Commentary

Shocking statistics show need for congressional action on domestic violence

The statistics are shocking: A woman is murdered by a male, intimate partner with a gun every 16 hours; one in five women and one in 29 men are raped in their lifetimes; one in four women and one in seven men experience severe physical abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetimes; one in six women and one in 19 men experience stalking in their lifetimes; and these acts disproportionately impact women and members of underserved communities.

I am writing today to urge our community and our elected officials to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with necessary enhancements and specific, targeted fixes. VAWA, for which authorization lapsed mid-February 2019, saves lives, supports families, and needs to be reauthorized promptly. A strong, bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill (H.R. 1585) passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 263-158. The Senate is currently working on its own bill, and it must be substantially similar to the House bill to:

  • Maintain vital protections for all survivors;
  • Invest in prevention;
  • End impunity for non-Native perpetrators of sexual assault, child abuse co-occurring with domestic violence, stalking, sex trafficking, and assaults on tribal law enforcement officers on tribal lands;
  • Improve access to safe housing and economic independence;
  • Protect victims of dating violence and stalking from perpetrators with firearms;
  • Improve the healthcare system and workplace responses to the “four crimes” (domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking); and
  • Improve enforcement of court-ordered firearm relinquishment.

It is crucial that North Carolinians know where their elected officials stand when it comes to gender-based violence and protecting survivors. Every current Member of Congress should publicly declare their support for the reauthorization of VAWA with key enhancements and targeted fixes and with no rollbacks.

It is time to hold Congress accountable for helping to make sure all citizens and especially survivors are safe and free from violence and fear. North Carolinians call on Senators Burr and Tillis to support victims and survivors by supporting a bill substantially similar to H.R. 1585 in the Senate where it has been on the General Orders Calendar 66 since April 10, 2019.

Penney DePas (pictured at left) is Chair of the 2019 Women’s March on Raleigh Organizing Committee. Cross-posted from the NC NOW website.

Commentary, Education

Looking for sense in Mark Johnson’s IStation saga? Look elsewhere.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Whatever you may think of North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson, the IStation saga makes zero sense.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

My friends, this is “Waterworld” level bonkers, although Kevin Costner’s legendarily soggy sci-fi is making an unpleasant amount of sense in retrospect.  

Charlotte advocate Justin Parmenter authored a tortuous rundown of the IStation proceedings this morning, a head-spinning collection of allegations and denials and genuinely, supremely confusing events concerning Johnson’s awarding of a multi-million dollar contract for a K-3 reading test.

It’s impossible to make this “long story short,” so I’ll let Parmenter tell you the details.

From his post today:

Last week, the NC Department of Public Instruction finally released informationrelated to the procurement process which ended with Superintendent Mark Johnson unilaterally awarding a three-year, multi-million dollar contract for North Carolina’s K-3 diagnostic reading assessment to Istation.

Both Johnson and DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson had previously claimed that an advisory committee assembled in the fall of 2018 had failed to come to a consensus or make a recommendation on the contract. The records provided by DPI show those claims are absolutely false.

The documents also reveal some important details about the path Johnson took as he disregarded the input of the team of evaluators.  However, the release omits records which will be crucial in substantiating DPI’s version of events.

Here’s what we know based on the records DPI released:

On October 5, 2018, the Request for Proposal (RFP) evaluation team first met under the direction of co-business managers Pam Shue and Amy Jablonski to discuss background for the project, evaluation ground rules, and how the process would work. The team included both voting members and non-voting members and was made up of DPI employees and a broad collection of subject matter experts.

Notice the importance of selecting an effective dyslexia screener in the initial project scope as presented to the RFP evaluation committee.  Some of the strongest outcry that has followed Johnson’s selection of Istation has been about the tool’s inability to flag children who are at risk for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. DPI representatives have responded by explaining that dyslexia screening is outside the purview of Read to Achieve and is not the state’s responsibility, as DPI Director of K-3 Literacy Tara Galloway told the State Board of Education last week.

Individual team members were given until mid-November to evaluate the four vendors (Amplify, Istation, NWEA, and Curriculum Associates), at which time they were expected to be prepared to meet, discuss their findings, and come to a consensus ranking which would later be presented to Superintendent Johnson.

The consensus meeting took place on November 19 and 20, 2018. Notes from the records release indicate that participants were reminded at the outset of the meeting that their goal was to arrive at a consensus on which product should be selected, and that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity.”

The team discussed their findings in painstaking detail before ranking the products. They agreed unanimously that Amplify was the best choice. Istation came in second.

On December 4, 2018, Amy Jablonski, Pam Shue, DPI Procurement Officer Tymica Dunn, and Project Manager Srirekha Viswanathan met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to present the committee’s findings in a PowerPoint, which is included in the released DPI records. They told Johnson that the team had selected Amplify’s mClass tool as its top choice to be used as the K-3 reading diagnostic assessment in all of North Carolina’s schools.

