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Two stories really symbolize the state of North Carolina state government this morning on the first day of Fiscal Year 2016:

The first is the gridlock that’s starting to grip the state’s public schools. With a final state budget agreement light years away and few clear indicators from state leaders as to where things are headed — other than perhaps slashing thousands of teacher assistants — Raleigh’s News & Observer reports this morning that “At least one-third of North Carolina’s school systems are suspending their driver’s education programs this summer until they learn whether they’ll receive any state money to help pay for the classes.”

Meanwhile, the second part of the story is crystallized in yesterday’s edition of the Fitzsimon File in which my colleague Chris Fitzsimon — who has closely observed North Carolina politics for the past three decades — explained how extraordinary the latest inaction by the General Assembly is:

“House and Senate leaders couldn’t meet their budget deadline of June 30, the end of the state fiscal year, so they approved a continuing budget resolution this week to give themselves 45 more days.

Next week they will be on vacation and two weeks after that many Republican lawmakers plan to be in San Diego for the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

It’s true, as supporters of the General Assembly have pointed out, that not having a final budget by June 30 is relatively common. Lawmakers have passed continuing resolutions many summers while they hashed out final budget details.

But the resolutions usually come after some effort at negotiations between House and Senate budget writers and the extensions are usually for 10 days or maybe two weeks, not a month and a half.

And there’s never been a case when lawmakers gave themselves 45 more days and promptly took the next week off. It’s especially noteworthy coming from Republicans, who promised a more transparent and efficiently run General Assembly when they won control of the House and Senate in the 2010 election.”

In short, state legislative leaders — who promised to “run government like a business” — are instead fiddling, Nero-like, while core state services they have already badly undermined crumble around them. All in all, it’s quite a mess. Perhaps the business they had in mind was Enron.

Happy Fiscal New Year!

Commentary

Driver's edAccording to the folks who run North Carolina government, these are fabulous times in the Old North State. To hear Gov. McCrory, Senate President Pro Tem Berger and House Speake Moore tell it, North Carolina’s economy is soaring and state government is humming along like a finely tuned machine. In other words, it pretty much doesn’t get any better than this.

All of which makes this story from this morning’s Greensboro News & Record all the more striking.

“Hitting the brakes

A few hours behind the wheel stands between 937 local teenagers and a driving eligibility certificate.

They could remain in that holding pattern for a month or more until it is clear how much state funding, if any, Guilford County Schools will get to cover its driver education program.

The state funding for the program expires Tuesday. Starting Wednesday, Guilford’s program is suspended until the General Assembly decides how much money, if any, to spend on the state-mandated program.”

The article goes on to detail how lawmakers continue to seriously consider all kinds of proposals to cut driver’s ed, move it out of K-12 education to community colleges or even eliminate it all together.

You got that? In a state of 10 million people with vast wealth, supposed good times and an obvious and growing need for safer streets and roads, the government of the state cannot even get its act together to maintain something so basic to the health and well-being off the community as a functioning, well-funded driver’s education program.

But, of course, this should come as no surprise. The same people letting the driver’s education program go to seed are the same ones who are bent on transforming the teaching profession itself into temporary, early career option and the public schools into no-frills education factories.

If this is government when times are “good,” one hates to think of what things will look like the next time the the economy turns sour again.

Commentary

In the aftermath of last week’s unveiling of the dreadful North Carolina Senate budget proposal, this morning’s “must read” is an op-ed in this morning’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer by children’s advocate Jason Langberg. In it, Langberg explains why North Carolina’s system of allocating funds to educate children with special needs is already disastrously inadequate — even before this year’s General Assembly gets through with it. Here’s Langberg:

“Students with disabilities may struggle in school for many reasons. For starters, it’s difficult to overcome the adverse educational effects of some disabilities. Other potential causes include the correlation between disability and poverty, rigid testing policies and practices, misallocation of resources, lack of staff training or effectiveness, or failures in service delivery. However, the biggest problem that plagues these students and the hard-working educators who serve them is inadequate and inequitable resources.

