Editorials agree: Berger and Truitt swing and miss with new phonics push

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Spring is here and, sadly, that means it’s time for new round of cheap, “quick fix” education policy proposals from conservative politicians.

A few years back, end-of-grade testing was the big idea. Then came charter schools, private school vouchers, school uniforms, school report cards and Senate leader Phil Berger’s “read-to-achieve” program. None of these schemes has made a meaningful impact.

And now comes yet another magic solution: phonics.

State superintendent Catherine Truitt and Berger recently proposed mandating the use of something called “the science of reading” – of which phonics is a big part – in early grade reading instruction. The proposal is included in their new “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021” proposal.

Unfortunately, dozens of education scholars reject such an approach. Phonics can be a useful tool, they say, but they also note that all children are different and warn against one-size-fits-all solutions.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer explained in a fine editorial yesterday:

There is considerable division in the education field about whether a renewed emphasis on phonics is the best way to teach reading. Gay Ivey, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro professor and highly regarded expert on literacy, said phonics is a necessary tool, but it is not a cure-all for lagging reading skills. She said the approach has been tried, particularly under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Ivey told the Editorial Board. She said children must learn not just how to sound out words, but also how to assess the words’ meanings and how they connect. Reading instruction, she said, should not be just mechanical. It should also ignite a love of reading that comes with comprehension and the ability to imagine characters and situations.

“I worry that people have put a lot of faith in this one narrow view and, under this bill, we all will have to subscribe to it,” she said. “It’s worrisome because we’ve been down this road before.”

Of course, the real answer to what ails our schools lies not in micromanaging currcula from Washington or Raleigh, but in a sustained commitment to invest – in teachers, administrators, facilities, and children themselves.

As this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com puts it in taking Truittt to task:

The reality is that there is a far more comprehensive, well-thought out, approach to meeting the state education needs that Truitt has been all too silent about but should be at the forefront of her education agenda.

She should be in the forefront – out ahead – in pushing the legislature to adopt the comprehensive plan that has been developed by bringing together the various parties in the Leandro court case in to meet the State Constitutional right to give every child access to a quality education.

Until state leaders finally wake up to this reality that’s been staring them in the face for deacdes, the quick and easy fixes will continue to fall flat.

Earned Income Tax Credit offers more support for working families than standard deduction proposal

With the inclusion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) in the Governor’s budget, North Carolina is closer than it has been in years to renewing the most promising state tax program for working families.

North Carolina has one of the highest rates of working poverty in the nation. One in eight North Carolina workers earns poverty-level wages, which for a family of four, is $25,750 — well-below what it takes to make ends meet.

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a bottom-up tax cut. While most tax cut proposals disproportionately benefit large companies and the wealthy, the EITC is designed to provide support to families with a maximum household income of just over $57,000 for a family with three or more children (eligibility and amount of the tax credit depend on income level and household size). This roughly lines up with taxpayers in the bottom 60 percent of the income distribution.

Enacting a generous and refundable EITC would cost exactly the same as raising the standard deduction as proposed in Senate Bill 337, but it targets the reduction to those who need the most support. At a time when North Carolinians with earned income below $60,000 have yet to see employment return to pre-COVID-19 levels and those with higher income have fully recovered, North Carolina needs to invest in supporting a more just recovery and target any tax cuts to those hardest hit by the pandemic.

A state EITC is targeted to provide a tax cut to low- and middle-income households, while a standard deduction increase would deliver 24 percent of the tax cut to the top 20 percent of taxpayers.

The standard deduction increase is not as valuable as a state EITC in advancing the outcomes we need to ensure families are healthy, safe, and financially secure.

A North Carolina EITC will help keep people connected to the workforce, help families make ends meet, and reduce poverty. The EITC provides those with very low earnings an increased credit to encourage more work hours. The credit varies depending on family size, recognizing that the more children a family has, the higher their expenses are.

Finally, the EITC helps address the state’s upside-down tax code, which currently demands that the lowest income households pay a larger share of their income than the wealthiest North Carolinians, by providing boost to the families that need it most. And those dollars returned to low- and middle-income North Carolina families will improve the health of both parents and children, improve education outcomes, college enrollment, and future earning potential of children in claiming families.

Heba Atwa is a Policy Advocate with the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center.

GOP legislative leaders should let voters have their say on proposal to end gerrymandering

Image: AdobeStock

Gerrymandering. For decades, this maddening phenomenon in which politicians rig elections by drawing legislative maps and, in effect, choosing their own voters, has had a ruinous impact on North Carolina politics and policymaking.

Now, however, thanks to the inspired work of reform advocates, all that can and should change.

House Bill 437 – the “Fair Maps Act” – would amend the state constitution to take redistricting power out of the hands of partisan legislators and establish an independent commission comprised of everyday North Carolinians to draw the state’s voting districts free from political influence.

This is from a statement issued by the good people at Common Cause of NC earlier this week:

Primary sponsors of the Fair Maps Act include Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), Rep. Robert Reives (D-Chatham, Durham), Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) and Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham). (Click here to watch video clips of the bill sponsors discussing their support for the Fair Maps Act and ending gerrymandering in North Carolina.)

