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It’s certainly not the highest-profile issue, but the new $21.74 billion state budget (whenever it does get passed) could usher in a new approach to higher education in the state.

Earlier House and Senate versions of the budget endorsed giving Western Governors University, an online-based higher education system, a bigger footprint in the state, and one propped up with taxpayer money.

At this point, there are more questions than answers about what will end up in the final state budget, with House and Senate lawmakers now two months behind issuing a budget for the next two years.

WGU

WGU headquarters in Utah

Western Governors University, or WGU, is a non-profit online college, started in 1995 by a bipartisan group of governors in the western part of the country. It specializes in reaching out to “part-way home” students, those that had taken some college courses but because of life or family choices before obtaining a degree.

(Click here to read a previous article about WGU’s foray into North Carolina.)

It costs students approximately $3,000 for unlimited classes during a 6-month period and uses a competency-based model, where students can get credits for classes if they already know the material and can pass a test showing that.

Here in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory is in favor of bringing WGU to the state, and had a meeting at the Executive Mansion in November with Robert Mendenhall, the CEO of the Utah-based University.

In their proposal, House members suggested letting students attending WGU to tap into a $90 million pool of state money used for need-based aid to students attending private colleges in the state.

The Senate took a different approach, and would give the Utah-based college $2 million in state money to set up shop here, with the possibility of drawing down $5 million more if private funds are also raised.

As expected, WGU has both proponents and critics.

It’s hailed by supporters as a fairly low-cost way for older students who may be busy working to finish their degrees, while critics say it offers an inferior education and undermines existing offerings at universities and community colleges.

The $6,000 annual cost for a year at WGU is much lower than what for-profit online colleges like the University of Phoenix and Strayer University can cost.

But it is on par, or close to what UNC system institutions charged this year in tuition and fees, which range from $4,655 a year at Elizabeth City State University to $8,407 at N.C. State University for the 2015-16 school year.

WGU currently has a six-year graduation rate of 38 percent, a rate they hope to increase, which is much lower than the 63.1 percent that graduate from UNC institutions in six years.

Not everyone’s thrilled at the prospect of WGU coming to the state.

John Fennebresque, the chair of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors, says the state’s existing higher education institutions can do more for North Carolina-based students than WGU can.

He attended the November meeting McCrory had with WGU in November.

“We can do all that within the (UNC) system,” Fennebresque said in an interview this week with N.C. Policy Watch. He added, “I saw nothing that they offer that we don’t or can’t do.”

NC Budget and Tax Center

Amid major differences between the House and Senate respective budgets, public schools across the state wait to see what level of state support will be provided for public education. The final decision doesn’t just matter for the education of our children but the attractiveness of our communities and the long-term potential of our economy to grow together.

Funding may not solve every challenge in public education, but it certainly can make a difference in ensuring that a quality education for every child can be provided. As I’ve previously highlighted, smart allocation of public dollars can ensure that regardless of where they live in the state, every child receives a quality education, and in so doing an opportunity for them and in turn the economy to do well in the future.

Here are six trends that highlight the impact of state-level budget decisions on public education in North Carolina.

  1. Total state funding for public schools remains below pre-recession level

State funding for public schools has not yet reached its peak level for FY 2008 prior to the Great Recession. For FY 2015, total state funding for public education was $8.04 billion compared to $8.6 billion for FY 2008 when adjusted for inflation. This decline in state funding equates to $578 million in less funding for public schools.

Total Pub Ed Spending

Note: For this blog post, state funding for teacher pay increases are included in total spending for public education. BTC normally backs this particular funding out of the public education budget, as it has historically been included in the Reserves section of the state budget. Accordingly, figures in this blog post may differ from BTC’s other analyses of the state budget.

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News

Today’s the day for former state Rep. Stephen LaRoque to report to prison.

LaRoque, 51, a former high-ranking Republican in the state legislature from Kinston, was sentenced to two years in federal prison in July, after pleading guilty to criminal charge in connection with the theft of $300,000 from a federally-funded non-profit. He is expected to serve his term at a federal prison in Butner.

LaRoque

LaRoque

In the days prior to today’s prison report-in date, LaRoque issued a five-page statement to select media (N.C. Policy Watch not among them) stating that he had been targeted as part of a “witchhunt” in retaliation for his political views and his calling Rev. William Barber of the state NAACP a racist.

He accused the chief prosecutor and IRS agent who conducted the criminal probe of misconduct. He also accused N.C. Policy Watch of unfairly attacking him when a 2011 investigation into his management of the non-profits was published.

(We deny that accusation, and stand by the reporting that has been done.)

From the full text of LaRoque’s statement, published by the Kinston Free Press:

During my last term in the N.C. House in 2011, I received a ranting racist email from William Barber, President of the N.C. NAACP. I replied to the email asking that they discontinue sending me any email from a racist like William Barber. This is the same William Barber, who in 2014 in another racist rant, referred to South Carolina U.S. Senator Tim Scott as a “Ventriloquist’s Dummy.” Shortly after my comments about William Barber, I was smeared by N.C. Policy Watch, an offshoot of the partisan left-wing organization known as the N.C. Justice Center whose Board of Directors included William Barber. This organization colluded to smear me, along with attorneys John Marshall and John Archie of the Kinston law firm of White & Allen, who were representing my political opponent from the previous year’s election.

