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.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Few workers have enough savings to withstand a long-term government shutdown

The shutdown of the federal government is having a detrimental impact on employees who are either furloughed or who are working without pay. Last Friday marked the first full pay period some employees went without a paycheck, and while their pay may be on hold, their bills certainly are not.

Workers are still expected to pay rent, families are still expected to pay for childcare, and recent graduates are still expected to pay their student loans.

Unfortunately, far too few Americans actually have enough savings to go for weeks, let along an entire month, without pay. When the Federal Reserve’s Survey on Consumer Finances asked families how they would deal with a hypothetical income shortfall, 58 percent of families said they would draw from savings and investments, while only 21 percent responded that they would need to borrow money. But when families who actually faced income shortfalls reported how they made ends meet, only 44 percent were able to pull from savings while 43 percent of families had to borrow money, including taking on credit card debt.

The reality is that nearly 30 percent of all of households, regardless of income, have less than $1,000 in savings. Most Americans are ill prepared to handle a financial emergency such as an illness, job loss, or, in this case, a government shutdown.

According to The Center for Enterprise and Development, more than 25 percent of North Carolinians are asset poor, and more than half (51.5 percent) of all North Carolinians are “liquid asset poor,” meaning they do not have enough cash savings for a safety net in case of a family emergency.

Middle-income, not just low-wage workers, are at risk of running through their savings and going into debt to weather the shutdown. The Survey on Consumer Science finds that the typical worker who earns between $45,000 and $70,000 each year has $2,200 in savings. While this may be enough to pay for a car repair or an unexpected home expense, it is not nearly enough to cover everyday expenses. According to the Living Income Standard, a family with just one adult and one child incurs at least $3,000 in expenses each month. Families with multiple children who live in high-costs counties or who earn lower wages face even larger challenges.

Workers who earn between $25,000 and $45,000 a year typically have $1,500 in savings, and most families who earn even less have $500 or less in case of emergency.

Even in households with middle class income, the government shutdown is having a disproportionate effect on households of color.

The Survey of Consumer Finance demonstrated that even within income brackets, there are still disparities in which families have access to an adequate amount of savings. When households were asked if they could borrow $3,000 from friends or family in case of emergency, only 43 and 49 percent of Black and Hispanic households answered “yes” while 71 percent of white households reported they could.

This points to the long-term effects of occupational and educational segregation, wealth inequality, discrimination in the workplace and financial institutions, and other factors. Although Black and Brown families may have similar incomes to their white counterparts, they often pay more for access to capital through loans, are less likely to receive intergenerational wealth transfers to avoid costs such as mortgage insurance, and are more likely to provide ongoing financial support to family members who earn less.

While there are many factors that result in different liquid asset rates for families along lines of race and ethnicity, the end result is that the combination of the government shutdown and a lack of income can easily push families into long-term debt situations — and even out of the middle class altogether.

Ending the shutdown is the only way to ensure that these workers and their families do not suffer from a lifetime of financial burdens as a result of the President’s obsessive pursuit of a racist and xenophobic immigration policy.

Commentary, News

GOP fiddles while Trump shutdown mess grows more dire by the day

In case you missed it, be sure to check out a story posted Wednesday at NC Health News by former Policy Watch investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska. In “Federal shutdown starting to leave mark in NC,” Ovaska details the growing crisis that Donald Trump’s border wall shutdown is is causing for average people in North Carolina like U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Rochelle Poe. Here’s an excerpt:

Four weeks into the federal government shutdown, Rochelle Poe is distraught, unable to pay the January rent for her Raleigh townhome and facing possible eviction.

Poe, a 20-year employee and mortgage underwriter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the threat of eviction over her $1,092 overdue rent has made it difficult to sleep or eat. She’s tried selling belongings, taking purses to a consignment shop and listing a new TV on Facebook’s Marketplace. Friends have chipped in money for groceries and gas.

“We want to go back work,” Poe said, about herself and fellow federal workers. “We’re not looking for a handout or anything, we just want to go back to our jobs so we can pay our bills.”

Also frustrating, she said, is a lack of collective anger from the public over the shutdown, with a fraction of the nation’s workforce affected.

“There’s no real outrage about the fact that we are going without,” Poe said.

Word came Wednesday, the same day her landlord said eviction proceedings would start, that a friend could loan Poe the rent money. It brought obvious relief but still leaves Poe with little to live on while she waits to find out when she can start working again.

“I was able to sleep last night for the first time in weeks,” Poe said.

Ovaska’s story goes on to detail several other troubling shutdown-related developments, including in the vital areas of housing and hunger assistance for people in need. The story notes that Orange County officials have started to advise potential new applicants for SNAP food assistance benefits that they likely will not be able to sign up as a result of the shutdown.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to do nothing to address the growing crisis. Indeed, as Think Progress journalist Amanda Michelle Gomez reported yesterday, McConnell has instead decided to devote the Senate’s attention to things like the consideration of destructive and impossible-to-pass anti-abortion legislation.

In the midst of the longest-ever government shutdown in U.S. history, Senate Republicans have instead decided to consider a bill on Thursday to codify existing restrictions that make it harder for low-income people to get abortions…. Read more

Education, News

On school psychologists, North Carolina doesn’t measure up

The National Association of School Psychologist recommends school districts employ one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students.

Ellen Essick, a section chief for specialized instruction support at NC Healthy Schools, reports to the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.

In North Carolina, the ratio is one psychologist for every 2,008 students.

Let that sink in, and consider the mine-field of socio-economic and mental health issues children must navigate these days.

