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The Greenville Daily Reflector ran an editorial this week (which the Charlotte Observer re-ran in part of this morning) that rightfully decries the shell game played by the General Assembly this year in shifting the costs of driver’s education off on to the parents of high schoolers.

In passing the cost of driver education to parents of high school students, state lawmakers appear to be playing a shell game with the taxes North Carolina drivers have been paying for 57 years to support the program. When tax dollars earmarked for specified services no longer pay for those services, the government should not get to keep the money.

If that is what is happening in the case of a $3 charge added to license plate fees for driver education, it represents more than an injustice to taxpayers. It collides head-on with the conservative ideology espoused by the majority leadership in Raleigh….

What is not debatable is that for nearly 60 years tax dollars have been flowing from the pockets of every North Carolina motorist to pay for driver education. To remove the service with no relief to those paying for it — and requiring others to pay again — amounts to something akin to highway robbery.

Not what we should expect from a GOP-led Legislature that professes a desire to shrink government’s reach into our personal lives.

What the piece should have noted, of course, is that rather than being some kind of aberration, “fee for service” government is the right’s favored model these days, while the notion of broadly applicable, fairly distributed taxes are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

NC Budget and Tax Center, Poverty and Income Data 2013, Poverty and Policy Matters

Children face the highest poverty rate in North Carolina compared to other age groups according to data released last week by the US Census Bureau. After more than five years into an economic recovery, one in four children (25.2%) in North Carolina remained in poverty in 2013 –unchanged from 2012 and higher than the national child poverty rate (22%). At a time when we are experiencing an economic recovery, it is troubling that our state’s child poverty rate is not declining and remains significantly higher than the national average.

The numbers become even more meaningful when considering the disadvantages children in poverty face: less access to early education programs and high quality schools, food insecurity, higher stress levels and higher dropout rates, among other risk factors. Recent findings in brain development research also warn of the impact of toxic stress associated with poverty on a young child’s developing brain. Toxic stress can weaken the architecture of a child’s brain, creating long-term challenges that make it hard for one to be economically secure as an adult. Other numbers are rising for children across the nation and in North Carolina that we certainly don’t want to see on the rise. Infant mortality and child mortality has increased in North Carolina. There has also been a rise in the number of homeless school children, according to recently released national data. Both are indicators of poverty’s tight grasp on America’s and North Carolina’s children.

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Commentary

School-vouchersThis morning’s editorial in the Fayetteville Observer takes a rather charitable view toward parents who signed their children up for North Carolina’s new school voucher plan and then found themselves without the subsidy once Judge Robert Hobgood rightfully struck down the program as blatantly unconstitutional. The paper is okay with last week’s Court of Appeals ruling that the state should go ahead and disburse the money to the private schools in which the parents enrolled their kids.

Reasonable minds can differ on this generous take; after all, it’s the private schools (which knew the risks) that are really out the money. But the paper is right that, assuming this is a one-time deal, the damage will be minimal. The remainder of editorial is largely spot on, however, with its take on the voucher program more generally and going forward:

In his earlier ruling against the program, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said it not only gave tax dollars to non-public schools, but established no standards for the schools to which the money would go.

Friday’s decision wisely allows the children already enrolled to continue through this school year. There’s no point in penalizing families who believed they were part of a legitimate state program.

But lawmakers should stop hoping for a court to read the constitution crossed-eyed and discern something that isn’t there. The General Assembly should prepare for the rejection of Opportunity Scholarships.

Hobgood’s ruling also spelled out the way legislators can fix this: “The expenditure of public funds raised by tax action to finance the operation of privately operated, managed and controlled schools … would require a constitutional amendment approved by the vote of the citizens of North Carolina.”

To preserve Opportunity Scholarships, stop pretending and begin the amendment process. And also include standards to hold participating private schools accountable.

Read the rest of the editorial by clicking here.

Commentary

Inhabitants of the “nonpartisan” conservative think tanks are clearly growing desperate that North Carolinians have not fallen for the education funding shell game they helped legislative leaders and the Governor engineer during this past session of the General Assembly. With public opinion titling increasingly against them (both on the issue of education itself and the U.S. Senate race that’s turning, in some respects, into a referendum on the issue), these groups have been cranking out missive after missive in an attempt to prove that down is up.

