Commentary, COVID-19

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, let’s deem the death penalty non-essential work

The execution viewing area at Central Prison in Raleigh, Photo by Scott Langley, deathpenaltyphoto.org

In the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, society is forced to decide which work is essential. Across the United States, that question is now being applied to countless enterprises — including the death penalty. Is it essential for states to kill people?

Eighteen executions are scheduled between now and the end of the year in Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Countless death penalty trials are also planned across the country, including in North Carolina.

The courts are likely to call off most or all of them because, right now, if our society wants to kill, we must risk harming innocent people too. That has always been true, but the coronavirus allows us to see and feel that risk more concretely.

Texas has already called off two executions. In mid-March, John Hummel and Tracy Beatty had their executions delayed indefinitely. At the time, visitors had already been barred from the state’s prisons and the nation was at the beginning of massive community spread. In those conditions, the idea of bringing together a group of people in a confined space to carry out a lethal injection was rightly deemed absurd

What’s unbelievable is that, in both cases, prosecutors opposed the delay of the executions. One told the court there was “no evidence” that coronavirus would affect the state’s ability to carry out an execution, a statement that reveals just how deeply irrational the death penalty is.

Had the executions been carried out, prison staff and witnesses would have been forced to pack themselves together in tiny rooms. The families of the people being executed might have been denied a final visit, or been forced to choose between saying goodbye to their loved ones or possibly contracting a deadly virus. All to kill a person who no longer presents any threat to society.

In any situation, some people will cling to their old ideas. But in this exceptional time when the death penalty has come to a shuddering halt, it’s possible that many people will gain a new perspective.

Maybe when we emerge from this time in our cocoons, society will be transformed. Maybe we will understand that the law of nature is far more powerful than the law of people, and that the safety the death penalty promises is an illusion. Maybe we will finally see that humans don’t need to do the work of killing.

This post appeared originally on the website of the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Commentary, Education

At time of glaring education needs, state voucher program remains wastefully overfunded

In a year with no budget, one program for K-12 students was guaranteed a funding increase of more than 30%: the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program. And once again, that funding will substantially outpace demand for vouchers. As a result, the state is on pace to waste more than $26 million that could otherwise be used to help students in public schools.

Since its inception, funding for the Opportunity Scholarship voucher program has exceeded demand for vouchers. Nonetheless, lawmakers decided in 2016 that the program should receive automatic funding increases of $10 million per year through FY 2027-28 when total appropriations for the program will reach $144.8 million.

Additionally, the 2016 changes caused the program to become “forward-funded.” That means next year’s $10 million funding increase is sitting unused in a state bank account this year, unavailable for other functional purposes.

The chart above shows the trend in unused funds in each year of the voucher program’s existence. Unused funds are defined as fiscal year appropriation, plus funds carried over from the prior year, less expenditures on administration and voucher awards.

The out-sized amount of unused funds in FY 2016-17 were largely the result of the decision to begin forward-funding the program that year. Subsequent increases have been driven by voucher demand falling further behind available funding.

Without even getting into the merits of an unregulated voucher program (the merits are few), the continued over-funding of this program is indefensible. As documented in the Leandro consultant’s report published this past December, North Carolina’s school budget is $3.7 billion short (about 35%) of what’s needed to meet the bare minimum of what the state constitution says is required. It’s perverse to leave millions of dollars sitting needlessly idle each year when lawmakers are failing to meet their constitutional obligations to children.

Commentary, COVID-19

North Carolinians deserve more information about the State Treasurer’s bout with COVID-19

State Treasurer Dale Folwell

Let’s make it clear at the outset that everyone should be pulling for State Treasurer Dale Folwell to make a swift and complete recovery from COVID-19 and that no one is blaming him for falling ill.

As the disease continues its rampage through American society, almost everyone is at risk even when taking significant precautions.

It’s also true that hindsight is 20/20. While one wishes that Folwell had been more alert and cautious and not decided to head back to work after returning from a trip to an undisclosed location with his son with illness symptoms he dismissed as a typical cold or allergy, fallible humans often make mistakes. What’s more, while others in his office have subsequently tested positive for the illness as well, we do not know at this point if they worked with or were exposed to Folwell. (As a side note, one fervently hopes that, wherever he and his son went on their trip, Folwell notified as many people as possible with whom he came in contact.)

All that said, this situation raises some important legal issues about which North Carolinians deserve some additional information.

First and foremost is the matter of whether Folwell is actually exercising his constitutional and statutory duties or is even capable of doing so at this critical time for investment markets. Folwell is the sole overseer of a huge, multi-billion dollar public pension fund and has responsibility for a state health plan that serves more than 700,000 members. Raleigh’s News & Observer reported on Monday that Folwell has not responded to a text inquiry and a spokesperson said he was “under the care of doctors.” We do not know exactly what that means.

As the same N&O story also reported:

“[On March 26] Folwell said he could not answer a call from [the paper] because of the severity of his symptoms. ‘I am really focused on saving my energy by not talking which (agitates) my cough and lungs,’ Folwell said in a text message directing further questions to [Treasury Department spokesperson Frank] Lester.

On Sunday [March 29], Folwell did not answer a text message seeking an update on his condition.

Lester said Monday that Folwell remains sick and under the care of doctors. When asked if Folwell was hospitalized he said he had no further information he could provide. Lester said he is relying on Folwell’s family to tell him what they’re comfortable with the public knowing….

Lester said there is no succession plan while Folwell is out sick but that Chief of Staff Chris Farr has been leading the office.”

If Folwell is truly incapacitated, this raises important matters of state law. As a prominent North Carolina attorney recently pointed out in an email to Policy Watch, Article III, Section 7, Subsection 5 of the state constitution says the following:

Read more

Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

Image: AdobeStock

The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies: Read more

Commentary, COVID-19

NC Attorney General takes welcome action to ease financial pressure on struggling households

Attorney General Stein

In case you missed it, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein took some welcome actions late last week to help ease some of the financial pressures afflicting households across the state.

In a news release, Stein announced that he has suspended “all of the North Carolina Department of Justice’s collections efforts of state debts effective immediately and until further notice.”

In addition, the A.G. issued a request to “all local and municipal utilities to commit to maintaining access to water, power, gas, and other vital services for residents.”

As Stein noted in his statement:

“North Carolinians who are struggling with their health, have been laid off from their job, or are facing cuts to their income in the wake of COVID-19 should not have to bear additional burdens that will further harm their health or their finances.”

The A.G. is on the mark. The last thing people need in the current environment is to face lawsuits and losses of essential services due to debts the crisis has made it impossible to pay back for the time being.

Let’s hope Stein’s action helps spur similar action by other governmental and private entities (e.g. landlords, loan companies) in the days and weeks ahead.