Education, Environment

Kids’ brains can be damaged when schools are near factories, major pollution sources

Each blue dot represents a Toxics Release Inventory site. These facilities emit contaminants that can cause cancer and damage human health and the environment. There are 22,000 such sites in the US. (Source: ToxMap)

A study of Florida public schools, found that children who are exposed to air pollution are more likely to score lower on tests and to be suspended from school. In addition, a school’s overall accountability ranking is more likely to drop.

The findings were recently released in a peer-reviewed paper by researchers Claudia Persico of American University and Joanna Venator of the University of Wisconsin.

At least 200 million people in America — two-thirds of the population — live within three miles of a Toxics Release Inventory site. Of those, 59 million live within one mile. And 22 percent of all public schools are within one mile of a TRI facility, according to 2016 data.

There are roughly 22,000 TRI sites in the US, and many are located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. These facilities emit thousands of types of contaminants, many of them unregulated.

Persico spoke about the research findings Monday night at NC State University. She said during certain times in children’s development — between birth and age 1, as well as in middle childhood, in grades 3 through 7 — the brain is especially vulnerable to the effects of contamination. At these ages, a child’s brain is forming new neural connections, known as neuroplasticity, that can determine learning ability, well as emotional behavior.

“These are bad times to be exposed to pollution,” Persico said.

However, the culture of high-stakes testing doesn’t account for environmental factors that can affect learning and overall school performance. Lead, mercury and other emissions from power plants and vehicle tailpipes might damage the brain, the paper said. Brain cells can die. Exposure to lead is especially problematic because nerve cells can be “demyelinated,” meaning the protective sheath is peeled away. (Multiple sclerosis is one of several diseases that result from demyelination.)

A separate study from 2017 found that students who take tests on days when there are high concentrations of air pollutants fare more poorly than when the air is cleaner.

Persico said that based on the Florida study, after a new TRI site opens, schools within one mile are more likely to have their school grades drop than comparison schools between one and two miles away within the same zip code. The effect, Persico said, is comparable to a 11 percentage-point increase in the proportion of disadvantaged students in a school. TRI site openings are associated with a higher likelihood of the school falling at least one grade-level, such as from a B to a C.

These findings could compel school districts that are near TRI sites to install and maintain air conditioning and filtration systems to purify  indoor air. The research could also guide local zoning and school siting decisions by keeping polluting industries as far away as possible from schools. “How does local environmental policy affect local education policy?” Persico said.

In many cases, it doesn’t. As Policy Watch reported last week, the Moore County School District is building a new elementary school for grades Pre-K through 5 within a mile of multiple pollution sources. Most of the children currently assigned to the school are economically disadvantaged and Black or Latinx.

 


 

News

Adams, Butterfield, Price on board as U.S. House prepares to vote on $15 minimum wage

The U.S. House is poised to pass landmark legislation that would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and could substantially increase pay for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.

But the effort faces steep hurdles in the Senate, including likely opposition from North Carolina Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, who have opposed previous efforts to raise the minimum wage.

House Democrats are planning to hold a floor vote on the Raise the Wage Act in July, according to Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “Democrats ran on raising wages for American workers, and this remains a top priority for us,” Saez said.

The bill, whose lead sponsor is House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.), would boost the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024. The current minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which was approved by Congress in 2007 and went into effect in 2009.

Rep. Alma Adams

The legislation cleared Scott’s committee in March and is expected to easily pass the full House. North Carolina Democrats Alma Adams, G. K. Butterfield and David Price are among the bill’s 205 cosponsors.

Adams, who is a member of the Education and Labor Committee and chair of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee, issued a statement after the committee approved the measure back in March in which she lauded the legislation:

“Today is a day that was a long time in coming – I am proud that the Committee on Education and Labor approved a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2024. During 20 1/2 years in the North Carolina General Assembly, I fought for our state’s minimum wage to increase to $6.15. Never would I have thought that 13 years later, Congress would have to act to raise the minimum wage from $7.25. By passing the Raise the Wage Act, we are sending the message that if you work a full-time job, you should be entitled to the dignity of a fair wage. I look forward to seeing this landmark legislation come to the floor and be approved by the full House of Representatives.”

Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator and 2020 presidential contender, has introduced the Senate version of the House minimum wage bill.

“Just a few short years ago, we were told that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was ‘radical.’ But a grassroots movement of millions of workers throughout this country refused to take ‘no’ for an answer,” he said in a statement.