I believe my actions in advocating for my home town’s non-partisan elections and calling out William Barber as the racist he is was why I was targeted by the DOJ.

Federal prosecutors presented evidence that LaRoque used the federal-sourced funds from two economic development funds he ran to help buy himself cars, a Greenville ice skating rink and jewelry and replica Faberge eggs for his wife.

The federal investigation was opened after a 2011 investigative report was published by N.C. Policy Watch that pointed out LaRoque’s excessive salaries for managing the small non-profits, which were governed for years by a board made of his immediate relatives, and his loaning of money to close associates and political allies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provided the funds for the non-profit business lending groups, provided scant oversight of LaRoque’s dealings for several years.

Both federal and IRS rules governing non-profits have strict rules about how the money could be used, and directors of non-profits are specifically prohibited from using their non-profits for personal benefits.

 

 

News

LaRoque-PCUpdate: 3:22 p.m.,The U.S. Marshals Office released a statement indicating LaRoque has to report to prison by next Tuesday.

Stephen LaRoque has a bit more time before he needs to report to prison.

LaRoque, a former Republican state representative from Kinston, was supposed to head to prison within a month of his July 8 sentencing.

But it appears he’s been given an extension.

The U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh both confirmed the extension Wednesday, but could not divulge details about why the extension was granted and for how long it will last.

The federal Bureau of Prison’s offender lookup lists LaRoque, 51, as “not in BOP custody.”

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Marshal’s Service issued a statement saying LaRoque will needs to report into prison by next Tuesday, Aug. 18.

From U.S. Marshal Scott Parker:

The U.S. Marshals Service has notified Stephen LaRoque to self-surrender to the Bureau of Prisons on August 18, 2015. We will not disclose his designated Bureau of Prison location. The BOP Inmate Locator is updated daily and should show his location within 24 hours of his surrender. No other information will be released by the U.S. Marshals Service pertaining to this individual.

U.S. Senior District Court Judge Malcolm Howard Jr. had sentenced LaRoque to two years in prison for stealing $300,000 from a federally-funded non-profit he ran. The federal investigation into LaRoque, who once was a powerful member of the House Republican’s leadership team, stemmed from a 2011 N.C. Policy Watch investigation into LaRoque’s management of the economic development non-profit.

At the July sentencing, Howard told LaRoque he could wait to report to prison when a bed was ready in the federal prison system, which can take a month or so. Howard also said in July that he wouldn’t extend that deadline.

The judge also granted an order since LaRoque’s sentencing that permits LaRoque to serve his two-year sentence at the federal prison in Butner, allowing his wife who has medical issues to travel to see him for visits. The Butner facilities include a medical center, as well as low and medium-security prisons.

Another tarnished North Carolina politician, former House Speaker Jim Black, spent his prison term in Butner and Bernie Madoff, the New York financier who ran an elaborate Ponzi scheme, is a current inmate at Butner’s medium-security facility.

News

With a state budget nearly a month overdue, several Republican lawmakers headed to California this week to attend a conference with close ties to some of the nation’s largest corporations.

alecAt least three of the lawmakers will have their $700 registration costs for the American Legislative Exchange Council and a $104 per diem paid for by taxpayers, according to staff in the N.C. General Assembly’s legislative services division.

N.C House Speaker Tim Moore, state Sen. David Curtis, of Lincoln County, and state Rep. Hugh Blackwell, of Burke County, all requested reimbursement from the legislature.

The lawmakers will not receive the $104 per diem they generally get for being in session, and instead will get the travel per diem, which is the same amount.

It’s not all that unusual for the state legislature to pitch in for conferences like ALEC, which promotes free markets and limited government, or another annual conference by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

ALEC, however, has come under criticism in recent years, for its close ties to some of the nation’s largest corporations, with questions raised about the level of corporate influence making its way into Congress and state capitals through pieces of model legislation pushed by the group. Several high-profile companies have left ALEC, including Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, General Electric, Google and Microsoft.

There are other lawmakers from North Carolina attending the event in addition to the trio who will be reimbursed by the state, though they may be paying for the conference themselves or through campaign funds.

WRAL reported that state Sen. Bob Rucho, of Mecklenburg County, and the following House GOP members are headed to San Diego for the ALEC conference: state Reps. Mark Brody of Union County; John Fraley, of Iredell County Craig Horn of Union County; George Robinson of Caldwell County Stephen Ross of Alamance County; Jason Saine of Lincoln County; Sarah Stevens of Surry County.

The ALEC schedule lists Saine as a panelist for a discussion Friday about technology creating efficiencies in government.

“What I’ve found is that the meetings are very much just informative. You learn a lot of things,” Moore told WRAL.  “I know some of the groups coming out and criticizing ALEC, a lot of them are the same groups that criticize us because we want to lower taxes. But I frankly believe that’s what most North Carolinians want.”