News

Add reforming the country’s criminal justice system to the list of things that make strange bedfellows.

In an announcement expected today, the Center for American Progress and Koch Industries — arch enemies in the political arena — will disclose their backing of the newly-formed Coalition for Public Safety, an organization designed to launch “a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives,” according to the New York Times.

Others getting behind the coalition include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Tea Party-oriented FreedomWorks, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and the Leadership Conference Education Fund.

The coalition starts out with $5 million in funding from Koch Industries,  the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation, which it will use to jump start the work it describes on its website:

The Coalition will work across the political spectrum to pursue a comprehensive set of federal, state, and local criminal justice reforms to reduce our jail and prison populations and associated costs; end the systemic problems of overcriminalization and overincarceration — particularly of low-income communities and communities of color; ensure swift and fair outcomes for both the accused and the victim; and make communities safe by reducing recidivism and breaking down barriers faced by those returning home after detention or incarceration.

As described in the Times, the coalition’s goal is “to leverage the broad reach of the group’s partners and financial backers to build public support for overhaul efforts through research and education campaigns, among other initiatives. The ideological spread should also allow them to reach out credibly to lawmakers of both parties.”

Commentary

The national embarrassments just keep on a comin’ for North Carolina.  Political writer Olivia Nuzzi of the national website The Daily Beast is the latest to make light of how far things have sunk in the Old North State with this column entitled: “North Carolina Lobbyists Can Officially Screw Politicians Legally.”

As Nuzzi explains:

Yes, what could go wrong?

Joal H. Broun, the secretary of state’s lobbying compliance director, sent a letter to the commission on December 15 inquiring whether, um, intimacy between lobbyists and the people they are lobbying violates ethics laws. On Friday, the commission released its answer: The passionate and unwise may carry on!

The opinion, which is almost romantic if you can get past the legal jargon, essentially says that your body is a temple and sharing it with anyone else is a priceless gift—emphasis on priceless: Sex has no value, according to the commission, and so it doesn’t need to be disclosed.

“Consensual sexual relationships do not have monetary value and therefore are not reportable as gifts or ‘reportable expenditures made for lobbying’ for purposes of the lobbying law’s expenditure reporting provisions,” the commission says.

It’s difficult to read that without squinting skeptically, but consider how difficult it would be to disclose a sexual relationship as a gift. Would different acts carry different weight? Isn’t that really subjective? Things would get complicated quickly….

Click here to read the entire article.

Commentary

McCrory contradictionsGovernor Pat McCrory announced a disastrous and destructive decision yesterday in an interview with an AP reporter. When asked whether he would recommend closing the insurance gap that currently leaves a half-million North Carolinians too poor to qualify for Obamcare subsidies and too well-off to qualify for Medicaid, the Guv said: “I will not make any recommendation as to whether or not we extend insurance for the uninsured until the court case because there are so many ramifications of the court case.”

As the story also noted: “The court’s oral arguments are next month and a ruling is expected in the summer, about when the legislature traditionally seeks to adjourn. That could push any legislative action on a recommendation to 2016.”

This means that a half-million struggling North Carolinians will have to wait at least another year for the health insurance they were promised and deserve. In all likelihood, thousands will die unnecessarily. Meanwhile, tax dollars paid by North Carolinians will flow to other states in which Governors (many of the Republican) have had the vision and courage to put human life ahead of politics.

The decision comes after months of dithering by the Governor and in spite of the clear signals sent by his Department of Health and Human Services officials that Medicaid expansion is both the right thing to do and essential to save lives.

The bottom line: If this is truly is his final word on this matter, Pat McCrory has now, officially, made the worst and most destructive decision of his governorship — a decision that puts supposed concerns about bureaucratic hassles ahead of saving human lives. Meanwhile, millions of people in Ohio and Arizona and other conservative states  enjoy access to decent and affordable health insurance on our nickel. Let’s hope and pray the U.S. Supreme Court does the right thing this summer, but whatever happens then and thereafter, Gov. McCrory has now seized the mantle from former chief naysayer Senator Phil Berger and cemented his legacy as the person who denied decent and affordable health care to a half-million of his fellow Tar Heels unnecessarily.

News

*Scroll to the end of this story for a response from the NC Department of Public Instruction

Politico’s Stephanie Simon published an investigative report today looking into the business dealings of British education giant Pearson, finding that the company’s success is due in part to negotiating lucrative no-bid contracts with public education agencies around the country — including one with North Carolina.

The investigation found that public officials often commit to buying from Pearson because it’s familiar, even when there’s little proof its products and services are effective.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, for instance, declined to seek competitive bids for a new student data system on the grounds that it would be “in the best interest of the public” to simply hire Pearson, which had done similar work for the state in the past. The data system was such a disaster, the department had to pay Pearson millions extra to fix it.

The data system Simon refers to is PowerSchool, which the News and Observer reported last year “has so many problems that the accuracy of transcripts, athletic eligibility and the number of students enrolled in schools is uncertain.”

Many of those problems were fixed, and the state sought a discount from Pearson to reduce the $7.1 million price tag for the PowerSchool. It’s not clear if any money was refunded, however, nor is it clear whether the state or local districts will be responsible for the $6 million owed to Pearson next year for PowerSchool.

Simon’s investigation also found that in many cases, Pearson was never held to performance targets outlined in the contracts—if they didn’t meet the standards, they weren’t penalized.

In addition to PowerSchool, Pearson also backs one of North Carolina’s new online virtual charter schools, N.C. Connections Academy. The State Board of Education approved N.C. Connections academy just last week for a four year pilot program, alongside K12, Inc.’s N.C. Virtual Academy.