The next records DPI provided are from a meeting on January 8, 2019, between Johnson and the members of the evaluation team. According to state records, the gathering was characterized as a “consensus meeting to recommend finalist for negotiations,” which is odd since the team had already presented its unambiguous recommendation to Johnson the month before.

According to the notes, Mark Johnson began the meeting by thanking those present for their input on the K-3 screener selection. He gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. As this was his first reaction to the team recommending that schools continue using the Amplify tool, Johnson’s comments could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the team toward changing their recommendation to Istation (a computer-based tool which Istation advertises as requiring minimal class time). Johnson then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for the second time and stepped out of the room “to maintain integrity of the process.”

On March 8, 2019, another meeting was held to discuss the procurement. This time only 8 of the 10 DPI voting members who had been at the previous meeting were present. Superintendent Johnson was not in attendance, but new General Counsel Jonathan Sink was.After the superintendent exited the room, team members wrote their choices on sticky notes, and the project manager tallied the results. Amplify again easily came out on top, with six people recommending negotiations proceed with Amplify only, three with Istation only, and one voting that negotiations continue with both companies. Pam Shue was tasked with informing Johnson of the committee’s recommendation the next day.

Sink — a former attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore’s office and the newly-named executive director of the state Republican Party — informed those present that the procurement process was being cancelled. According to the notes, he gave two reasons for the cancellation. The first reason was that a voting member of the evaluation committee had breached confidentiality on the procurement process. The second reason provided was that there had been no unanimous consensus in selecting a vendor for the K-3 reading assessment.

There are a couple of important things to note here. First of all, Sink gave no additional detail on the alleged confidentiality breach at the meeting, and the records DPI released include no information about exactly what the breach was or the identity of the person responsible.

Given DPI’s pattern of dishonesty on the procurement and Mark Johnson’s apparent desire to award the contract to Istation, it’s fair to wonder whether a breach really occurred. If it did, records detailing the breach should have been provided to the public as information relevant to the procurement process. Nothing in North Carolina public records law prevents DPI from releasing that information and corroborating the claim.

Secondly, remember that the evaluation team had been informed from the beginning of the RFP process that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity,” so the lack of unanimous agreement does not seem to be a valid reason for cancelling the procurement.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine procurements in general being successful if the process required those involved to unanimously agree.

After the March 8 meeting, the RFP process was cancelled and restarted with a smaller evaluation committee which had very little expertise in literacy or teaching. The new committee selected Istation as the vendor, and Mark Johnson announced the contract award to the public on June 7.

If the superintendent indeed worried that he would stain the “integrity of the process” with his handling of the IStation fiasco, we can all see why. And the documents turned over by the state agency make for an uncomfortable narrative — in which it would appear the superintendent jettisoned his own processes once they became inconvenient for him.

It’s nice to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but the doubts are fast outpacing the benefits here. Either’s someone’s pants are on fire or they’ve badly mixed up their timeline.

A discussion of IStation vs. Amplify or any other tool is, truly, for another day. But a discussion about the power in Johnson’s office, and what he chooses to do with it, is for this day.

This is not the first time Johnson’s processes and motives have been questioned. A Policy Watch report last year detailed the criticisms of Johnson’s abrupt purchase of $6 million in Apple iPads, weeks after the tech Goliath wooed Johnson and state lawmakers in Silicon Valley.

As much as that story puts our ethics laws in a broader spotlight, it should invite closer scrutiny of the state’s murky contracting processes, and whether our state leaders require more oversight before they’re entrusted with dishing out millions in public dollars.

There may be more documents forthcoming, but in the meantime, everything about this story is offensively befuddling.

Commentary

Senator Tillis needs to stop spinning on immigration crisis and listen to this horrific story

Sen. Thom Tillis

North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis went on Fox News over the weekend to put a warm and fuzzy spin on the crisis at the border. Click here to watch the Senator talk about all the happy, smiling faces he and Vice President Pence saw during a tour on Friday and how, while one of the facilities is “overcrowded,” it’s nothing that a little extra appropriation from Congress won’t take care of.

To which all a body can say in response is: Really Senator? Did you really think the people running these facilities were going to show a high-powered delegation from Washington anything else?

And, more to the point, is that going to be the extent of your ‘investigation’? If it is, you’re clearly missing the truth of what’s really going on in the name of American taxpayers.

Take, for instance, this horrific story by reporters Noel King and Bob Moore that was broadcast this morning on NPR in which a three-year old child with serious heart condition  — A THREE-YEAR OLD CHILD — was asked by a U.S. Border Patrol agent to determine which of her parents would be allowed to stay in the U.S. with her and who should be sent back to Mexico.

