Commentary, News

School choice groups fire back over criticism of another voucher expansion

Accountability is a slippery word to the leadership of the N.C. General Assembly.

Republican legislators in the House and Senate oft crow about the need for accountability — financially and academically — in North Carolina’s traditional public schools. Of course, nobody really disagrees, although there’s something terribly galling about the relative lack of either for North Carolina’s incredible expanding private school voucher program.

The Capitol Broadcasting Corp., WRAL’s parent company, offered an editorial on voucher accountability last week, following the Senate’s passage of a bipartisan bill that only loosens voucher restrictions further, and now school choice advocates are fired up.

Mike Long, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, issued a scathing statement Monday, slamming CBC for the piece.

From Long’s statement:

OUR money.

Those are the words of the Capitol Broadcasting Company’s (CBC) latest attack on North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program. The program currently enables over 9,600 students from low-income and working-class families in North Carolina to attend the private school of their parents’ choice.

These families are taxpayers, too. But CBC is protecting systems and the status quo, playing politics, and demonizing educational choice.

Here is the downright disrespectful and harmful language used by CBC’s editorial board in full:

If these parents were spending their own money, Clark might have a case. But these parents are not spending their own money, it is OUR money, tens of millions of dollars’ worth. We not only have the right, we have the responsibility to be sure that OUR tax dollars are being spent as intended – to educate North Carolina children.

“Our money” is nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to turn one group of people—those of us paying taxes but not using a “scary” voucher—against another group of people—those of us paying taxes who use an Opportunity Scholarship.

Even Governor Roy Cooper says Opportunity Scholarships are “an expense that we should stop” while talking about investing more in education. Apparently to the governor, poor and working-class families are nothing more than “an expense.”

Divide and conquer is his plan, pitting those families against the state that thinks it knows best where parents should send their kids to school.

The governor and CBC are demanding that “our money” shouldn’t be allocated to “these parents” unless the state controls every penny, regardless of the accountability requirements already in place, the positive impacts schools of choice have on their students, and the overwhelming support for the Opportunity Scholarship Program from the parents using it.

Thousands of families on the Opportunity Scholarship Program (taxpayers, mind you) dig into their own pockets every month to cover what’s left in tuition and fees after the Opportunity Scholarship has provided them a much-needed boost. Yet, there is a real disconnect when CBC questions if “these parents were spending their own money.”

Rhetoric aside, North Carolina lacks sufficient evidence that the expanding private school program — lawmakers built in millions in additional funding each year — works. That says nothing about the relative lack of transparency and anti-discrimination protection in private schools, most of which are religious-based.

At a time when North Carolina teachers are marching en masse to Raleigh, demanding additional funding, legislators would spend millions on the program.  Legislators should shelve the voucher gimmick or delay their expansions, at least until there is credible evidence that the program is effective.

Commentary, News

Editorial urges Gov. Cooper to veto “shameful” abortion bill

North Carolina has joined the ranks of conservative states behind a raft of anti-abortion rights legislation.

The latest — the so-called “born-alive abortion survivors protection act” — is now bound for Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk after a charged debate in the legislature.

Plainly and simply, Cooper should veto the bill. This morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com (“Veto this bill”) agrees.

From the editorial:

Gov. Roy Cooper needs to veto the “abortion survivors protection act” and that veto should be sustained. The bill is unnecessary. It stigmatizes and shames doctors and their patients.

After moving quickly through the state Senate it was rushed before the House of Representatives and passed in minutes – without even perfunctory committee review.

This bill doesn’t protect the lives of anyone who isn’t already protected under current law. Infanticide IS AGAINST the law. If a baby is born alive, no matter the circumstances, doctors must take all appropriate measures to preserve that life. It is already a crime to kill a baby.

Any doctors that do it violate the law, their medical ethics and go to jail. That is what happened to the sole example backers have used to promote this superfluous bill.

Current law works. The sponsors of the bill, Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth; Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell and Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston know this. While they’ve offered up highly emotional rhetoric, they’ve distorted reality and failed to provide a bit of evidence that this is going on in North Carolina or even had gone on in recent memory. One of the bill’s backers, Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, DECADES AGO early in her career, claimed to have “been witness to the results of those late-term abortions.” She offered no proof but plenty of gruesome anecdotal descriptions.

