Commentary, Education

Experts: Why we should reject efforts to break up NC school districts

In case you missed it the other day online or today in the hard copy of Raleigh’s News & Observer, be sure to check out an outstanding essay by Duke University professor of law Jane Wettach and her student, Grace Thomas. In “Big is best for school districts,” Wettach and Thomas lay out several compelling and common sense reasons for retaining North Carolina’s commitment to large, countywide school districts and resisting efforts pushed by some on the right to break them up — most notably the imperative to resist efforts by wealthy, whiter communities to wall themselves off. This is from the essay:

Throughout the South, large county-based school districts have enhanced economic equity and racial integration. Several decades after the Supreme Court declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional, it determined that integration efforts could not cross school district lines. Large rural school districts in the South contained a sufficient racial mix of students to effectively desegregate, unlike smaller, more mono-racial districts in the North. The urban districts in the South, which were often split between mostly-black city schools and mostly-white county schools, eventually consolidated to counteract this de facto segregation. In 1976, for example, Raleigh and Wake County merged, led by members of the business community who were concerned about negative economic impacts from the racially split districts. Integration of schools throughout the county ensued.

Since then, integration of our large districts hasn’t held steady and much re-segregation has occurred internally. Nevertheless, large districts, with their greater mix of students, still have the most power to resist re-segregation. Once district boundaries are redrawn, that protection is gone. Because the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctified school district lines, small, racially homogenous districts can be immune from legal challenges that they are unconstitutionally segregated.

Wettach and Thomas also point out that there are good economic reasons to keep bigger districts:
The scourge of re-segregation is not the only reason to oppose the dismantling of our large school districts. The economies of scale with larger districts are real, not only in construction but in administration as well. Three or four superintendents cannot be hired for the cost of one. Indeed, a number of states with many small school districts are encouraging school district consolidation to save money and enhance efficiency. A study in Illinois projected a $130 million annual savings were the number of small school districts there reduced by half. In North Carolina, which ranks 39th in the nation in per-pupil funding and already has an $8 billion backlog of construction and repair work needed at schools across the state, the potential savings from retaining our large school districts should not be minimized.
Their bottom line take:
The arguments supporting smaller districts are ephemeral at best. Taken as a whole, social science research does not show a causal relationship between smaller districts and higher academic performance….On the long list of issues facing North Carolina schools, the size of districts should be near the bottom.
Click here to read the entire op-ed.
Commentary, News

House members introduce bill to raise NC’s minimum wage, improve worker rights and incomes

In case you missed it, State Representatives Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford) and Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe)  introduced some long overdue legislation yesterday to dramatically improve the treatment of workers in North Carolina. House Bill 46 — the “Economic Security Act of 2019” — would make the following changes to state law:

  • it would increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour over five years;
  • it would add North Carolina to the list of states that guarantee pay equity by barring employers from paying employees of one gender less than employees of another gender for the same work;
  • it would require employers to provide workers with paid sick days and family medical leave (with some exemptions for small employers);
  • it would increase the tipped minimum wage;
  • it would enact new protections against “wage theft” by employers;
  • it would enact new “ban the box” protections to bar employers from inquiring into the criminal history of job applicants on initial application forms;
  • it would repeal the state’s ban on collective bargaining by public employees;
  • it would reinstate the state earned income tax credit and state child care tax credit.

Needless to say, the measure faces an uphill battle in the GOP-led General Assembly, but if there was ever a bill around which North Carolina working families could and should rally in 2019 and beyond, this is it.

Commentary, News

AFL-CIO unveils its 2019 “Good Jobs Policy Agenda”

The good people at the North Carolina AFL-CIO are unveiling the group’s “Good Jobs Policy Agenda” for 2019 today at a conference in Raleigh that Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to attend and address.

Among the highlights of the agenda:

  • Raising our poverty-level state minimum wage, as a majority of states have done.
  • Raising the wage for tipped workers, which is currently a paltry $2.13/hour.
  • Adding public school employees to the list of state employees who are entitled to a minimum wage of $15/hour.
  • Improving our laws to better eliminate the deliberate “misclassification” of workers as independent contractors—a practice that cheats employees as well as lawful employers, and it also cheats our state government out of tax revenue.
  • Restoring the level and duration of unemployment benefits, now that the Trust Fund is more than solvent, so that they are no longer among the lowest in the country.
  • Allowing municipalities to require employers in their communities, and particularly contractors doing work for those municipalities, to pay more than the state minimum wage, or to require workplace benefits or safeguards greater than what state law requires.
  • Requiring employers that receive tax incentives to provide jobs that will raise, not lower, the standard of living of working families.
  • Restoring the film industry rebate program to expand film jobs in our state.
  • Making employers that relocate call centers overseas ineligible for state subsidies and requiring that call center work contracted by or for state agencies be performed within our state.
  • Requiring that domestic and agricultural workers be covered by minimum wage, overtime, and recording-keeping laws. Maintaining a stable workers’ compensation system that pays adequate benefits to those injured on the job. This includes increasing the maximum allowable amount for permanent injury to body parts including the heart, lungs, and brain—a maximum that has not be raised in a quarter century, and creating certain presumptions for firefighters injured in the line of duty.
  • Requiring employers to provide work breaks—something not currently required under state law.
  • Requiring two-person crews on trains and creating strong penalties for those who assault transportation employees on the job.
  • Ensuring workplace safety for all workers, including our migrant workers. Guaranteeing a minimum number of paid sick days for workers to care for themselves and their loved ones, including expanding the definition of “family” in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to allow leave to care for siblings, grandparents or grandchildren, while preserving the exemption for family farms.
  • Providing funding for child care subsidies to offset costs of affordable, quality childcare for low income workers and those pursuing education and training.
  • Creating work-sharing programs that will keep people employed, preserve the skills of our workers, and reduce both lay-offs and costs to employers.

