Senate bill would make all students eligible for vouchers intended to help poor families pay for private schools

A senate bill filed Tuesday would remove income eligibility requirements for the state’s so-called “Opportunity Scholarships” created to help low-income families pay private school tuition.

Senate Bill 711 was filed by Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican. Sen. Bob Steinburg, a Republican from Edenton and Sen. Norman W. Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, are co-sponsors.

Hise did not respond to an email message about the bill on Wednesday.

SB 711 was quickly denounced by Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County.

“It seems particularly callous right now to make this a priority,” Marcus said. “increasing funding for a program that is already over-funded, that’s taking money out of the coffers that will be needed in so many other places right now. It’s just not the right priority. Funding more private school vouchers is not a critical need right now.”

The program has never used its entire state allocation since launching in 2014.

Marcus noted that the state is facing an estimated $2 billion budget shortfall.

“At a time when our state revenues are taking a huge hit, and we didn’t even pass a state budget this year and we’re not going to, and we haven’t given teachers the much overdue raise that they deserve as well as all the COVID-19-related expenses we’re going to have, this is particularly egregious in my mind, to file a bill like this,” Marcus said.

She said the bill appears to be another attack on public schools and a blow against the mandate in the state’s constitution to provide all students with an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.

“This is part of a pattern for them [conservative lawmakers],” Marcus said. “They’d rather funnel money into these private schools that have very little accountability to the state about what they teach, who is teaching there and about any kind of outcomes for kids.”

Marcus said she’s not against private schools, only against spending “taxpayer money” to support them.

“I hope that people will see that this bill is an attempt to make North Carolina taxpayers bankroll private school education for an even greater number of families at a time when we’re taking a $2 billion hit in our budget,” she said.

SB 711 would pour millions more into the program that provides as much as $4,200 year for families to send children to private schools.

Hise’s bill would add an additional $2 million to the program’s budget each year beginning next school year through the 2026-27 school year.

The program, for example, is set to receive $74.8 million next school year. It would $76.8 million under SB 711.

State law mandates that the program’s budget increases by an additional $10 million each year. It would increase by $12 million next school year to incorporate the additional $2 million, then increase $10 million each subsequent year until the 2026-27 school year. The cummulative effect over seven years would be an additional $14 million above the amount originial authorized.

The program’s budget would jump another $10 million — from $136.8 million to $146.8 million — for the 2027-28 school year. The $146.8 million would establish a “base” budget for the program.

This school year, 12,283 students received $47. 7 million to attend 451 private schools.

The previous school year, 9,651 recipients received $38 million in private school vouchers.

Public school advocates contend the voucher program weakens public schools by shifting valuable resources to private schools. They also say there’s no evidence that students who received them perform better. They also complain the program fosters school segregation and lacks academic accountability.

Meanwhile, voucher proponents say the scholarship provide low-and moderate-income families with financial assistance to flee failing schools and to choose schools that better fit their children.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Here’s what he had to say about the scholarships in a PEFNC newsletter in February.

“These scholarships provide up to $4,200 each year for students from over 12,000 low-income and working-class families to flourish in the educational environment of their parent’s choice,” Long wrote. “That is a privilege that more fortunate North Carolina families already enjoy — those with the incomes high enough to buy a house in a good public school district or pay private school tuition on their own. Without Opportunity Scholarships, low-income families can remain stuck.”

 

U.S. Senate agrees to move ahead on $550B in new infrastructure spending

Duke expert says indoor masking is a good idea for all NC counties. NC Republicans politicize the CDC mask recommendation.

Image: Adobe Stock

New COVID-19 infections in North Carolina rose sharply Wednesday and hospitalizations continued their upward trend.

An infectious disease expert at Duke University told reporters that hospitalizations will continue to go up as more people who are newly infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 develop symptoms that require inpatient care.

“It’s baked into the system that the number is going to go up for at least a couple of weeks,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke Health and an associate professor at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Most new infections and hospitalizations are caused by the more contagious coronavirus delta variant.  Wolfe said time between infection and symptoms is compressed with delta variant.

The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 2,633 new cases Wednesday, the highest daily number since last winter. Nearly 11% of COVID-19 tests were positive Monday. The optimum is 5% or less. More than 1,000 people with COVID-19 were in North Carolina hospitals on Tuesday, and 253 were adults in hospital ICUs.

The new wave of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across the country pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday to recommend that people in areas with substantial or high viral spread wear masks in public indoor areas.

The CDC released a map of viral spread by county. Most North Carolina counties are in viral spread categories where the CDC is recommending masking.

Wolfe said it makes sense for everyone in North Carolina to follow the CDC advice on indoor masking because counties can easily cross the threshold into substantial viral spread.

“Masking is a simple thing,” he said. “It’s a pretty standard thing we should be able to do. I would be in favor of broadening it as wide as we can.”