“We applaud these lawmakers for introducing the Fair Maps Act. This legislation provides lasting, nonpartisan reform that would end gerrymandering for good in North Carolina. The Fair Maps Acts would stop the practice of politicians manipulating our voting districts and it would ensure voters have a true voice in choosing their representatives,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC. “While the citizens commission proposed by the Fair Maps Act would not be in place for the 2021 round of redistricting, the bill puts forward key principles that legislators should look to as new districts are drawn this year. Among those principles are the importance of meaningful public participation, rejecting partisan or racial gerrymandering and protecting communities from being needlessly divided.”

Phillips noted that the most prominent Republican leaders currently in the legislature, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore, both sponsored bills to create a citizens redistricting commission when their party was in the minority a little more than a decade ago.

“It was right for Speaker Moore and President Pro Tem Berger to support nonpartisan redistricting when their party was out of power, and it would still be the right thing to do now that their party controls the General Assembly,” Phillips said. “We urge members of both parties to end the damaging cycle of gerrymandering and put the well-being of North Carolinians above partisan politics by passing the Fair Maps Act.”

The bottom line: This is a model that’s worked well in other states and swift passage ought to be a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, as has been the case for years, Republican leadership in the General Assembly remains a huge roadblock.

All caring and thinking North Carolinians should demand that GOP leaders end their stubborn resistance to reform and let voters have their say.

Four important takeaways from the Governor’s budget proposal

Last week, Gov. Cooper released his recommended budget on the use of funds in the state’s primary bank account, the General Fund. In his first comprehensive plan for the state since 2019, the Governor would plan would shift the course of North Carolina’s spending trends, increase investments modestly in state infrastructure, and implement common sense policy changes that help families secure the health and well-being that supports strong communities and economies. 

Notably, the governor’s proposed plan for the state does not include funds passed as part of the federal American Rescue Plan, which includes approximately $5.3 billion for the state to address COVID-related needs, an estimated $1.3 billion for child care, and additional dollars to address the rising costs of the pandemic and the economic downturn.

The governor’s budget makes no effort to raise revenue; however, it does provide bottom-up tax credits targeted at North Carolina families who face the greatest harm from our state’s upside-down tax code and who have been hit hard by the pandemic’s employment and income impacts.

Here are four key takeaways:

1. The plan proposes a modest increase in spending across the state budget.

Read more

Weekend editorials assail the real election fraud that plagues us

Karen Brinson Bell questioned at the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee on March 23

You’d think Republican legislators would be pleased with the way the voting process worked in North Carolina last fall. Despite the pandemic, the combination of improved early voting and voting by mail options led to a record turnout and virtually zero credible complaints of fraud or malfeasance.

To top things off, Republican candidates did great – sweeping a host of statewide races.

Unfortunately, as editorials from several major news outlets noted this weekend, when it comes to lawmaking these days, GOP legislators — both in Raleigh and across the nation — tend to base their actions more on the marching orders handed down from the Trump machine and Fox News talking heads than real world facts.

In Georgia, things are so absurd that a new law bans giving water to people waiting in line to vote. This is from an editorial in the Washington Post:

In the grand scheme of voter-suppression measures that Republicans have proposed, limiting water distribution is not the most pernicious. But it is emblematic of a party committed to devising new hardships to impose on voters, and all based on lies about voter fraud, to keep hold of political power.

And so it is that despite the remarkable success North Carolina enjoyed in strengthening its democracy by making it easier for voters to cast their ballots, Republicans in the state Senate have launched their own disingenuous effort to mimic voter suppression efforts from around the country with a bill that would make it much harder to vote by mail.

As the lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer rightfully put it in response to last week’s absurd Senate inquisition in which GOP lawmakers accused State Board of Elections executive director Karen Brinson Bell of all manner of malfeasance in agreeing to a lawsuit settlement that made it easier for voters to cope with the pandemic:

Brinson Bell, of course, answers to the State Board of Elections, which approved the settlement 5-0, a vote that included its two Republican members. Some Republicans think the director should have defied her board. Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, gravely told Brinson Bell, “In my heart, you broke the law.”

No, she didn’t. What she did was oversee a fair election that set a record turnout under the difficult circumstances of a pandemic. And it was an election in which Republicans did well. They should be applauding Brinson Bell, not accusing her. But when it comes to elections these days, Republicans would rather stir suspicion than acknowledge the truth.

Meanwhile, a weekend editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal put it this way:

The new restrictions sweeping through red states are not in response to voter fraud, but to voter turnout. Republican authorities come closer every day to “saying the quiet part out loud”: that they’re willing to suppress voting because they think that will work to their advantage.

They also seem to consider lies and conspiracy theories to be legitimate election strategies.

These strategies may ultimately backfire, increasing support for HR 1, the Democratic voting rights bill that passed the U.S. House and is headed for the Senate. Passing that bill, at this point, would be more than justified. It’s voter defense.

The bottom line: it’s an embarrassing charade that the GOP is pursuing — one that once again elevates ideology over common sense and harms voters of all political parties. Let’s hope Americans figure out who the real purveyors of election fraud are and push Congress to pass HR 1 and S1 ASAP.