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“They’ve already taken away longevity pay, master’s degree pay, and tenure…and now they’re taking away retirement health insurance,” said North Carolina Association of Educators’ vice president Mark Jewell on Monday.

“The General Assembly is saying to educators thinking of working in North Carolina: please look somewhere else. We don’t want long-term educators in our state,” said Jewell.

Senate lawmakers buried deep in their budget proposal earlier this month a provision that would end health retirement benefits for future teachers and state employees who are hired after January 1, 2016. [Click here for the full story.]

NCAE’s Jewell is concerned about the provision’s implications when it comes to recruiting and retaining high quality teachers.

“Under this provision—if it becomes law—teachers would have to work much later, until they can receive Medicare benefits,” said Jewell. “Or they would have to take another job once they retire to get some kind of health insurance benefit until they qualify for Medicare.”

“We have a lot of teachers retiring coupled with a large decrease in participation in teacher education programs at the university system — enrollments have fallen 27 percent since 2010,” Jewell added. “So it looks like we have a big teacher shortage ahead.”

As the cost of college soars, students are reaching a tipping point when it comes to how much debt they’re willing to take on in order to enter the teaching profession, according to NC State University’s assistant dean for teacher education, Michael Maher.

“We have students who are graduating with degrees in math and engineering making $70,000,” said Maher. “So there becomes this issue of debt load—students say ‘only if I am going to make a good salary can I take on more debt.'”

Maher, who was a high school teacher during the mid-1990s, said the teaching profession was once an attractive prospect thanks to the overall benefits package that teachers were once guaranteed.

“I thought it was great,” said Maher of teaching. “I had access to the state’s retirement system and a guarantee of good health benefits upon retirement. Now out of pocket expenses are increasing, premiums are rising, and salaries are not going up, and now this…so what’s the advantage now?”

Maher noted that the Senate’s proposal to slash health retirement benefits affects UNC faculty, too, making it difficult to retain top notch professors were the provision to become law.

Tacey Miller, a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who graduated earlier this year and just secured a job as a third grade teacher in Onslow County, said she continues to be surprised by the General Assembly’s actions.

“So much has happened with the education system in North Carolina that nothing should surprise me anymore,” said Miller. “But something like [eliminating health retirement benefits] comes out in the news and I just think, why? Where are they redistributing this money, then? Even if they reduce class sizes, you still need actual classrooms to teach the kids.”

“It just seems like we’re making it harder for people to be teachers,” said Miller.

The House and Senate are expected to spend the rest of the summer—and possibly part of the fall—hammering out a final 2015-17 budget deal—stay tuned to see if the elimination of health retirement benefits for teachers and state employees makes it past the cutting room floor.

2015 Fiscal Year State Budget, NC Budget and Tax Center, Women and the Economy

One of the most pressing concerns for any working family with children in North Carolina is to figure out a child care arrangement for children that allows parents to work and provide for their family, and allows children to learn and grow in a safe and stimulating setting when not in parental care. This is especially challenging because of the high cost of child care, as noted in these recently released state fact sheets by Child Care Aware of America. There are a few options available for families who earn low to moderate wages including the child care subsidy program which provides financial assistance to working families who need help paying for child care. Unfortunately this critical building block that makes life work for working families has been crumbling due to recent policy decisions by North Carolina lawmakers.

In our newest edition of Prosperity Watch, we feature a report released this month by NC Child detailing the impact made by child care subsidy policy changes passed by North Carolina lawmakers last year. These changes amounted to the loss of financial assistance for thousands of North Carolina families, including reducing income eligibility levels to qualify for the program, elimination of prorated fees for part-time child care (meaning many families will no longer be able to afford care), as well as counting income of a non-parent relative caregiver like a grandparent against the child’s eligibility for subsidies.

The map below provides a county by county breakdown of the more than 6,000 children who have lost or will lose access to child care subsidies from the change to the income eligibility provision alone.

PW 50-4

 

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Commentary

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled — again — that the structure of the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it is time to move forward with making the law work better in our state.

The first, and most important, step is accepting federal funds to extend the benefits of affordable health insurance coverage to 500,000 more people in our state. Gov. McCrory said last year that his staff was assembling options to expand coverage and that he would make an announcement about his recommendation after the Supreme Court ruled in King v. Burwell. The ruling has arrived.

When asked about expansion today McCrory was sort of squishy and said he wants a North Carolina plan. We all do. But first we need the Governor to draft and release such a plan. Conservative Governors in Ohio, Indiana, Utah, Michigan, Tennessee and other states have either closed the coverage gap or assembled a strategy to accomplish a coverage expansion. There’s no reason our Governor can’t do the same.

Legislators are still critical of expansion. Sen. Ralph Hise says that he doesn’t think the federal government will be flexible enough to allow a state option. His wish list includes wanting to expand using private insurance and imposing co-pays on recipients above the federal poverty level.

Of course, the federal government has approved even more conservative measures than Hise mentions. Several states including Arkansas, Iowa, and Michigan do use private insurance to expand coverage. Some states are charging co-pays and premiums even on enrollees earning less than the federal poverty level. The federal government has shown a degree of flexibility that makes many advocates uncomfortable. The idea that our hands are tied is, to quote Justice Scalia, pure applesauce.

