’t quite know what [the May 16 event] was going be,” Elliot said, explaining why it took several days for the superintendent to put out a statement. “When you have an elected official who’s a Council of State member, his words carry weight. So he doesn’t like to just come off as uninformed or flippant about things.”

The superintendent couldn’t delay responding much longer. Reporters gathered at an event in Winston-Salem on May 7, where Johnson was announcing a new literacy initiative, were the first to question him publicly about the teacher rally.

“I do not plan to attend a protest on a school day,” Johnson said, explaining that he “absolutely” supports teachers but that the protest would affect others, including school workers and parents.

After the event, he texted his advisers to let them know the press conference went “fine.” He assured them that he stuck to his talking points about the rally, but said he expected some “protestors against me now.” There were no prepared, written talking points, his spokesman later explained: “I think he just meant that he didn’t get off on some tangent with a reporter.”

Education, News

State budget corrections bill: A new bonus for municipal charters, suicide hotline to endure?

House Speaker Tim Moore (L) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R)

With North Carolina lawmakers seeking an exit from Raleigh in the coming days, the legislative activity has been, shall we say, frantic.

One key portion of the debate to follow is the development of the legislature’s technical corrections bill, which lawmakers typically use to tidy up loose ends, or in some cases, inject new controversial policies into their spending plan.

Given the speedy and secretive manner in which state legislators developed this year’s budget, many expected this year’s $23.9 billion spending plan—which did not allow for amendments—would be rife with necessary corrections.

In case all of the activity leaves you dizzied, WRAL has a rundown of the highlights of that technical corrections bill, which is moving through the legislature today. And a major budget provision that threatens to drastically alter how North Carolina funds public schools is facing a change, although not in the way that public school advocates were seeking.

Read on.

From WRAL:

Lawmakers have found money to keep the state Suicide Prevention Lifeline running.

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services has been relying on federal mental health grants to fund the hotline, which is run out of a Greenville-based call center. But policy changes no longer allowed the state to use those grants for it, and the hotline faced a July 1 cutoff.

No money for the program was included in the $23.9 billion state budget, which took effect Tuesday following the legislature’s override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. So, lawmakers included a provision in the annual “budget technical corrections” bill to provide $348,558 a year to operate it for at least the next three years.

The technical corrections bill also provides some wiggle room for the planned Durham/Chapel Hill light rail line to obtain state funding and backs off a demand that people wishing to join the State Highway Patrol take out loans to pay for their trooper training.

Other notable items in the 28-page bill, which cleared the Senate on Wednesday and is expected to go before the House later this week, include the following:

A $200,000 earmark for Donors Choose to pay for school supplies at 35 Charlotte-area schools has been removed from the budget. The nonprofit, which steers contributions to classroom teachers’ projects, rejected the money when officials learned it was targeting schools in the new district for Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, who faces a tough re-election effort this fall.

Medicaid recipients will get $2 million to pay for eyeglasses in addition to eye exams, starting in January. Contact lenses would be paid for when medically necessary. Another $5.5 million would increase the payment rate for in-home aide services provided under the Community Alternatives Program for Disabled Adults.

Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville will lose $4 million to pay for building costs associated with new inpatient behavioral health beds. That money will instead go to Betsy Johnson Hospital in Dunn, which is in the home district of House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett.

State veterans homes will be built in the Triangle and the Triad with $27.2 million the state is putting up to match federal funding.

A provision in the budget allowed for cities to fund their own charter schools, and the technical corrections bill would let that funding go to capital expenses, such as buying or leasing buildings, in addition to operations. Regular charter schools receive no public money for buildings.

Also on the charter school front, the state Department of Public Instruction is barred from making any cuts to the Office of Charter Schools in the coming year.

