Education, News

Amid resegregation fears, North Carolina House approves controversial municipal charter bill

On Wednesday, members of the N.C. House of Representatives were prepared to cast a vote on town-run charter schools with major ramifications for the future of public education, but Rep. Kelly Alexander’s mind was on the past.

In the late 1950s, as Alexander explained, some North Carolinians were urging state lawmakers to pursue predominantly white sub-districts, an attempt to assuage the budding uproar over the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 order to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education.

Wednesday’s 64-53 vote in favor of House Bill 514—which aimed to possibly clear municipal charters in four affluent, predominantly white Charlotte suburbs—is an “uncomfortable” reminder, Alexander said.

“I do think that what we are on the precipice of doing is to increase segregation in our school systems,” Alexander added. “Either we are doing it on purpose, and that may be the intent of some folk, or we’re going to do it by accident, by changing the law and allowing segregation to creep back into our education system.”

Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford

Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat, pointed out that Charlotte was the site of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a benchmark 1971 Supreme Court ruling that mandated school leaders redraw their attendance lines to combat school segregation.

“This proves what the old folks say,” said Quick. “Everything old is new again.”

Moments later, feisty Republicans who supported the measure hit back. “I think we’re skirting the line of questioning the integrity of some of the members of this body,” said Rep. Scott Stone, a Mecklenburg County Republican.

Wednesday’s vote finalized a testy back-and-forth between House and Senate lawmakers in recent days as the legislation, sponsored by Matthews Republican Bill Brawley, made its way through both chambers. Because it’s considered a local bill, it becomes law without Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetting.

House legislators approved a version of the bill last year, but the Senate-approved version that rolled through the House Wednesday added two new Mecklenburg County municipalities. The new law will open up the chance for town-run charters in Matthews, Mint Hill, Cornelius and Huntersville.

Read more

Education, News

Editorial: Voucher study offers little clarity on private school performance

A new study from N.C. State University is sure to provide fuel for fans of the state’s so-called Opportunity Scholarship program, which offers vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools.

But a new editorial from Capitol Broadcasting Company points out a number of the looming questions about how best to study voucher performance in a state that’s resisted efforts to open up private school records.

Read below.

From the editorial:

There is only one conclusion that can honestly be drawn from the just-released N.C. State University study of North Carolina’s so-called “opportunity scholarships” – the private school voucher program.

The report says the program fails to provide even a shred of accountability and transparency so citizens can determine if taxpayer dollars are being used to improve student learning – or even are being used for education.

Don’t take our word for it. Read it.

One of the report’s authors describe the study as “quasi-experimental.” Caveats included in the report read more like the warnings for prescription medication than an evaluation of a government program.

The very first paragraph of the news release about the report says: “A new working paper that compares scores of a small volunteer group of public and private school students on the same standardized test found positive effects for voucher recipients, particularly first-year participants in the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program, but authors caution against reading too much into the results.”

It hedges, hems and haws on a statement that the program has had a “positive effect,” by saying it “may be the case.” It then goes on to say “perhaps” the program is reaching economically disadvantaged students and “perhaps” there is the chance for academic growth.

Would you take the word of a doctor who tells you it “may be the case” that a “quasi-experimental” medication will knock out your infection; that “perhaps” it will heal your wound; and “perhaps” you’ll be back to normal?

The report is fertilized with cautions, warnings and trigger words to let readers know it is sketchy to try to reach conclusions or even spot trends. The demographics of the voucher schools in the study don’t even come close to matching with the actual universe of schools that receive voucher funds. For example, Catholic schools make up 10 percent of the schools that receive vouchers but 53 percent of voucher schools in the study are Catholic.

Near the end of the report, the authors pointedly warn: “The results reported here are not reflective of the average test score impact on a typical voucher student attending a North Carolina private school by way of the Opportunity Scholarship program.”

The goal of those who ordered up the report had little to do with an objective evaluation. What they wanted was a campaign sound-bite. Inflated statements about the report that say it shows “positive, large and statistically significant” impact of vouchers spread across the Twittersphere and other social media avenues.