“It is not a radical idea to say a job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it. The current $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage is a starvation wage. It must be increased to a living wage of $15 an hour.”

He’s not alone in the field of Democratic presidential contenders. Nearly all of those vying for the party’s 2020 nomination have endorsed the $15 minimum wage.

Polling earlier this year suggested that most registered voters would support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

If Congress ultimately boosts the minimum wage to $15 per hour, more than 1.6 million North Carolinians could directly benefit. The Workers Rights Project of the North Carolina Justice Center (the parent organization of NC Policy Watch) reported in March that: Read more

Commentary, News

New legislation would open up the job market for millions of North Carolinians

(Note: The following is a joint statement issued Monday by Bill Rowe, general counsel and deputy director of advocacy for the progressive N.C. Justice Center, Policy Watch’s parent nonprofit; and Jon Guze, director of legal studies for the conservative John Locke Foundation. The legislation it references, House Bill 770, is slated to be considered Tuesday morning by the Senate Judiciary Committee.)

The North Carolina Senate is currently considering a carefully crafted piece of legislation that creates new employment opportunities for millions of North Carolinians by making it easier for them to train for and be admitted to licensed occupations. The bill is a revised version of HB 770 (“Freedom to Work/OLB Reform”), and it combines the best features of two previously filed companion bills: SB 305—which was filed in March by Senator Andy Wells and Senator Warren Daniel—and the original version of HB 770—which was filed in April by Speaker Pro Tempore Sarah Stevens and approved last month by the North Carolina House of Representatives.

In North Carolina, more than 70 private boards and public agencies set licensing standards for approximately 180 different licensed occupations, and these occupations account for about 1/3 of all the jobs in the state. The standards currently in place tend to exclude people with criminal records and those who cannot afford extensive education and training. Since the ostensible justification for requiring occupational licenses is to protect the public from practitioners who cannot be trusted to do their work honestly, competently, and safely, these kinds of requirements make a certain amount of sense. However, as currently implemented, they go too far and exclude too many.

Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Criminal Records

An estimated 2 million North Carolinians—more than 25% of the working-age population—already have criminal records, and thousands more are convicted of crimes every year. Excluding all those people from a third of all jobs seems excessive on its face, but there’s another reason why such blanket exclusions are a bad idea. Nationally, more than 60% of people with criminal records remain unemployed a year after rejoining society, partially due to licensing restrictions.  Research shows that work plays a significant role in preventing dependency and is an indicator of how likely someone is to re-offend. If we want to discourage recidivism, therefore, we need to remove unnecessary restrictions on employment.

HB 770 does precisely that by requiring all licensing authorities, including state licensing agencies and private licensing boards, to review their existing policies with regard to applicants’ criminal histories and update those policies in specific ways. Rather than relying on blanket bans, agencies and boards will only be able to deny licenses on the basis of an applicant’s criminal record when the underlying crime is related to the duties and responsibilities of the licensed occupation or is of a violent or sexual nature. HB 770 also prohibits licensing boards from using non-specific and subjective considerations like “moral turpitude” and “good character” to determine whether someone will receive a work license.

HB 770 adds greater transparency to the process by requiring boards and agencies to state the considerations that will be used to grant or deny a license on their websites and on their application forms, and by requiring them to report to the General Assembly on how many applications are granted and denied, and the result when the applicant has a criminal record.  It also gives licensees the ability to petition a licensing board for a determination of whether the individual’s criminal history will disqualify the individual from obtaining a license before they begin mandatory educational and training requirements, potentially saving applicants hundreds of dollars and thousands of hours.

These kinds of reforms are far from radical or experimental. Over the past few years more than 20 states have enacted occupational licensing reforms to open up opportunities for qualified people with records. Examples include Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi.

Creating Employment Opportunities for People with Limited Financial Resources

Onerous licensing requirements don’t just exclude people with criminal records; they also exclude those who cannot afford to spend hundreds of days and thousands of dollars on education and training. HB 770 provides an alternative pathway for such people by allowing the completion of government approved, private-sector created apprenticeships to fulfill costly licensing requirements—ensuring that workers receive the training they need, but in a cost-effective way.  And because these apprenticeships are based on competency instead of time spent training, this reform opens work opportunities for young and low-income North Carolinians who would not otherwise be able to afford the high cost of training courses or the time off of work.

HB 770 is an important and timely reform that will benefit all North Carolinians. We hope it is promptly approved by the General Assembly and signed by the Governor.

