Commentary

The North Carolina Senate is scheduled to take up legislation this evening that would, among other worrisome things, strike a large and troubling blow for the cause of government secrecy. The subject is the death penalty and the legislation in question would specifically amend the state public records law to make clear that citizens will be prohibited from finding out information about the drugs that will be used kill people in their name — including who makes them. This is from an Associated Press story from last Thursday:

“The state Senate could vote as soon as next week on legislation clarifying executions are exempt from state requirements for the public rule-making process. That would allow officials to find new drugs for lethal injection more quickly and with less public review. The bill also eases restrictions on the types of drugs used and prohibits disclosing where they are manufactured.”

As bad is all of this is, however, listen to the explanation for this provision advanced by the bill’s main sponsor:

“When asked by a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee whether his bill decreased transparency, Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, said he agreed it did. But he argued that a certain level of secrecy was required to protect drug manufacturers.

‘If you tell them where the drug comes from, there will be 300 people outside the building,’ Daughtry said.”

In other words, lawmakers want to keep the drugs secret so that, well, so that no one will find out what they are or where they come from and then, perish the thought, use the information to communicate with the pharmaceutical companies that make them.

What an outrageous concept! Citizens using public information to find out the identities of the companies to whom their government is giving public funds to buy drugs to kill people in the public’s name and then, perhaps, exercising their First Amendment rights to target protests against those companies.

This from lawmakers who came to power championing “transparency” and an “open” and “small” government.

Perhaps the stunning hypocrisy of all this (not to mention the very troubling precedent that would be established) explains why the North Carolina Press Association (of which — full disclosure — NC Policy Watch is a member) opposes the legislation.

Let’s hope that, regardless of their views on the death penalty, lawmakers wake up to the real world dangers of this new provision and the symbolic, Big Brother-like message it sends.

News

In case you missed it, WRAL’s Tyler Dukes had a good story this weekend sorting through whether or not teacher assistants have any positive effect at all in the classroom and whether the Senate’s proposal to cut 80 percent of TA jobs over the upcoming biennium is the state’s largest layoff in history.

The conclusion? Like most things, it’s complicated.

Decades-old research suggests TAs don’t help students in grades K-3 improve academically — but Michael Maher, a professor at NC State University, said it’s really hard to make that determination.

“Because students enter early grades at different levels of preparation, assistants typically allow teachers to provide instruction on a more individual level depending on a students’ needs.

“You can really, within the context of your classroom, have students working at different levels,” Maher said. “If I’m a single teacher, it’s much harder to do that.”

NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon spoke with Alamance-Burlington Schools’ chief Dr. Bill Harrison (who is also a former chair of the State Board of Education) this past weekend, who said in his experience TAs play a critical role in making sure students succeed—particularly for those students who have special needs or are English language learners.

“Probably in 90 percent of our elementary classrooms I visit I have to ask the principal which one is the teacher and which one is the teacher assistant,” said Harrison, who was away from the classroom for more than five years as he served on the State Board of Ed and has observed a big change in the role of the TA during that time.

“That additional help has become critical,” added Harrison.

(Click above to listen to Fitzsimon interview Dr. Harrison on News & Views)

Senate lawmakers want to take some of the money for TAs to reduce class sizes — an idea that in theory lots of folks seem to support—but making the jump from TAs to smaller classes at the end of the school year, or even after the school year begins, may prove to be a logistical nightmare.

“We don’t have the classroom space to reduce class size, plus at that time of the year I don’t think we’ll be able to find the teachers that we need,” said Harrison.

As for whether or not stripping classrooms of TAs to the tune of 8,500+ jobs over two years amounts to the state’s largest layoff in history — well, that’s a little unclear, but it seems to rank up there according to the WRAL report.

DPI’s chief financial officer Philip Price told WRAL that kind of comparison isn’t useful, however, when you consider the ballooning student enrollment the state is dealing with.

Since the 2008-09 academic year, the state has seen 43,749 more students enroll in public schools that have seen several years of cuts. In that period, North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants Secretary Melinda Zarate said, the state lost 7,000 teacher assistants.

“What’s happened is a dramatic reduction in the adults in the school building,” Price said. “This is just adding to a pretty heinous situation.”

Click here to read WRAL’s full report on teacher assistants.

Commentary

McCrory_budget3Rep. Chuck McGrady is the latest legislative leader to question how Governor Pat McCrory, a fellow Republican, is doing his job.