A higher percentage of teens report thinking about suicide. Incidents of bullying is on the rise. More children are living in poverty and experiencing homelessness. And they’re also struggling with sex and gender issues in ways that seem very foreign to many parents.

Meanwhile, academic studies show that students who are healthy, both mentally and physically, perform better in school.

“If you’ve ever seen a student with a tooth ache in school, then you know that they don’t make it through the day,” Ellen Essick, a section chief for specialized instruction support at NC Healthy Schools. “They’re not at all thinking about the test they’re taking or the class they’re in. All they’re thinking about is how that tooth hurts.”

NC Healthy Schools is a division of the N.C.  Department of Public Instruction that’s focused on improving student and staff health by providing resources within the context of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model.

Here’s a link to reports state staffers shared with the commission: https://tinyurl.com/y7tsy4ee**

Essick made her remarks this week during a meeting of the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education. The commission was formed in late 2017 to make recommendations for an ongoing court review of the state’s compliance with the 21-year-old Leandro ruling.

In that seminal case, a judge found North Carolina had failed to provide a “sound, basic” education for all students, regardless of the relative wealth in their local school districts.

Brad Wilson, the former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield, who chairs the commission, said the commission is about half way through its work of gathering information to include in its report to the governor.

“We’re now beginning a level of detail of examination and analysis that will ultimately lead to our final report this year,” Wilson said.

The Leandro case sprang from a 1994 lawsuit filed by parents, children and K-12 administrators in five low-income counties, who argued that their districts weren’t receiving their fair share of public dollars.

In addition to the report about North Carolina badly missing the mark on school psychologists, the commission also learned that the state comes in staffing school counselors, school nurses and social workers.

The recommended ratio for school counselors is one for every 250 students. North Carolina has 4,137 school counselors for a ratio of one counselor for every 367 students.

For nurses, the recommendation is one per school. North Carolina has one nurse for every 1.7 schools.

And the recommendation for school social workers is one for every 250 students. North Carolina’s ratio is 1 for every 2,000 students.

Rick Glazier, executive director of the NC Justice Center, wondered how the state could possibly be abiding by the Leandro ruling when it’s so badly missing the mark for recommended levels of school support services.

“One would suggest that we’re devoting insufficient resources to school training, to school personnel, to psychologists, to social workers, guidance counselors and to school communities to be working with their children,” Glazier said.

Last year, NCDPI staffers reported that it would take roughly $688 million more in state funding to hire enough social workers, nurses, counselors, psychologist and school resource officers for North Carolina’s public schools to reach nationally recommended ratios.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators and commissioner member, noted that recent tax cuts approved by the Republican-led General Assembly leaves $3 billion on the table each year that could be used to improve public schools, health care and infrastructure across the state.

“Caring for the whole child is what public education is about,” Jewell said. “Our priority should not be tax cuts for corporations. It’s not the North Carolina way.”

Commentary, Environment, News

Editorial: It’s past time for North Carolina lawmakers to embrace clean energy

An insightful new editorial from Capitol Broadcasting Corporation says North Carolina lawmakers should take heed of the growing demand for a state-mandated rebate program for solar power users.

The piece examines how the program’s popularity among consumers — Duke Energy received 2,000 applications over a two-day period this month — far exceeds the number of rebates that are available.

Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg has documented legislators’ reluctance to embrace clean energy programs, as well as the messy clean-up associated with the state’s not-so-clean energy production.

Now, quite clearly, it’s time for state policymakers to approach clean energy with the same excitement as North Carolina businesses and residents.

Read the editorial below:

In just two days earlier this month Duke Energy received about 2,000 applications for a share of $10 million in rebates to North Carolina homeowners, businesses and non-profits to install rooftop solar power panels.

That was way more applicants than money – about $10 million – available.

In the second year, of a five-year, $62-million state-mandated program, the company expects to distribute more than 1,700 rebates. The program opened Jan. 2.By the end of the week the program was sold out…  Last year, the first year of the program, it awarded about $8.5 million – more than 90 percent of the 1,700 rebates to homeowners.

What’s the impact of the program? A year ago, there were 5,700 Duke rooftop solar customers. Today there are more than 9,000 – a nearly 60 percent increase. “Our rebates are driving solar adoption in the state,” said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless.

The rebates are significant – up to $6,000 for homeowners, $50,000 for businesses and $75,000 for non-profits such as faith-based facilities. The rebates are in addition to a federal tax credit of 30 percent (which drops to 26 percent in 2020).

This program is a win all around. Electric power is generated without nuclear or fossil fuels. Consumers and the company avoid significant costs for both the fuel burned and the proper storage or disposal of the waste generated. No dealing with radioactive trash or toxic coal ash.

Consumers both get a break on the cost of installing the solar panels and on their utility bill. Duke Energy increases its generating capacity without the significant investment of building new power plants.

Public officials along with public and private energy generators and distributors should take notice and look for appropriate ways to encourage expanded residential use of renewable energy. Gov. Roy Cooper has noticed and has been leading efforts to grow the clean energy economy.

Our legislative leaders have been out of step with both North Carolinians desires and our neighboring states energy policies. Virginia and South Carolina have looked to expand opportunities for solar capacity and offshore wind energy development while appropriately remaining highly skeptical at efforts to make our coastal waters open to fossil fuel exploration and development.

North Carolina’s legislators have passed laws making it more difficult to deploy offshore wind energy – even though studies have shown the state has one of the best resources for it on the east coast. The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has designated two areas off the state’s coast appropriate for wind energy development.

These solar rebates were gone in a flash. It should be a bright signal to North Carolina policy makers. It is past time to expand opportunities to embrace renewable energy and put the state back on the road to national leadership in growing its clean energy economy.