News

Campus Safety Commission examines “trust” between student and police at UNC-Chapel Hill

The last semester at UNC-Chapel Hill saw continued tensions between campus police and students, from allegations of aggression toward anti-racist protesters  to restriction of first amendment rights and  denial of proper access to public meetings.

Last week the school’s newly formed Campus Safety Commission met, as reported by The Daily Tarheel, to begin to tackle the lack of trust between the campus community and police.

From the story:

“The seed that started this commission was a profound mistrust of the way in which the police acted, especially during the Silent Sam protests, and the sense that they were not answerable to anyone. No one knew when they filed a complaint, what happened to the complaint, who was investigating the complaint,” said Lawrence Grossberg, a professor in the communications department.

“There’s a profound lack of trust that the police are actually interested in protecting the interests of all the parties involved,” he said.

Many members of the commission are concerned about a disconnect between the campus community and the police, as well as the ambiguities in the campus policing process.

“They feel they can not speak out for fear of their jobs. So they welcome the commission to be their voice to address their concerns,” said a commission member.

The commission heard two guest speakers — Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management and Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director contracted by UNC as a consultant after the toppling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument last August.

Kemp had some criticism for police over the timeliness of their reporting a “flash mob” style protest on campus by the white supremacist group Patriot Front last month.

Swecker tried to explain the campus police’s working closely with pro-Confederate monument groups while having a largely antagonistic relationship with anti-monument protesters.

Swecker said that pro-monument groups often coordinate with police before arriving on campus. They sometimes receive parking instructions.

“That presents an optic that makes it look like the police are protecting them,” he said, but argued that UNC’s campus presents a complicated policing environment, and the communication helps police to establish a safer environment for protestors and counter-protestors to demonstrate without violently interacting with each other.

“They’re essentially the referee, umpire, no one’s going to like what they do,” Swecker said of the police.

The commission’s work has been criticized by some students and professors who declined to participate in it, saying it is not up to those working for change on campus to figure out a way to get along with the police force they see as committed to maintaining an untenable status quo.

Commentary, News

With “Pride Month” celebrations, Hendersonville, and North Carolina, inch forward

Hard to imagine we’d be here in this day, in this time, in this place.

The Charlotte Observer contributed a timely, if slight, feature this weekend, an exploration of rural Hendersonville’s nascent “Pride” celebration, yet another marker of North Carolina’s quiet LGBTQ revolution.

The word “revolution” is appropriate, with support for same-sex marriage surging to an unlikely 62 percent in North Carolina, a state that had overwhelmingly, heedlessly, passed a constitutional amendment to ban the practice in 2012.

The apple-picking, right-wing city joins a modest list of North Carolina locales crawling — or is it sprinting? — forward on LGBTQ pride, a few scatterbrained years after state lawmakers buffeted decency and fairness alike in crafting HB2 — a noxious anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-humanity law that’s deposed but, after all, not really dead.

As The Observer reported, Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk got behind the “Pride” event quickly, even if some of the city’s queasier and non-secular denizens stumbled over the plan.

From the feature:

Travis Parker, the pastor at Zirconia Missionary Baptist Church, said he went to rally outside the meeting because he was offended that the proclamation had effectively put the entire city’s support behind homosexuality — a sin according to the Bible, he said.

“Nobody said they couldn’t have a picnic,” Parker said, but “for the mayor to speak on behalf of all of Hendersonville was offensive to many people.”

The council itself was no less divided. The pride proclamation, said Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens, has stirred up more uproar than any other issue in the 12 years he’s been in office.

Like Stephens, the rest of city council — including three Republicans and one unaffiliated member — said they felt Volk had gone over their heads to support an issue they did not feel should get an official backing from local government.

“I don’t know that it’s the government’s job to endorse certain lifestyles and ideologies,” Stephens said. “When you know it’s a hot button issue, common sense says you just generally stay away from it.”

All four of them expressed their opposition to Volk on the proclamation, which only requires the backing of the mayor. And now, they say, they’re working to amend city law so future proclamations must be voted on by the whole council.

“It just doesn’t need to be publicized and supported by the city,” Stephens said. “What people do in private needs to stay in private.”

Parker said he led a prayer meeting of several hundred people at the site of the picnic on Thursday evening. They asked that picnic attendees would “see the goodness of God” and that local government would revert from what they saw as a sign of the end of times.

“It’s a great demonstration of love,” Parker said. “Hate would not be doing or saying anything.”

Read more