Fortunately, the truth keeps shining through. Take for example, Ned Barnett’s excellent essay in Sunday’s edition of Raleigh’s News & Observer.  As Barnett patiently explains in the piece, the claims in recent political ads that spending state education spending has increased by “a billion dollars” doesn’t hold water:

The $1 billion increase Wilburn refers to is deeply misleading. Most of that spending includes state contributions to pension and health funds and salary adjustments. It’s not in any real world sense spending for the education of North Carolina’s public school students.

In the real world, spending for education is down. Wilburn could have learned that by going to the financial officer for her own school district. There has been a slight increase in special education funding, but the overall funding for the 5,400-student Yadkin County school district is down.

Denise Bullin, the executive director of finance for Yadkin County schools, has been in the job for two years. In regard to state funding, she says, “We have experienced a reduction in both years.” As for Wilburn’s televised statements, Bullin said, “I don’t agree with that.”

The state’s funding for Yadkin County schools fell from $30.8 million in 2012-13 to $28.3 million in 2013-14. In the same period, its per pupil funding dropped from $5,371 to $5,040.

The piece goes on to explain the statewide picture:

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Commentary

It’s been about a month since North Carolina’s legislature wrapped up the short summer session and headed home to begin campaigning ahead of November’s election.

Former Governor Jim Hunt writes in a must-read editorial that lawmakers need to stop boasting about the modest pay raise afforded to teachers this year, and worry about whether North Carolina will be able to attract and keep high-quality teachers in the future.

The four-term governor notes in Saturday’s News & Observer:

Jim_HuntIt’s not just poor pay, but working conditions for teachers have deteriorated with rising class sizes, fewer textbooks and supplies, cuts in teaching assistants and political leadership that too often disparages teachers.

While both political parties deserve to share some of the blame, the fact is that as our economy improves, the current state leadership continues to keep our public schools on a bare subsistence diet and makes education policies that are an affront to teachers, especially experienced ones.

Teachers are a smart bunch. The recent pay raises have been sold as 7 percent – but that’s not what many teachers are seeing in their paychecks. Young teachers are getting a modest raise, but those veteran teachers who have worked and sacrificed to give our children a good education have seen the longevity pay they counted on abolished. And the new salary schedule treats them very unfairly. A teacher in Clayton wrote that she got a raise of only $47.60 per month. One Wake County teacher told WRAL-TV that when she saw her increase was only 1.39 percent she “sat down and cried.”

Not surprisingly, many North Carolina teachers are voting against education cuts with their feet. States like Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas are actively recruiting them. (The Houston School District just hired 28.) Other teachers are retiring early, and many top teachers are going into better paying jobs in business and science.

I think we should be especially alarmed by the message current policies and low teacher pay is sending to the young people of North Carolina who should be our “future teachers.”

Enrollment in Schools of Education on our University of North Carolina campuses has dropped precipitously. I received my undergraduate degree in the School of Education at North Carolina State University. Over the last several years new enrollment in my alma mater’s program has gone down every single year – a drop of 52 percent in four years.

At UNC-Greensboro (my teacher mother’s alma mater) total undergraduate enrollment in the School of Education has gone down 44 percent in the last six years.

Where will our future teachers come from? Will we even have enough to teach our kids?

Once North Carolina had a Teaching Fellows Program that attracted “the best and brightest” of our students with four-year scholarships if they promised to teach for four years or more. Now the legislature has abolished it.

I believe the status of our public schools and teachers is the No. 1 concern of North Carolina’s resident today. Some say we don’t have the resources and can’t do any better. I know that we can.

Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser believed we could when he supported the establishment of public kindergarten in 1973 and raised teacher pay to 27th in the nation.

In 1996 I campaigned for governor on a platform of raising teacher pay to the national average. In 1997 we built a bipartisan coalition with support from Democrats and Republicans, business leaders, education advocates and teachers to support the Excellent Schools Act. And over the next four years we increased teacher pay by almost 33 percent, raising pay to the national average and 20th in the country.

It is my hope that when the General Assembly convenes in 2015, there will be a new sense of cooperation and a firm commitment to do three things:

First, respect veteran teachers by restoring longevity pay and giving them the minimum 5.5 percent raise they were sold.

Second, increase salaries for all teachers, moving North Carolina to the national average in the next four years.

Third, improve working conditions for our teachers and send the message that North Carolina values its teachers.

That will show the real respect that North Carolina teachers deserve.

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