Recently released data from the National Health Interview Survey show the dramatic impact of expanding coverage. In Kentucky the adult uninsured rate dropped from 24.1 percent in 2013 to 15.6 percent in 2014. In Arkansas the rate went from 27.5 percent to 15.6 percent. And, most stunningly, in West Virginia the adult uninsured rate went from 28.8 percent in 2013 to 12.2 percent in 2014. These numbers reflect only the first year of expansion and states nearly cut their adult uninsured rates in half. In North Carolina the adult uninsured rate moved from 25.6 percent to 22.5 percent.

A majority of states are expanding coverage while reforming their Medicaid programs. More states will join their ranks now the Supreme Court has ruled that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. The Governor must show leadership on this issue and ensure that all of our citizens have access to comprehensive, affordable health insurance.

News

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) filed a motion Tuesday asking the state Supreme Court to allow the controversial school voucher program to proceed for the 2015-16 academic year while the high court continues to debate the constitutionality of allowing families to use public dollars for tuition at private schools.

“Intervenor-Defendants respectfully request that this Court modify its 12 December 2014 Order granting in part a writ of supersedeas and permit the Opportunity Scholarship Program to move forward for the 2014-2015 academic year unimpeded by the Superior Court’s permanent injunction,” wrote attorneys who filed the motion on behalf of Senator Berger and Speaker Moore, who are defendant intervenors in a case that is seeking to halt the school voucher program.

The North Carolina Supreme Court last released opinions on June 11, and many expected a decision on the case at that time from the state’s highest court.

But a decision did not come, and the next scheduled date for Supreme Court opinions is not until August 21 — a point in time, as Tuesday’s motion highlights, when it will be nearly impossible to ensure that the program can continue for the upcoming academic year should the Court decide that the Opportunity Scholarship Program passes constitutional muster. (The Supreme Court is, however, able to issue opinions at any time and without regard to the scheduled dates, if the Court so desires.)

Last summer, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood put a halt to the Opportunity Scholarships program, enacted by the General Assembly in 2013.

Judge Hobgood found that the program failed constitutional muster for several reasons—chiefly because it funnels public dollars that should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools to private institutions instead, which the state holds to almost no curricular requirements or standards of accountability.

“The General Assembly fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything,” Judge Hobgood said.

The state, along with defendant-intervenors for parents as well as then-Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger appealed Hobgood’s ruling to the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeals ruled last fall that the program could continue for this past academic year as the fate of the program was debated.

State lawmakers passed a 2013 budget that tagged $10 million to be used for the Opportunity Scholarships beginning in 2014. The vouchers, worth $4,200 per student annually, funnel taxpayer dollars to largely unaccountable private schools––70 percent of which are affiliated with religious institutions.

Proponents of the voucher program say it’s necessary to provide low-income families with options outside of the public school system—especially for those whose schools do not have the means to ensure a student’s academic success.

The House’s 2015-17 budget, passed last month, proposes expanding the school voucher program from $10 million to $17.6 million for the upcoming fiscal year. The Senate’s proposal does the same, but with recurring funds instead and for both years of the biennium.

News

State lawmakers could soon decide to anoint pro-school privatization nonprofit Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina (PEFNC) to distribute taxpayer dollars to new charter schools in the state, according to the Associated Press.

From the AP:

The budget proposal being considered by the General Assembly may break new ground in state spending by letting Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina decide which fledgling charter schools get a piece of $1 million a year, N.C. Center for Nonprofits vice president David Heinen said.

“This is probably unique to have a completely independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit having discretion without a lot of criteria,” said Heinen, citing the chapter of federal tax law describing charity and educational groups. “I don’t know of any other that is quite like this.”

If the Senate endorses what is currently a House proposal, PEFNC would be tasked with doling out up to $1 million annually in start-up funds for new charter schools (up to $100,000 each) to set up shop in geographic areas where charter schools are few in number.

When the House rolled out this idea earlier this year, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern over the idea that a private group beholden to virtually no public oversight could be tasked with handing out taxpayer dollars.

Legislative efforts have attempted to direct similar responsibilities to PEFNC in years past.

In 2013, lawmakers proposed giving the nonprofit $1 million over two years to develop charter schools in rural parts of the state, but that measure did not pass. A similar bill was filed last year too, but also did not survive.

None of the taxpayer funds can go toward administrative or management fees, according to the current proposal. Darrell Allison, executive director of PEFNC, already receives a large compensation package that has has increased considerably over a short time.

In 2010, Allison received $107,889 for his work running the non-profit; in 2012, Allison reported an income of $156,582—a 45 percent pay increase in just two years. In 2013, his salary bumped up again to $167,085, according to tax records.

PEFNC has received millions of dollars from the Walton Family Foundation (owners of Wal-Mart) over the past several years. The Waltons are known for supporting education initiatives such as vouchers, charter schools and other privatization measures.

For more background on PEFNC, click here.

The Senate begins the process of rolling out their budget later today in committee meetings. I’ll be tweeting from Senate Ed at 4pm — follow me on Twitter @LindsayWagnerNC.