Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools Score Highly

A new set of grades are out for public schools in the Tar Heel state.

The State Board of Education released preliminary information regarding student performance based on a variety of measures on Wednesday.

Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools registered three Cs, 11 Bs and four As across the district. Meanwhile the state board graded Orange County Schools at one D, nine Cs and two Bs.

Diane Villwock is the Executive Director of Testing and Program Evaluation for Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools, and she says there were several highlights for the CHCCS system.

“100 percent of our schools received a grade of C or better,” she says. “And that compares to 72.2 percent of the public schools in North Carolina as a whole.

“The Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools met 87.2 percent of their goals, while the state met 55.2 percent.”

Villwock says the school system is proud of these accolades but adds there are areas the district can improve upon, mainly closing the achievement gap.

“Some of those targets are based on all sorts of groups,” she says. Those groups include race, economically disadvantaged students, limited English proficient students and students with disabilities. Villwock says, “It’s really important for us to raise the achievement of those groups in order to meet these state targets.”

Villwock says the work to close the achievement gap is a process that includes every member of the school district.

“We’re working, as a central office, getting things organized for teachers and setting up training,” she says. “And then small cadres of people are coming out for training.

“And those people are going back and training at their schools.”

The overall ratios of As, Bs and Cs for Chapel Hill – Carrboro City Schools was unchanged from last year, which was the first time the state board handed out letter grades to school systems. But three schools in the system were awarded a designation just introduced this year.

Carrboro High, East Chapel Hill High and Glenwood Elementary were awarded an A+ designation.

“The A+ is for schools who are both high performing and have very small achievement gaps compared to the state,” Villowck says.

While the numbers are useful in terms of setting and reaching goals, Villwock says the district would like to see the formula for the grades changed to place a larger emphasis on the growth of students from year to year, rather than the majority of focus being placed on test scores.

Villwock adds the high schools across the system had a very strong academic year.

“The five-year cohort graduation rate…was at 94.6 [percent], which is the highest in the state,” she says. “100 percent of our high schools met or exceeded growth.

“And we had 86 percent of our students meet the UNC System requirements on the ACT, and that was the highest in the state.”

Villwock says, while we are digesting this new data, it is important to remember the numbers can’t tell the whole story of school districts.

“The performance of teachers and relationships with students and how they impact kids’ lives all matter a great deal,” she says. “And those really aren’t measurable.”

You can view all of the school grades from across the state here.

PACE Students, Teachers Await Mid-August Decision

Lawyers wrapped up their arguments Tuesday in a hearing to determine whether a Carrboro charter school will remain open. But students and teachers at PACE Academy won’t know for several weeks whether they will be able to return to PACE in the fall.

After a meeting at PACE Academy, PACE student Addison Edwards takes a stack of papers from Jamie Bittner, his school’s occupational therapist.

“This is his paperwork for career and college promise,” Bittner says waving the stack of forms. “His GPA is outstanding, his SAT scores are outstanding, so he’s going to be taking community college courses while attending—hopefully PACE next year.”

Bittner says “hopefully PACE,” because it’s up in the air whether PACE will be open for Edwards to come back to in the fall.

In May, the State Board of Education voted not to renew the school’s charter over concerns about poor attendance records and non-compliance with some regulations for teaching students with disabilities. The school appealed that decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

After 4 days in court, it rests for Judge Phil Berger Jr. to decide if PACE will get to keep its charter. That has PACE student Jerry Garfunkel worried about where he’ll be in the fall.

“It’s scary to think about,” Garfunkel says. “I don’t really know where I’m going to go, or what I’m going to do.”

PACE says its mission is to serve students in grades 9 through 12 who aren’t thriving in traditional public schools. Half of PACE’s students have autism or other mental health diagnoses. Many are teen mothers, and some are homeless or former dropouts.  Garfunkel says he came to PACE because the traditional public school environment was much too stressful for him.

“I thought I was going to end up in the UNC psych ward if I stayed there any longer,” he says. “I almost had a mental breakdown in my study hall class.”

Garfunkel says the smaller class sizes and nurturing environment at PACE suit him much better.

“The people here are understanding, the students here are very kind, the teachers here are extremely qualified for their jobs,” he said. “I’ve just been going from like D’s and F’s to A’s. It’s incredible.”

Berger will deliver a judgment by August 13—less than two weeks before the start of the school year. PACE Assistant Principal Jane Miller says that means she and the other administrators aren’t just hoping for the best, they’re planning for it too.

“Rhonda, Jamie and I are still operating as if we are going to open on August 25,” Miller told a room of concerned parents, students, alumni and teachers. “Because if we don’t plan enough, we simply wouldn’t have enough time once we get the decision that affirms we stay open.”

At the same time, PACE administrators say they have a contingency plan. Miller says she and other staff members will spend the next weeks helping families identify traditional public schools, private schools and home-school groups in case PACE closes.

Four NC Cities Make WalletHub’s Most ‘Driver-Friendly’ List

Daily rush-hour commuters may be surprised to learn they’re living in one of the top 10 driver-friendly cities – but four North Carolina cities have earned that honor.