McGrady—one of the House budget chairs—weighed in as part of a weekend Charlotte Observer story about the increasing friction between McCrory and the folks running the General Assembly.

McGrady, a former president of the national Sierra Club, said he would expect to find himself on the same page as a governor who came to office as a moderate conservative. But he laments what he calls “a lot of missed opportunities.”

“There’s a lack of engagement; there’s a lack of relationships,” McGrady said. “It’s like he doesn’t understand what our job is. And some of my colleagues don’t think he understands what his job is.”

As the Observer points out, the comments come on the heels of Senator Tom Apodaca saying McCrory “doesn’t play much of a role in anything,” and Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown saying he couldn’t figure out  “if Pat thinks he is the governor of Charlotte or the mayor of North Carolina,”

Now McGrady is piling on. Just another sunny Monday for the governor.
Commentary
greg hatem - empire

Greg Hatem (photo by Ana Pardo).

As a follow up to National #WageWeek, the Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of local business leaders who are raising the wage floor for their employees. This blog post is the first in the series, and represents an interview with Greg Hatem, owner of Empire Properties and Empire Eats in downtown Raleigh. Hatem worked with his staff over the past year to raise the wage floor to $10.15 for all 550 employees across his companies.

Q: When did Empire decide to prioritize raising the wage floor?

A: “Creating a long-term relationship with our employees has always been important. About 8 months ago we committed to getting it done within a year. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t just because of financial issues. We had legacy employees, where when we started looking we realized someone had a wage because of when they were hired, and then you’re bringing somebody else on at a different wage. So we had to slowly equilibrate that and make sure that we bring new people on at a good salary. We did it position-by-position and restaurant-by-restaurant, and we finished it up last month.”

Q: What were the underpinning values behind the company’s decision?

A: “It’s not just about work or a job, it’s about people and culture. What we value most are people that believe in the mission and the culture, and we want to make sure there’s a relationship. It’s not just an employer-employee relationship; we have people trying to help us create our vision, and in return we have a responsibility to help them create their vision and take care of their families. So it’s very symbiotic.”

“It was something we believed was possible if we had time enough to plan for it. That’s why we gave ourselves a 12-month window to do it strategically. Our belief is we end up working with folks that are more productive, who are happier, their life situation is better. What you’re really doing is investing in your people, and that has a return in itself. It’s just smart business to take care of the people around you, because that is the core of your business. If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of your guests. It’s not an expense, it’s an investment.”

Q: What was the reaction from your employees when they learned of the changes?

A: “We had a huge response from [employees] when we did it, because they knew we cared. I actually had one of the guys in the kitchen give me a hug because it meant that much to him. We have so many people that have been with us for 3, 5, 10 years. We’re there for each other.”

Q: What advice would you give to other business owners considering a similar move?

“Invest in your people. Invest in them in the day-to-day […] and help them become better at their job. When you do that, you create a better environment for your guests, and that’s the virtuous cycle.”

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Commentary

Last week’s ruling that North Carolina tax dollars may be used to support private schools with literally no standards of accountability at all has generated some scathing editorials from the state’s major newspapers. Here are a few excerpts:

From Raleigh’s News & Observer:

“It is distressing on its face, this idea that public money can go toward the expenses of private schooling. It crosses the divide between public and private, between church and state, between common sense and partisan ideology.

And yet, in a ruling with a clear partisan flavor, the North Carolina Supreme Court, having snatched the confrontation over a school voucher program out of the hands of the N.C. Court of Appeals where it should properly have gone, has upheld the Republican legislature’s voucher program. This is a devastating ruling for the future of public education.”

From the Greensboro News & Record:

“In 1997, the N.C. Supreme Court unanimously delivered its landmark Leandro ruling that declared the state has an obligation to offer every child a “sound, basic education.”

In a 4-3 decision Thursday, the court regrettably took a big step back from that principle, finding that the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program is constitutional.”

From the Fayetteville Observer (after noting that it does not oppose vouchers):

“That said, we do have a deep concern about the lack of accountability in the voucher program, an issue raised in Justice Robin Hudson’s dissent. ‘The main constitutional flaw in this program,’ she wrote, ‘is that it provides no framework at all for evaluating any of the participating schools’ contribution to public purposes; such a huge omission is a constitutional black hole into which the entire program should disappear.’

The investment of tax dollars must be accompanied by accountability. The General Assembly needs to remedy that problem. If it does, we expect the voucher program to improve the lot of some students who otherwise might fall into the cracks and never see success.”

Stay tuned. There will be lots more like this to come.