The final section of the corrections bill would create the Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of College Student-Athletes, a 12-member panel that would study issues such as health insurance, injuries and profit-sharing and recommend any appropriate legislation.

agriculture, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature, News, public health

The week’s Top Five on Policy Watch

1. A moment of extreme danger for NC public schools

There have been a lot of regressive education policies that have emanated from the North Carolina General Assembly in recent decades. Even prior to the Republican takeover that commenced in 2011, many Democratic leaders had already embraced the flawed conservative idea that our schools and students were struggling in many places because they were too “soft” and lacked sufficient “competition.” Hence, the early-century moves to introduce charter schools, dramatically expand the number of high-stakes, standardized tests and limit so-called “social promotions.”

In the last seven-plus years of GOP rule, the relative trickle of conservative education schemes has turned into a flood. Lawmakers have slashed funding, dramatically expanded charters (including for-profit, virtual charters), introduced private school vouchers, “education savings accounts,” “performance-based pay,” and state-initiated conversions of struggling schools to charter schools, and talked openly and repeatedly of privatizing what has long been understood to be a core function of government.

As unhelpful as each of these developments has been, however, they may well end up paling in comparison to the new and dangerous two-part change that’s currently making its way into law during the current legislative session.

At issue is the enormously controversial and dangerous plan to fundamentally alter the way North Carolina funds public schools by allowing individual cities to get into the business of running and funding public schools. Under the plan approved by the Senate last week, four wealthy suburbs of Charlotte that are angry with the administration of the county school system would be granted authority to fund their own charter schools and give priority admission to their towns’ students.

The plan is so radical and potentially game-changing that it actually drew negative votes from five Senate Republicans last week – something that almost never happens in that intensely partisan body – and is now attracting national attention. [Read more…]

2. In surprise revision to school safety bill, Senate Republicans seek insurance overhaul that may threaten NC’s Affordable Care Act marketplace

3. State lawmakers moving suddenly and swiftly to shut down nuisance suits against industrial hog farms

4. “Piecemeal” judicial redistricting: Lawmakers pushing a trio of bills that would impact a third of state’s residents

5. Amid anti-LGBTQ violence, NC Democrats seek expansion of state hate crimes law

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, News

Board of Education, Superintendent both claim wins in NC Supreme Court ruling

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the comments of the State Board of Education.

Lawmakers did not violate the constitution when they transferred power from the State Board of Education to newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson, according to the State Supreme Court.

A unanimous opinion was released Friday, which officially puts Johnson in charge of the $10 billion public school system. Chief Justice Mark Martin did not hear the case after previously recusing himself.

Attorneys for the Board of Education had argued that lawmakers, in crafting House Bill 17, encroached on the Board’s constitutional authority by copying and pasting its powers and duties and transferring them to Johnson.

They said lawmakers could not give or reallocate constitutional duties and that the Board’s core constitutional power was to supervise, make rules and administer funds.

Johnson’s attorneys argued that the General Assembly had authority to transfer power because of the constitutional language that the Board’s power is “subject to laws enacted by the General Assembly.”

The high court’s decision that HB717 did not encroach on the Board’s constitutional authority was in part because of “the existence of numerous statutory provisions subjecting the Superintendent’s authority to appropriate rules and regulations adopted by the Board.”

Attorneys for the Board, Bob Orr and Drew Erteschik viewed the Supreme Court opinion as a win.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision, which reaffirms that the State Board of Education — and not the Superintendent of Public Instruction — has the ultimate authority under the Constitution to supervise and administer the state’s public school system,” they said. “We are also pleased that, while the Court stopped short of invalidating this particular legislation on its face, the Court unanimously declared that the Board has the final say on ‘the mechanics of the relationship between the Board and the Superintendent, as well as how their respective departments will operate internally.’ Beyond those initial observations, we are continuing to study the Court’s decision.”

Johnson also viewed the opinion as a win. He said in an emailed statement that the Supreme Court’s opinion “validates the common-sense proposition that the duly-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction should lead the Department of Public Instruction.”

“I am looking forward to putting this lawsuit behind us and working with board members to strengthen public education in North Carolina,” he stated. “While it is unfortunate that it took more than a year and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to resolve this matter, the positive news is that we will be able to utilize the data-driven analysis to reorganize DPI to help the agency focus on its core mission of supporting educators, students, and parents across North Carolina.”