This legislation is not based in medical reality or truth. It is being rammed through the legislature as a wedge issue to agitate a political base. President Donald Trump says there should be “punishment” for women who have abortions.

That is not the mainstream view. Less than a year ago 71 percent of the nation’s registered voters said they opposed overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that make abortion legal during the first three months of pregnancy. Only 23 percent supported reversing it. We support current law.

For those first 24 weeks – up until a fetus is viable – a woman can decide to have an abortion. After that, an abortion is permissible ONLY if a doctor determines the health of the mother is at risk by continuing the pregnancy. This is not a woman’s choice. It is a doctor’s determination of a medical necessity.

And, it is rare. Very rare.

Don’t be fooled. It’s all aimed at the creation of highly-charged political attacks. Gov. Cooper, don’t be surprised when Sen. Phil Berger says you support infanticide. We know you don’t and so does he.

But, it’s already started. “It shouldn’t be hard to stand against infanticide, but House and Senate Democrats are doing just that,” said Aubrey Woodard, acting chairman of the state Republican Party, in a fund-raising e-mail distributed Wednesday.

Infanticide IS ALREADY AGAINST the law. Woodard and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly know it.

To really stand up for children, legislators should support the expansion of Medicaid to more than a half-million needy North Carolina citizens who lack access to adequate health care. They should fully fund Pre-K in North Carolina to eliminate the backlog of children who are eligible.

This legislation is not about protecting children. It is a shameful re-election gimmick.

Gov. Cooper, veto this bill.

Commentary, Education, News

Study: North Carolina pre-K expanding, but still lags national average

A new study says North Carolina Pre-K is on the rise, but there’s still a great deal more work to do.

The report should provide new fodder for North Carolina lawmakers, who’ve been debating expanded public access to Pre-K for several years.

From WRAL’s report Wednesday:

North Carolina has increased state preschool funding and enrollment, but access has hovered at 23 percent of 4-year-olds – below the national average, according to new research released Wednesday by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The State of Preschool 2018 annual report, based on 2017-18 academic year data, found that North Carolina boosted pre-K spending by nearly $6 million in 2017-18, with plans to continue increased funding. However, the state “needs to both expand access and restore funding per child to pre-recession levels to help close the pay gap between pre-K and K-3 teachers with the same qualifications,” the group wrote.

“North Carolina is moving in the right direction,” NIEER founder and senior co-director Steven Barnett said in a statement.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers discussed a possible three-year virtual early learning pilot program called “UpStart” that would give at-risk, preschool-age children access to online pre-K classes at home.

Earlier this year, North Carolina business leaders, including CEOs at Red Hat and SAS, pushed for more slots for students in pre-K.

Across North Carolina, about 30,000 children participate in the NC Pre-K program, which focuses specifically on educating at-risk 4-year-olds. Teachers in the program have to be certified in early reading, a criteria that has been recognized across the country for success, according to SAS CEO Jim Goodnight.

The positive impacts of early childhood education are well-documented, and the under-funded programs might have the potential to decrease achievement gaps as well.

Meanwhile, questions also persist about pay for pre-k educators.

More from WRAL:

Nationally, the group found that just a third of 4-year-olds and 5.5 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs, with virtually no change in years. Meanwhile, state funding “is failing to keep pace with even the slow increases in enrollment and state spending per child has decreased, when adjusted for inflation,” the group reported. “Inadequate funding undermines classroom quality, and most states fail to pay pre-K teachers comparably to K-3 teachers.”

Barnett said he is “disappointed by the lack of progress and concerned about the number of children missing the quality early learning experiences.”

This year’s report includes a special section on policies affecting the preschool teacher workforce, focusing on salary and benefit parity.

Enrollment has more than doubled since 2002 – with almost 1.6 million children enrolled nationwide – but expansion has slowed in recent years, according to the report. “In some states, slow growth is due to a shift from part-day to full-day programs, which can better support child development as well as family work schedules, but nevertheless leaves many children unserved.”

For North Carolina’s state profile in the new study, go here.