The personal finance website WalletHub just released a list called “2015’s Best and Worst Cities to Be a Driver,” and Greensboro is the top-rated North Carolina city, at number four.

Durham is rated at number four among U.S. cities, while Winston-Salem is ranked at number nine, and Raleigh is number 10.

WalletHub’s rankings are based on average gas prices, average annual traffic delays, rates of car theft and car clubs per capita.

The number one city for driving, according to WalletHub, is Lubbock, TX.

Ranking lowest among the list of one hundred most populated cities is good old New York, NY.

Carrboro Charter School Battles to Stay Open

PACE Academy will fight in court Tuesday to keep its doors open.

Teachers, students, parents and alumni of PACE Academy gathered at the State Board of Education building Monday morning. They were there to protest the Board’s decision to revoke PACE’s charter.

The state’s Charter School Advisory Board recommended PACE be closed due to concerns about low attendance, financial problems and compliance issues. But protest organizer Stephanie Perry says she believes those concerns are unfounded.

“Over the past two years, PACE Academy has been aggressively targeted by the Charter School Advisory Board in a very unfair way,” she said.

Perry says the advisory board did not take into account the school’s unique population when making its assessment. PACE serves students in grades nine through twelve. The school says half of its students have mental health problems or learning disabilities and that many of its students are teenage parents and former drop-outs. Perry says that means many PACE students take classes on a nontraditional schedule and weren’t there when advisory board members came out to check the school’s attendance

“Because of the vocational curriculum, a lot of the students have on-the-job training and internships,” Perry said.

PACE has appealed a May decision by a State Board of Education review panel that revoked the school’s charter. Senate President Phil Berger’s son, Judge Phil Berger Jr., will hear arguments beginning Tuesday.

This is the second time PACE has had its charter on the line. The school’s charter was nearly revoked in 2013 over similar concerns.

Thousands of NC Teacher Assistants in Limbo

The General Assembly passed a stop-gap spending measure Tuesday. The bill keeps the government funded until mid-August while the chambers grapple over the final budget. But the measure does nothing to ease the concerns of  8,500 teacher assistants whose jobs are now in limbo.

North Carolina teacher assistant Melinda Zarate has spent the last several summers on edge.

“It’s just very nerve-wracking,” Zarate told reporters. “Imagine not knowing whether you were going to have a job in a couple months. And yeah, that happens in business too. But for teacher assistants, this happens every single year.”

The Legislature has made frequent cuts to teacher assistant positions since the 2008 recession. This year, despite a budget surplus, the Senate’s budget proposes axing another 8,500 teacher assistants. That would leave schools with less than a third of the teacher assistants they had before the recession. Those cuts don’t sit well with Lisa Caley, a parent of a child with special learning needs.

“Our public schools today are focused on educating every student, and TAs are working to provide the individualized instruction to make that happen,” Caley said. “That means they’re assisting with kids who need remediation, with students who are on grade level and students who are above grade level, to make sure that lessons are differentiated to meet all students’ needs.”

Teacher assistants and their advocates argue their instruction is needed in today’s classrooms.

“Things have become so individualized in our schools, that we don’t do a lot of whole-class instruction—teachers standing in front of a group of kids just delivering trying to fill their heads,” Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said. “It’s more about breaking kids up into small collaborative groups.”

Senators who support the cuts say reducing the number of teacher assistants will allow the state to hire more teachers and raise teachers’ starting salaries. The House’s budget also proposes raising teacher salaries, but it does not cut assistants. Todd LoFrese, Assistant Superintendent for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, says his district is eagerly awaiting a final budget.

“We’re going to have to take a good look as we develop our budgets if teacher assistants are reduced at the state level again: What are our options? Do we have any options, because those are really big numbers that they’re talking about making in the Senate budget,” LoFrese said.

The two chambers have until August 14 before stop-gap funding expires. In the meantime, thousands of teacher assistants can only guess whether they’ll return to the classroom in the fall.

Gerrymandering North Carolina

The Supreme Court has issued a ruling in favor of independent redistricting commissions in Arizona.

In a 5-4, ruling the United States Supreme Court ruled citizens in Arizona did not remove power from state lawmakers by voting to establish an independent redistricting commission, according to Jane Pinsky – Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

“The people of Arizona have the right to set up an independent redistricting commission,” she says. “The commission in Arizona was created by citizen initiative, and it was a clear sign that the people of Arizona wanted a fair and impartial process.

“And they didn’t think they were getting that through their legislature.”

Pinsky adds citizens organized a grassroots effort to gain signatures in favor of the referendum’s placement on the ballot. For any North Carolinians with that idea, Pinsky has some bad news.

“We don’t have the right to do a ballot initiative,” Pinksy says of the organizational structure in North Carolina.

Pinsky says since residents of the Tar Heel state do not have the option of placing a citizen-driven referendum on the ballot, the next step for North Carolinians is to lobby elected representatives.

READ MORE: Lawmakers Set to Introduce Bipartisan Redistricting Reform

Pinsky adds gerrymandering is an overt way of disenfranchising voters.