Unlike many of the private schools in North Carolina that receive voucher funds, those run by the Catholic church have, for decades, used recognized national-norm testing (Iowa and CogAT – Cognative Abilities Test) – that is also used in public schools. They are far more transparent about the performance of their students – probably why they were far more willing to take part in the study.

Citizens rightly demand that public schools meet standards and demonstrate that student are – or are not – achieving. Does it make ANY sense that millions of tax dollars should go to private schools that don’t have to demonstrate that kids are learning – or even attending class?

The latest report from N.C. State University tells us little about the voucher program and doesn’t bring us any closer to the transparency and accountability the program needs.

Education, News

North Carolina lawmakers to consider placing “In God We Trust” in public schools Tuesday

Members of a House education committee are scheduled to consider a controversial bill Tuesday that would require public schools place the national motto—”In God We Trust”—in at least one “prominent” campus location.

House Bill 965—filed by four House Republicans—would also mandate placement of the state motto: “Esse quam videri,” or “To be, rather than to seem” in Latin.

Congress adopted the national motto in 1956, and its placement on U.S. currency has long been a sticking point for some. Meanwhile, the North Carolina motto was adopted by the state legislature in 1893.

According to the GOP proposal, which was co-sponsored by influential Cabarrus County Republican Linda Johnson, schools may place the motto in an “entry way, cafeteria, or other common area.”

Rep. Linda Johnson,R-Cabarrus (right)

One of the bill’s sponsors, Reidsville Republican Bert Jones, also wants to offer the option for motorists to receive license plates emblazoned with the state or national motto.

“Some are opposed to anything that mentions God, including the national motto, even if the plate is just an option,” Jones reportedly wrote in an email to The News & Observer last month.

Jones’ school proposal, however, spurred a quick backlash from the ACLU of N.C.

“When any students walks into school to learn, they should be greeted equally and with respect—not confronted with divisive and unnecessary displays that send a message to students of different religious views, or none at all, that they are second-class or not welcome,” ACLU spokesman Mike Meno said last month.

Tuesday’s meeting begins at 2 p.m. at the state’s Legislative Office Building.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, News

The Week’s Top Five on NC Policy Watch

1. A truly Trumpian budget for North Carolina

Secrecy. Greed. Dishonesty. Self-dealing. Neglect disguised as concern. Contempt for democracy. If one were asked to describe the most notable hallmarks of the administration of President Donald Trump, it would be hard to come up with six more accurate characterizations.

Back in 2015 when Trump was first running for the Republican presidential nomination, it was easy to find prominent North Carolina conservatives who could foresee and would publicly acknowledge the threat that Trump posed to the very fabric of the American experiment. Today, tragically, less than three years later, that’s all ancient history. In 2018, not only has the North Carolina conservative movement embraced Trumpism, it is now in the process of aping all of the most shameful features of Trump’s loathsome approach to governance.

To see the latest concrete confirmation of this appalling state of affairs, North Carolinians need look no further than the preposterous state budget bill that Republican legislative leaders rolled out yesterday. Faced with the distinct likelihood of losing their legislative supermajorities at the polls this fall, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore appear to have opted for what can only be described a scorched earth approach to lawmaking. [Read more…]

2. Education budget shocker could alter the fundamentals of NC school funding

When GOP leaders in the General Assembly unveiled their privately-crafted $23.9 billion budget Monday night, the biggest surprise wasn’t its proposals for teacher pay or another round of tax cuts.

No, the real stunner came in a three-page provision starting on page 257 that authorizes North Carolina municipalities to spend property tax revenues on any public school that “benefits the residents of the city,” including charter schools. It’s a massive, and little debated, overhaul of the state’s longtime funding method that has the potential to drastically alter K-12 funding, and not for the better, advocates say.

“This is a monumental policy shift in North Carolina,” says Scott Mooneyham of the N.C. League of Municipalities, an organization that advocates for nearly all of North Carolina’s 552 cities, towns and villages. [Read more…]

3. The secretly-negotiated 2018 budget: What’s in it? Why won’t legislative leaders allow real debate?

The North Carolina General Assembly unveiled a proposed 2019 state budget bill earlier this week and expects to send it to Gov. Cooper tomorrow. As always, the proposal is chock-full of controversial appropriations decisions and substantive law changes spread over hundreds of pages.