The child, in a piece of poignant and stomach-turning irony that reminds us of William Styron’s famous novel, is named Sophie. How Senator Tillis or any other functioning human being with a heart and mind could ever listen to this story and think that there isn’t something desperately, desperately wrong with U.S. immigration policy is simply unimaginable.

Commentary, Education, News

NC voucher program should follow Maryland’s lead, end funding to schools that discriminate

The Baltimore Sun reports this morning that a religious school, with the aid of a right-wing legal organization, is suing the state of Maryland over the decision of education officials to deny it school voucher funding because of its discriminatory policies. Oh, that North Carolina leaders had the courage to adopt and implement a similar policy.

As the Sun reports:

Maryland’s education leaders decided to deny vouchers to Bethel Christian Academy in 2018 after it read the school’s handbook, which says that it believes marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that God assigns a gender to a child at birth.

“Therefore, faculty, staff and student conduct is expected to align with this view,” the handbook states. “Faculty, staff and students are required to identify with, dress in accordance with, and use the facilities associated with their biological gender.”…

Maryland’s voucher program, begun in the 2016-2017 school year under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, offers students a taxpayer-funded scholarship to attend a private school. Called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students, or BOOST, the program’s $7 million budget is enough to support more than 3,000 students. The scholarships go to low-income students who want to attend a school where the tuition is less than $14,000.

After the first year of the program, the BOOST board learned that a Harford County religious school had what it called discriminatory language in its handbook and banned the use of vouchers there. It also launched a complete review of the handbooks of all 176 participating schools. The board said 22 schools had questionable language in their guides. Nine of those schools were ruled ineligible. Another 10 schools were disqualified and required to refund payments they had already received from the state. Of those 10 schools, six revised the language in their handbook and were approved to participate.

Some Christian academies said they would not accept students who were homosexual and would expel them if they exhibited “homosexual conduct.” The schools say they believe marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

After it rescinded Bethel’s approval, the BOOST board told Bethel to pay back the $106,000 in state funds it had received. In the lawsuit, Bethel asks the court to both reinstate the school in the voucher program and not require it to pay back the money.

The story goes on to explain the legal theories of the competing parties and the fact that the very existence of a voucher program remains highly controversial.

Let’s hope the defendants prevail, that the policy to deny vouchers to schools that discriminate remains in place and that North Carolina officials follow Maryland’s lead in the near future.

Commentary

The best editorial of the weekend

Prescription to apply for health insurance with personal computing tablet and stethoscope.

In case you missed it the Wilmington Star-News hit a home run with an editorial entitled “Top 12 reasons N.C. needs to expand Medicaid.” After explaining the current conflict between Gov. Cooper and the divided Republican caucus in the General Assembly (some of whom say “no way, no how” while others are looking to compromise) it provides the following list:

1. Too many North Carolinians fall in a coverage gap — they have jobs but don’t have access to or can’t afford employee-based or individual coverage, and earn too much to qualify for federal subsidies. You probably know some of these folks. This may be your own situation.

2. Medicaid expansion would give coverage to more than 500,000 uncovered Tar Heels.

3. Of the uncovered North Carolina residents, an estimated 30,000 are ex-military. Rep. Holly Grange, a Wilmington Republican, is one of the sponsors of House Bill 655. “One in four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in North Carolina have no health care coverage and no access to the Veterans Administration,” she noted. We agree with Rep. Grange — our veterans deserve better.

4. In expansion states, more babies lived to their first birthday.

5. In expansion states, fewer women died during pregnancy.

6. In expansion states, the percentage of people with uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension dropped.

7. Expansion was associated with earlier cancer diagnosis, improved access to cancer treatment and fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease.

8. We all are paying more for health care because people are uninsured. The uninsured often receive care in the most expensive way possible.

9. On average, Medicaid expansion states see private health insurance premiums 7-11 percent lower than in non-expansion states.

10. States that expanded Medicaid did not see any significant changes in employer offering of health insurance.

11. Expansion would require zero dollars in new state taxes. The federal government would pay 90% of costs, and the remaining 10% would be funded by hospitals and health plans.

12. There is energy on both sides of the aisle for expanding Medicaid. Now is the time to find a bipartisan way to expand Medicaid that is best for North Carolina.

One could easily come up with another dozen reasons, including the simple fact that it would, quite literally, prevent thousands of premature deaths, but this one ought to suffice.

As arch-conservative Republican state lawmaker and Third District congressional nominee Greg Murphy put it earlier this year:

“I’m not only a legislator but I still practice medicine. So I see on a daily basis individuals who are caught in that coverage gap – people who put off coming to see physicians, people who put off coming to our emergency department, with life-threatening conditions, often-times with cancer. Cancer doesn’t care if you have an insurance card or not.”

Click here to read the rest of the editorial.