The state legislature required the State Board of Education to approve two virtual charter schools for the pilot program, and only two non-profit organizations applied — one backed by Pearson, the other by K12, Inc.

The approval came in spite of serious reservations on the part of some board members as well as education advocates who feared that North Carolina’s students could experience the same negative academic outcomes that have been experienced by virtual charter school students in other states, or that poor students would have a hard time accessing the technology and infrastructure necessary for online learning.

Read Stephanie Simon’s full investigation of Pearson here.

***
2/18/2015 UPDATE: NC Department of Public Instruction’s CFO, Philip Price, reached out to N.C. Policy Watch to respond to the Politico investigation of North Carolina’s contractual relationship with Pearson for its new student data system, PowerSchool.

Price said DPI took 16 months to work with the NC Attorney General’s office and other key state-level education stakeholders to gain a waiver for bidding out the adoption and implementation of a new student data system. The impetus for continuing to contract with Pearson, said Price, was that the education behemoth also owned the state’s old data system, NC WISE. A significant costs savings would occur if Pearson also undertook the construction and implementation of PowerSchool.

“NC WISE cost $168 million to implement. Pearson charged us just $3.7 million to convert to PowerSchool,” said Price.

That figure doesn’t include additional monies ($1.25 million) that the state had to pony up for more training and help with migrating data from NC WISE to Power School. Even so, Price says, the state saved a lot of money going with Pearson.

Politico’s story also makes the allegation that Pearson is typically not penalized when it fails to live up to contractual obligations. But Price says at least in North Carolina, that’s not the case.

“We’ve gotten credits back since we established a service learning agreement,” explained Price, who says that if Pearson doesn’t meet certain agreed upon elements of the contract, they refund the state money. “$437,000 in September 2014, and we’re still receiving credits.”

Pearson also gave North Carolina a year of free content, worth $6 million, for its SchoolNet application, which allows teachers to build lesson plans and formative assessments.

News

Scroll down to read UNC law professor Gene Nichol’s response to the expected closure of the UNC Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. For a fuller account of Wednesday’s meeting, click here.

A committee for the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors issued a much-anticipated draft report on centers and institutes Wednesday, recommending that three centers on university campuses be shut down in the near future.

The report also recommends tightening existing university system policies banning political participation and limiting advocacy work.

UNC law professor Gene Nichol

UNC law professor Gene Nichol

Among the three recommended for closure was the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. The others included the N.C. Center for Biodiversity at East Carolina University, which may be merged into a department, and the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University. Winston-Salem State University’s Center for Community Safety could also face closure if it doesn’t find new funding within the next six months.

The poverty center, which was started by former Democratic U.S. Sen. John Edwards, receives no direct state funding.

Its director, tenured law professor Gene Nichol, has rankled some Republican state leaders and conservative groups in recent years by penning editorials decrying how state policies are failing impoverished North Carolina. (Note: Nichol is a past board member of the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty non-profit that N.C. Policy Watch is part of. He had no role in the reporting or writing of this piece.)

“The Board of Governors’ tedious, expensive and supremely dishonest review process yields the result it sought all along – closing the Poverty Center,” Nichol wrote in an editorial published on the News & Observer’s website after Wednesday’s committee meeting. “This charade, and the censorship it triggers, demeans the board, the university, academic freedom and the Constitution.

“It’s also mildly ironic that the university now abolishes the center for the same work that led it to give me the Thomas Jefferson Award a year ago,” he wrote.

As a tenured law professor, Nichol will continue to be employed by the university. He was not at Wednesday’s meeting.

Wednesday’s draft report can be read here.

The review of centers and institutes across the UNC system was triggered by the Republican-led state legislature, which included an item in last summer’s budget requiring the UNC system to examine the centers, and make up to $15 million in cuts. The months-long review began with 237 centers, and the draft report made public Wednesday recommends action at 16 groups, while campuses moved to shut down eight others. A group of nine centers related to the marine sciences are expected to be examined at a later date.

The total dollars expected to be saved with the recommended closure was not available, but are likely to be a fraction of the up to $15 million in cuts authorized by the legislature.

The full UNC Board of Governors will vote at their meeting next week on the UNC-Charlotte campuses whether to adopt today’s recommendations. The current board of governors have all been appointed by a Republican-led state legislature, and attracted attention for its sudden decision last month to fire UNC President Tom Ross and look for a new leader of the 17-campus higher education system.

Much of the discussion at Wednesday’s nearly two hour meeting focused on the UNC Center for Civil Rights, a group within the law school on Chapel Hill’s campus that works with students and engages in litigation around the state. The draft report recommended that UNC-Chapel Hill review the civil rights center in the next year, and “define center policies around advocacy and conform with applicable university regulations.”

UNC Board of Governor member Jim Holmes speaks Weds. with UNC Center for Civil Rights' director Ted Shaw and other staff

UNC Board of Governor member Jim Holmes speaks Weds. with UNC Center for Civil Rights’ director Ted Shaw and other staff

Steven Long, a conservative member of the board of governors, spoke out Wednesday against the civil rights center, saying he thought it engaged in partisan politics, advocated for a narrow point of view and routinely sued the state.

“It’s really not an academic center at all; it’s an advocacy organization,” Long said, during lengthy remarks he gave Wednesday.

Long, a Raleigh attorney who was a board member for the conservative Civitas Institute until 2013, made reference to a federal desegregation lawsuit the center’s lawyers, who represented a group of African-American parents, filed against Pitt County.

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