Commentary, News

Report: Allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County predated District 9 controversy

"Vote" pin

A lengthy new report from WRAL’s Tyler Dukes details how allegations of vote-buying in Robeson County long predated the District 9 ruckus, begging questions about local prosecutors in the eastern North Carolina county.

According to that report, published Tuesday morning, state election investigators held evidence that appeared to indicate a candidate for local elected office may have paid voters to go to the polls. But the local district attorney — who defends himself in the story — did not prosecute.

The emails that raised eyebrows in 2015 didn’t concern the 9th Congressional District, which made national headlines in 2018. Instead, they focused on a nonpartisan race for city council in Lumberton, where one candidate accused her opponent of paying three voters to cast ballots in exchange for $7 apiece.

Robeson County, of course, was tied up in the allegations of ballot harvesting that forced a new election in Congressional District 9 this year.

But today’s reporting lends further credence to the notion that Robeson County — and the District 9 region — may have been ripe for election malfeasance.

The most important questions, though, involve how state officials will approach these cases in the future. The reporting delves into that as well:

[Former Robeson County D.A. Johnson] Britt’s decision in 2016 was not the first time local prosecutors – or even state and federal ones – have declined to pursue charges over allegations of election improprieties.

In 2010, for example, a special deputy attorney general with the state Department of Justice declined a request from Bladen County’s top prosecutor to look into vote-buying allegations there. Despite allegations of “voter fraud and assorted trickery,” the DOJ lawyer wrote, most alleged victims were elderly and unreliable – they weren’t credible witnesses.

The Robeson County case stands out in some respects, said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections. But he said it’s also emblematic, in some ways, that the agency sometimes has a difficult time “getting traction” with local prosecutors.

Lawson said his agency is doing its part. State elections officials have ordered at least nine new elections since 2016.

Yet criminal charges like those in the 9th Congressional District investigation remain a rarity – and are well outside the legal purview of the board.

“We’re not trying to cast blame on anybody,” elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said. “But what can happen if these things are allowed to linger and keep happening without any repercussions, the offenders get more brazen. Things that appear to have happened in Bladen this year will happen.”

And if a local prosecutor declines to bring criminal charges – whatever the reason – the board essentially has no recourse.

“Until something happens to change the culture in those areas, we’re going to continue to have to repeat this conversation over and over again,” Gannon said.

Former Robeson District Attorney Britt said one potential fix is a change in state law. Legislators could give the authority to prosecute election law violations to the state attorney general’s office, or even the Wake County district attorney, where the state elections board is based.

That tactic worked for the 9th District, where Wake County’s district attorney took over the investigation after Bladen County’s top prosecutor recused himself.

“You put it in the hands of the people who are most familiar with it,” Britt said.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

A must-read: New series shows long odds for sexual assault convictions in NC

From time to time, good reporters go above and beyond in their public service.

Case in point: A new four-part series publishing this week details the stunningly long odds of a sexual assault conviction in North Carolina today. And in some counties, it’s near impossible.

The numbers indicate, quite frankly, what many advocates have long believed to be the case: the criminal justice system is stacked against victims. 

From Carolina Public Press’ synopsis of the series:

Analysis of 4 ½ years of North Carolina court data shows that about 1 in 4 sexual assault defendants who were charged and had their cases resolved in that time window were convicted of either sexual assault or a reduced and related charge. Of those cases in that time period, 50 defendants went to trial; 23 were found guilty. But individual counties had different outcomes. More than 30 of the state’s 100 counties had no sexual assault or reduced-charge convictions at all. A few were well above the statewide level.

A collaborative investigative project spanning 6 ½ months and including 11 news organizations analyzed statewide court data and conducted extensive interviews with sexual assault survivors, victim advocates, medical professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors and state officials across the North Carolina.

The result is Seeking Conviction, an investigative series examining sexual assault convictions in North Carolina, the challenges to successful prosecution, the differences across jurisdictions and the issues state court rulings create when it comes to consent.

Keying on its exhaustive analysis of court records, the series found that the prospect of a sexual assault conviction varies depending on your zip code.

Indeed, in some counties, suspects face very little chance of a conviction, while in others, the chances are markedly higher.

This week’s series is a call to action. Make it the first of many, many conversations.