On Wednesday, Duke University announced it would require masks in all of its buildings starting Friday because of the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in North Carolina.

Masks, however, like vaccinations, have become political.

The North Carolina House Republican caucus sent out a fundraising email after the CDC news conference on masks under a red BREAKING NEWS banner, claiming that President Joe Biden is about to issue a mask mandate.

“ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. We already went through this Covid Craziness once…North Carolina, are we going to accept it for a second time?” the email says before asking for donations to “maintain our freedoms.”

Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina attacked the mask recommendation on Twitter, saying it would lead to more vaccine hesitancy and government mask mandates.

“The Biden administration apparently doesn’t trust the science, and they clearly don’t trust the American people to take personal responsibility for their own choices,” Tillis tweeted.

North Carolina and the rest of the country are nowhere near the vaccination goals set this spring. About 47% of North Carolinians are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

David Montefiori, a Duke professor who has been studying the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against new variants, said there are lots of reasons for vaccine hesitancy and most are based on a lack of information or misinformation.  He said he expects more people to get shots once the vaccines gain full approval from the Federal Drug Administration.

Wolfe said he could sympathize with what’s been called  ‘mask fatigue’ but that it’s important to remain flexible as knowledge grows and health recommendations change.

“I think we’re all fatigued, to be honest, by lots of things over the last 18 months,” he said. “We are watching evolution in progress. And because of that, and because this is a new virus for us, this will continue to ebb and flow in ways that are hard for us to predict, try as we might.”

Patience with changing recommendations is important because the pandemic is not under control and mutations continue to evolve, he said.

“If we didn’t have flexibility, this would be much more difficult to control,” Wolfe said.

PFAS-contaminated foam found in Falls Lake, Neuse River

Maps by Lisa Sorg; source data, NC DEQ

Latest state data show 15 locations across NC in which PFAS have been detected in foam or nearby surface water

First it appeared in Gray’s Creek in southern Cumberland County.

Then it showed up in a private driveway on Marshwood Lake Road near the Bladen-Cumberland County line. In the Georgia Branch that feeds the Cape Fear River.

Near the Huske Dam near Tar Heel, in Marshwood Lake, and in a pond, again near Gray’s Creek.

These incidents of mysterious foam — foam that contained toxic PFAS — occurred in waterways near Chemours. While infuriating and concerning for residents, the results weren’t a complete surprise, considering the company’s history of discharging contaminants into the environment.

But then foam appeared 200 miles west, in Shelby.

And at the headwaters of the Neuse River, just beyond the Falls Lake Dam in Wake County. Between rocks at the Falls Lake Dam Recreation Area — nowhere close to Chemours.

Over the past year, the NC Department of Environmental Quality has received a half-dozen citizen complaints about unusual foam in and near waterways. Those sightings spurred the Division of Water Resources to test the material at more than 15 locations, according to data provided by the agency.

“This experience has informed the division’s efforts to prioritize and scale up its efforts to understand PFAS and its transport through different media, Julie Grzyb, deputy director of the Division of Water Resources, told Policy Watch via email.

Major drinking water sources affected

State investigators collected 1,372 individual samples, including foam and surface water from rivers, lakes and streams, as well as effluent from Chemours. Of those samples, a third — 496 — contained PFAS, ranging from 2.1 parts per trillion to 39,126 ppt. PFAS concentrates in foam, so levels are higher in that material than in surface water. Nor is there an EPA-approved testing method for PFAS in foam, so the figures are estimates.

 

The other samples measured below 2 ppt, the “practical quantitation limit” or “PQL” for short – the lowest concentration the laboratory could detect. That means there could be PFAS below 2 ppt, but the testing method wasn’t sensitive enough to detect them.

There are more than 5,000 types of PFAS, also known as perfluorinated and polyfluoroalkyl substances. Exposure has been linked to a higher risk of kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, reproductive problems, low birth weight, thyroid disorders, and a depressed immune system.

The compounds are found in many firefighting foams, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, stain-resistant and water-resistant materials, and other consumer products.

At the Falls Lake Dam Recreation Area, foam collected between some rocks contained 17 types of PFAS, with levels as high as 223 ppt. Among the types of PFAS detected were GenX, and another compound used in firefighting foam. A second foam sample, skimmed from water near the pier, had four types of the compounds.

Nearby surface water contained just three types, and concentrations were lower: 2.1 to 4.6 ppt.

In addition to being a popular boating and fishing area, Falls Lake is the primary drinking water supply for a half-million people in Raleigh, Garner, Knightdale, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon.

At the headwaters of the Neuse River, below the Falls Lake Dam, foam contained 19 types of PFAS, as high as 13,289 ppt.