The state gives local school districts and charter schools a set amount of money per SWD in the district or school. In 2014-15, that amount was $3,926.97. However, state law also arbitrarily caps per student funding at 12.5 percent of the student population. The cap was established in the early 1980s amid panic after the passage of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a way to limit expenditures and deter over-identification. Three decades later, it hasn’t changed.

The cap is unacceptably low and effectively penalizes districts with higher percentages of students with disabilities. Read More

News

Students from across North Carolina gathered on Halifax Mall outside the General Assembly today under the banner of “One State, One Rate” to advocate tuition equity in higher education for high school graduates with undocumented status. The Adelante Education Coalition led the “Undocugraduation” event as part of their “Let’s Learn NC” statewide campaign.

Maria Cortez-Perez, 18, a graduate of Southwest Guilford High School, speak to her peers and reporters on tuition equity for undocumented and DACA students in front of the General Assembly on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Photo by Ricky Leung / NC Policy Watch

Maria Cortez-Perez, 18, a graduate of Southwest Guilford High School, speak to her peers and reporters on tuition equity for undocumented and DACA students in front of the General Assembly on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Photo by Ricky Leung / NC Policy Watch

Donned in their graduation caps and gowns, students like Maria Cortez-Perez from Southwest Guilford High School aim to share their personal stories and speak with legislators to push for support of SB 463. Introduced by Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, Jr. (R – Cabarrus, Union), SB 463 would enable undocumented and DACA students like Cortez-Perez to afford higher education through in-state tuition. At least 18 states across the country, including Texas and Utah, currently allow in-state tuition for undocumented students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Latin American Coalition puts the latest number at 21, 17 through state legislative action and 4 through decisions of individual university systems.

Though graduating with a 4.2 GPA, being a member of various venerable groups such as Beta Club and National Honors Society, and despite having lived in North Carolina for 16 of her 18 years of life, Cortez-Perez, along with hundreds of her peers graduating from high schools in N.C. each year, are unable to afford out-of-state tuition or receive federal and state financial aid. Adelante estimates 42,000 undocumented students to be in N.C. schools.

“North Carolina has already invested in these students through their K-12 education and can benefit from allowing them to contribute to fill the need for a bilingual and educated workforce,” Adelante said in a press statement.

Standing on a stage facing the N.C. General Assembly building, Cortez-Perez spoke of her upbringing, of the accomplishments of herself and her peers, and of the undeterred hope of fulfilling the dream of a higher education and a better future.

“We are not in the shadows anymore,” Cortez-Perez said to a group of her peers and reporters. “People know of our accomplishments.”

As the “Undocugraduation” draws to a close, students pose for a photo and toss their caps in the air before dispersing to speak with legislators to advocate for SB 463, for tuition equity and for their chance to achieve their dreams.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Last week, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved a $22.2 billion state budget plan, which is overall a modest step towards building an economy that works for all North Carolinians. The budget represents a 5-percent increase over current year spending and the highest level of investments since the official economic recovery began in 2009.Yet, the plan still falls short of pre-recession levels of investments, fails to replace years of harmful cuts, and does not reflect all that’s needed to foster inclusive economic growth.

Unfortunately it is now clear—based on newly released spending targets—that the Senate is poised to severely limit spending rather than follow the House’s lead on making modest improvements. Low spending targets may be linked to the Senate leadership’s desire to “significantly” cut income taxes even further—a move that would hinder reinvestment in programs and fail to generate promised economic returns.

The Senate’s low spending targets make plain the shortsightedness of such an approach. For example, investments in public schools would only increase by .013 percent after accounting for enrollment growth. School systems and students would have to go without essentials that support academic achievement and completion, hindering the long-term growth potential of the state.

As the Senate moves forward in the budget process, budget writers should keep and build upon the House’s planned investments in the things that build a more inclusive economy so the state can better position itself to be competitive. Further deep tax cuts hinder lawmakers’ ability to achieve this goal. Below is a list of ten examples of economy-boosting investments and policy changes that the House included in its budget plan. Read More