What is highly unusual this year, however, is the way the budget is being adopted. In an unprecedented move, Republican legislative leaders are using the parliamentary maneuver of amending the proposal in-full into what’s known as a “conference committee report” on another measure that has already passed both houses. The practical result of this trick is to prevent any amendments from being offered or debated on the bill. In other words, all 170 members of the General Assembly are being forced to vote “yes” or “no” on the entire budget with no prospect whatsoever of changing it. [Read more...]

*** Bonus read: The politics of “pork”

4. GOP plan to redistrict judges in Mecklenburg wins quick Senate approval; Dems, judges cry foul

Sen. Dan Bishop recently said it himself: if lawmakers can’t get a consensus on judicial redistricting for the whole state, they’ll go after Mecklenburg County. Now he’s making sure they follow through.

Bishop and fellow Mecklenburg Republican, Sen. Jeff Tarte, are teaming up for a second time to split up Mecklenburg County judicial districts. District court judges in the large, urban area are currently and have always been elected county-wide. Superior court judges are elected in three separate districts within the county.

Senate Bill 757 would create eight identical judicial districts for superior and district court races, which means Mecklenburg County voters in each of those areas would only elect the judges residing in their district. [Read more..]

5. DEQ to expand testing to other fluorinated compounds; Chemours neighbors complain of water making their hands “sticky”

Joan Jackson and her husband, Lawrence, have lived a mile and half from the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant for about 40 years. They’ve relied on a 70-foot well for their water — water that hasn’t felt right for some time.

Although state tests showed the Jacksons’ well tested below the health advisory goal for GenX and older fluorinated compounds, PFOA and PFAS, there is something amiss, Joan Jackson said.

“I despise putting my hands in it,” she told state environmental officials at a public meeting in Robeson County last night. “It leaves your hands sticky and nasty feeling. I want to know what it is.” [Read more…]

Education, News

N.C. House approves $23.9 billion budget, despite Democrats’ objections

In the end, after hours of back and forth between miffed Democrats and Republicans, the GOP had the votes to push through their $23.9 billion budget Friday morning.

Members of the state House of Representatives gave their final approval of the spending plan Friday, ushering the budget onto Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. The Senate approved the privately-negotiated budget Thursday morning. And even if the Democratic governor vetoes the spending package, Republicans have the votes to override Cooper in both chambers.

“Pay raises for law enforcement and correctional officers, tens of millions of dollars for classroom protections and prison security, lead state budget investments in public safety passed by the North Carolina House of Representatives today,” House Speaker Tim Moore said on Twitter, shortly after Friday’s 66-44 vote to approve.

Republicans touted raises for state employees and teachers, school safety investments, tax cuts and more on the House floor Thursday and Friday, even as feisty Democrats chided the majority party for an unprecedented budget process that controversially cut off all amendments.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson said residents will remember Republicans’ budget choices, pointing chiefly to lagging education funding under GOP leadership. “North Carolinians are smart,” said Jackson.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar

But top Republicans like Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County representative who’s long led the GOP budget-writing in the House, blasted Democrats back, claiming that education funding was already sliding even as Democrats expanded their budget plans before the 2008 recession.

“Democrats want to go back to the days of tax and spend,” said Dollar.

Democrats did approve furloughs and K-12 cuts in the midst of the 2008 recession, although the state’s education funding, when adjusted for inflation, has declined sharply under Republican leadership too.

A report last year from the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said North Carolina’s drop in per-pupil spending from 2008 through 2015 was among the steepest declines in the nation.

Cooper’s office said the governor would be reviewing the spending plan in the coming days, but a spokesman for Cooper blasted Republicans for their budget.

“We can do so much more to raise teacher pay, improve school safety and protect drinking water but legislative Republicans thought it was more important to protect their tax breaks for corporations and people making over $200,000 a year,” said Cooper spokesman Ford Porter. “Governor Cooper’s budget proposed tax fairness for teacher pay along with forward thinking investments while saving responsibly.”

Process wasn’t the only bone of contention. Critics accused Republicans of under-investing in public schools, short-changing Medicaid, snubbing the state’s environmental regulators and loading their plan down with election-year pork provisions.