The agenda also includes a number of other important recommendations, including supporting public education, healthcare for all, an end to big money domination of our elections. Click here to read the entire list.

Commentary

Columnist: Speaker Tim Moore’s legal work raises ethics issues

In case you missed it this morning, journalist Colin Campbell of The Insider has a good piece in this morning’ News & Observer about the problems arising from House Speaker Tim Moore’s far flung law practice. As Campbell points out, it raises serious ethical issues when a powerful politician represents multiple private and public clients on the side.

While some local governments pay lobbyists to represent them in Raleigh, Moore’s home county decided it would be smarter to pay one of the most powerful people in the state to attend every commission meeting. Moore also serves as attorney for his county’s public utility.

Moore’s legal client base extends far outside Cleveland County. The North Carolina Bail Agents Association paid him $10,000 for work involving the N.C. Department of Insurance in 2012. Later that year — after Moore was no longer on the group’s payroll — the legislature passed a law that gave the association a monopoly in providing required bail bond training. Moore recused himself from the vote, but anonymous allegations that claim he was involved behind the scenes have drawn the interest of the FBI.

Moore also did legal work for Durham businessman Neal Hunter, a few years after Moore sponsored legislation that intervened on Hunter’s behalf in a dispute with Durham officials over a new development project, The News & Observer reported.

Moore’s work for the businessman and the bail association prompted a review from Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who announced last month that she’d “found no misuse of public office for private gain or other wrongdoing as to these payments.”

Moore’s actions appear to be perfectly legal, according to Freeman. But it’s still likely some of Moore’s clients are hiring him because of his political power instead of his legal prowess. And while Moore may be following ethics rules and keeping legal work separate from legislative work, the current system is easy to abuse.

Campbell’s correct in highlighting Moore’s work as highly problematic and in identifying a couple of possible solutions:

There’s an easy solution to this: Elected officials should be required to list all legal clients on their ethics forms. They’re already required to list their business interests, major investments and real-estate holdings, so legal work should be no exception.

Lawyers, of course, will claim that such a rule would violate attorney-client privilege. That problem would be easily solved by having elected officials’ legal clients sign a form agreeing to the public disclosure.

Or we could go a step further — make serving in the House and Senate a full-time job with full-time pay, and ban legislators from taking on outside employment while in office.

Taxpayers would spend more on legislative salaries, but they’d know that their representatives are working exclusively for them. We’d have fewer political scandals and greater confidence in government.

And House Speaker Tim Moore wouldn’t have to worry about answering questions from the FBI, or making sure the legislative session is over in time to attend a county commission meeting three hours away.

Environment, News

Gov. Cooper talks to our reporter about climate change: “We have to move”

As reported over on the main NC Policy Watch website this morning, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper testified on Capitol Hill yesterday about the need for government action to combat the effects of climate change. Afterward, Cooper engaged in a brief exchange with reporters — including Tony Pugh, a reporter for the Newsroom network, of which Policy Watch is a member. Here’s Tony’s summary of the Q&A:

Q – What were your impressions of today’s first climate change hearing in the House Natural Resources committee in more than 8 years?

A – “I hope this is a good kick-off to this discussion. Clearly there’s differences of opinion, but I think we got off to a good start today.”

Q – Do you support Democrats’ call for a “Green New Deal or a carbon tax?

A – “I think its clear that we’ve got to find a way to significantly reduce our greenhouse gasses very rapidly. And I think all of those issues need to be on the table in how we get there. I do believe that you can (use incentives to accomplish) a lot of this.”

Q – Are you discouraged that Congress hasn’t already moved to radically reduce emissions?

A – “I think the positive thing here is that most people now are acknowledging that we do have climate change. But then, now there is a debate over how much humans contribute to that and how much we can do and whether we are too late. The overwhelming scientific evidence shows that humans do cause climate change, we are a significant contributor to climate change and that we need to act quickly if we’re going to have an effect and stop the disaster that may occur.”

Q – Can the Trump administration be convinced to sign off on significant action to reduce climate change?

A – “It needs to start with this Congress and they need to lift this issue up in their negotiations with the Senate and the president. This president doesn’t have a good track record on this when you see what they’re trying to do with the clean power plan and rolling back the gains made in trying to reduce automobile emissions….In this Congress, now with this new majority, this issue can be raised up and it can be inserted into all of the negotiations that are going on right now.”

Q – Has the U.S. waited too long to seriously address climate change?

A – “It is not too late to do this. Many states have gone ahead and moved on and said ‘we’ve gotta do this.’ So states are taking action. And that’s one of the beauties of our federalism. You can have states, that are the laboratories of democracy, that can come up with good ideas on how we have more renewable energy and a clean economy and (how) we look for energy efficiency. I know, often times, the states come up with great ideas. And it’s so hard to move this giant ship that is the federal government, eventually, they take a lot of these good ideas that come at the state level. So it’s not too late. The time is now. We have to move.”

Meanwhile, Cooper’s campaign sent an appeal to supporters today in which he asked them to join him in combating the Trump administration’s plan to bring offshore oil and gas drilling to the North Carolina coast. This is from the appeal:

Tell the Trump administration that North Carolina’s coast is OFF LIMITS for offshore drilling

Making your voice heard here is important. If we show that North Carolinians are united against drilling off our coast, it could make a real difference. Add your name today.