At 275 miles long, the Neuse River is also a major drinking water supply for several towns and cities, including Smithfield, Goldsboro and Kinston, before it empties into the Pamlico Sound near New Bern.

Neither the state nor the EPA has established maximum safe levels for PFAS in surface water, soil, drinking water or foam. The EPA has set is a “health advisory goal” of 70 ppt in drinking water for all PFAS combined, and/or no more than 10 ppt for a single PFAS; North Carolina has adopted that goal.

Most sources remain a mystery

The division is investigating potential sources, but given that PFAS are so widespread, not just in North Carolina but globally, in some cases it could be difficult to pinpoint them.

In Shelby, a possible source is the firm Environmental Soils, which has a state permit to accept dirt that contains petroleum products. The facility treats the soil and then spreads it on land for non-food crops. In cases of gasoline spills, however, firefighting foam is often used to keep the fuel from igniting and it’s possible PFAS could have been present in the soil when it arrived at the Shelby site.

Land application of sludge from wastewater treatment plants could also contaminate soil; runoff from those fields could enter the groundwater and surface water.

Some PFAS, including GenX, can travel in the air. That’s how drinking water wells near the Chemours plant became contaminated. When the facility sent emissions through its stacks, the compounds were blown offsite, then fell to the ground, polluting the groundwater and the wells. DEQ has since required Chemours to remove 99.9% of the compounds from its emissions.

Once released into the environment, PFAS can take decades, if not hundreds of years, to degrade in the environment – a fact that has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals.” That persistence could explain why PFOS and PFOA, which manufacturers have phased out, still show up in waterways, such as Falls Lake.

Downstream at Chemours, foam and wastewater leaving the plant through Outfall No. 2 into the Cape Fear were also contaminated with 32 types of PFAS. This include PFOS, which Chemours maintains it never manufactured at the Fayetteville Works plant; nor did Chemours’ predecessor, DuPont, according to company spokeswoman Lisa Randall.

“PFOS has never been manufactured or used in the manufacturing processes at our Fayetteville Works site,” said Randall. “We are aware of a DEQ sample taken after foam was observed in the river near Outfall 002—and it reflects the makeup of the foam, not the makeup of our outfall discharge.”

PFOS can also be formed by environmental degradation of other related compounds, so it’s possible for it to appear even through it was not manufactured at the plant.

Very high levels of PFOS and GenX were also found in foam in the Cape Fear River, downstream of Chemours, at the Huske Lock and Dam, near Tar Heel.

Beth Kline-Markesino, co-founder of North Stop GenX in Our Water, urged people who come across foam not to touch it or allow their pets around it. They should call DEQ, she said. “This is alarming and we don’t know the sources,” she said.

A private driveway a mile north of the plant contained elevated levels of PFOS, as well as GenX and other compounds known as “precursors.” Precursors can break down to form a different type of fluorinated compound.

Some foams are naturally occurring, the result of decaying leaves and plants. Harmless foam is usually off-white and/or brown, according to the Michigan Department of the Environment. It often accumulates in bays, eddies, or river blockages, and might have an earthy or fishy smell. However, foam containing PFAS can be bright white and is usually lightweight. It can be sticky and tends to pile up like shaving cream. The compounds can also mix with natural foam.

Grzyb of the Division of Water Resources said the agency is designing a statewide foam survey to better understand PFAS in the material and in surface water. The agency has also requested in the state budget 10 additional positions devoted solely to addressing the proliferation of the compounds.

Poor People’s Campaign rallies outside federal building, presses NC Senators to protect democracy, raise wages

Rev. Nelson Johnson addresses demonstrators outside the Raleigh office of Senator Thom Tillis. (Photo: screen grab from live stream)

Dozens of demonstrators from North Carolina’s faith community and the Poor People’s Campaign gathered outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ Raleigh office Monday to release an open letter to members of the U.S. Senate.

The group is demanding Congress end the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“You can’t survive on $7.25 (an hour). You can hardly survive on $15.25,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson. “We need to keep raising that standard of living.”

Johnson told the crowd Congress must also fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“What kind of democracy can you have when you make laws that suppress people’s right to vote?” Johnson asked rhetorically.

Activist Karen Ziegler of the group Tuesdays with Tillis called for an end to the filibuster.

“Because some senators – including Senators Tillis and Burr – are intent on making it easier for a few millionaires to buy our elections, and more difficult for regular people to vote,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said the group is also urging Congress to expand Medicaid in states that have yet to take that action on their own.

“80 percent of North Carolinians want to expand it. And not expanding it kills people,” she said.

Similar events were held by the Poor People’s Campaign in 40 other states on Monday.

Demonstrators plan a Moral Monday action in the nation’s capital on August 2nd to call more attention to the needs of low-wage workers.

Karen Ziegler of the group Tuesdays with Tillis