You can read the full opinion below.

NC Supreme Court Opinion Board of Edu by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Education, News, public health

In surprise revision to school safety bill, Senate Republicans seek insurance overhaul that may threaten NC’s Affordable Care Act marketplace

Sen. Ralph Hise unveiled a change in law Thursday that may have major implications for the Affordable Care Act.

A bipartisan-backed proposal to help North Carolina schools recruit campus psychologists received a major makeover in a Senate committee Thursday that may destabilize the state’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace, advocates say.

Senate Republicans unveiled the new portions of House Bill 933 at a committee meeting Thursday morning, potentially clearing surprise provisions aimed purportedly at lowering the threshold for small employers to offer self-funded health plans and, perhaps most importantly, clearing less-regulated association health plans for membership organizations like the N.C. Farm Bureau.

“These people, as I move around the state, are coming to me asking whether Farm Bureau can help them,” Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten told Senate lawmakers.

The Farm Bureau provides insurance, banking, and other benefits to their members in North Carolina. They also advocate for agricultural interests at the N.C. General Assembly.

Wooten and Sen. Ralph Hise, a western North Carolina Republican who co-chairs the Senate Health Care Committee, pitched the revisions to the school safety bill as a means of expanding health insurance options for residents complaining of soaring healthcare premiums.

The revisions come with federal officials considering new rules for skimpy short-term plans and association health plans. If approved by state lawmakers, the new rules would allow groups like Farm Bureau to offer health plans exempted from state oversight and from ACA regulations that protect individuals with pre-existing conditions from being excluded or facing higher premiums.

N.C. Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten

Asked Thursday whether the new Farm Bureau plan would cover pre-existing conditions, Wooten did not answer the question directly.

“Certainly, that would have to be something that we take under consideration as we move forward with this association health plan,” Wooten told legislators.

Yet Wooten reportedly indicated in a N.C. Health News report Wednesday that the organization wouldn’t be able to offer plans without underwriting, a practice that makes it more difficult for individuals with pre-existing conditions to secure coverage.

Wooten added for lawmakers Thursday that the Farm Bureau plan “would not be for everybody.”

“Certainly we would have to look at it carefully and we would tier it so people would have the ability to participate,” he said. “Obviously, some folks may be, if you look at underwriting, some folks may still be better off in the individual market and the ACA.”

Critics say the new North Carolina proposal mirrors existing exemptions for the Farm Bureau in Tennessee, which experts have linked to one of the nation’s shakiest ACA marketplaces. 

Hise’s rewrite would also scrap a state law that sets a 26-employee bar for small employers who wish to offer self-funded health plans. The proposed version Hise put out Thursday does away with that threshold altogether, although Hise said it’s his intent to ultimately set a minimum bar of 10 employees.

Some companies suggest that such plans may allow them to limit costs, although experts note they’re a much riskier option for employees.

Democrats seemed to struggle with the health care implications Thursday, particularly given Republicans bundled the reforms with a widely-supported school psychologist recruiting effort proposed in a school safety committee this year following a deadly shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school. The House approved the bill unanimously last month.

Lawmakers did not take a vote on the Senate committee rewrite Thursday, although Republicans said they may hold at a vote at the panel’s still unscheduled next meeting.

Wooten said that his group has been working on the plan for two years, although the details emerged in a Senate committee Thursday with little or no public notice.

Opponents say the state Senate measure coincides with a GOP push to allow for slim plans in alternative marketplaces catered to “healthy” individuals, a push that threatens to weaken the ACA marketplace and drive up costs for sick individuals.

Critics quickly pounced on the proposal Thursday. The progressive N.C. Justice Center issued a statement calling the reforms “dangerous new provisions that would endanger critical protections for North Carolinians with pre-existing conditions.”

[Disclosure: The Justice Center is the parent nonprofit of Policy Watch.]

More from the Justice Center statement:

Read more