“One of the things that we see that has happened as all of this redistricting and all the gerrymandering is that citizens feel like their votes don’t count,” she says. “And, unfortunately, in [about] 40-some percent of the legislative races in this state, that’s absolutely true.

“There was only one person on the ballot.”

For decades Democrats controlled North Carolina politics and could draw the state and congressional districts as they pleased. Now Republicans are in charge and don’t seem apt to giving up the power that comes with their partisan pen.

Local Democratic House Representative Verla Insko says changing demographics may play a large role in the upcoming elections.

“The Republicans that gerrymandered your districts are not all as safe as they used to be,” she says. “House districts are more vulnerable to moving back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.

“The challengers in the House may have an easier path, but that’s also true for the Senate that the population shifts are going to put some pressure on the current Republicans to look seriously at a commission.”

READ MORE: Redistricting Continues to Stir Legal Battle in NC

A bill passed the state House in 2011 to create an independent redistricting commission before dying in the Senate. Earlier this year, a large number of bipartisan lawmakers again called for an independent commission. Democratic House Representative Graig Meyer says support in the House is overwhelming from both sides of the aisle.

“There’s broad bipartisan support for this in House,” he says. “There are more than 61 cosponsors of the House bill, so that indicates that it would pass the House easily. The Senate has blocked this type of effort for several years. And it’s pretty clear to me that the Senate is blocking it because the Republicans who lead the Senate are doing everything that they can to hold on to the power that they have.

“That would include blocking [an independent commission] as well as all of the voting restrictions that they have put into place.”

Pinsky says a particular note in the Supreme Court ruling drew her attention.

“There’s a line that says that ‘the Constitution has an animating principle that people themselves are the originating source of all powers of government,’” she says. “In other words, the power doesn’t come from the legislators. The power comes from us.

“Anything that, I think, impedes our ability to freely exercise that power is wrong and undermines our democracy.”

While the Supreme Court ruling does not have a direct impact on North Carolina, it does support the momentum behind independent redistricting commissions that have been established in states including Arizona, Iowa, and Ohio.

It seems the biggest impediment to an independent commission in North Carolina is Republican Senate President Phil Berger.

Senator Berger’s office has not responded to repeated request for comment.

More than 400,000 in NC Keep Obamacare Subsidies

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the tax breaks for those who purchased health insurance through the federally-run exchange. The ruling allows more than 400,000 North Carolina residents to keep subsidies that help pay for their health insurance premiums.

The question at hand in King v. Burwell was whether a small line of text in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) prohibited the federal government from providing subsidies for health insurance to people in states without their own exchanges. North Carolina is among 34 such states. Duke University professor Don Taylor says more than half-a-million North Carolina residents purchased insurance through the ACA, and most of them are receiving the federal subsidies that were in question.

“Ninety-one percent of the North Carolinians have gotten a subsidy, and the average amount of that subsidy is about $315 a month,” Taylor said.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to allow the federal subsidies to flow to all states, whether their exchange is state-run or not. Chief Justice Roberts, who ruled with the majority, said the line in question had to be read within the greater context of the ACA, which was to “improve health insurance markets.”

North Carolina Congressman David Price says he is relieved by the Court’s ruling on what he calls a “drafting error” in the ACA.

“It’s a very fortunate decision; it’s a common sense decision,” Price said. “And from what I’ve seen, Chief Justice Roberts’ reasoning in ruling this way reflects that. This is a matter of discerning Congress’ intent, despite this drafting error, and making sure that the nation doesn’t suffer the consequences of an overly literal focus on this one omission in the law.”

The ruling means more than 400,000 North Carolinians will keep their subsidies. It also puts an end to a serious threat to the future of Obamacare. Taylor says ending the federal subsidies would have forced many people to drop coverage and destabilized the entire health insurance exchange.

“If the healthy people flow out because the premiums go up, and you only have sick people left, then that’s called ‘death-spiral,’ and that insurance market is unsustainable,” Taylor said.

Now that the ACA is no longer threatened, Price says it’s important to shift focus to expanding Medicaid in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling on the ACA allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion.

“It’s unfortunate that the Supreme Court left that loophole,” Price said. “It’s even more unfortunate, I think, that North Carolina and other states are taking advantage of the loophole to detriment of – in the case of our state – almost half-a-million people.”

Governor Pat McCrory has given no indication that he will call for Medicaid expansion. In a statement his office released Thursday, the Governor said quote “we must build a North Carolina-based reform plan that focuses on healthier patients at a cost taxpayers can afford.”

SCOTUS Keeps Affordable Care Act Subsidies

***UPDATE: The Supreme Court has issued a 6-3 ruling allowing subsidies to continue to be offered in states that did not establish their own marketplace. You can read the full opinion here.***

The U.S. Supreme Court will release a decision within the next few days that may affect more than half a million North Carolinians who purchased health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

The question before the Court in King v. Burwell is whether the federal government overreached when it allowed subsidies to flow to states, like North Carolina, that did not set up their own health insurance exchanges.

North Carolina is among 34 states that do not have state-run health insurance marketplaces. That means North Carolina residents who want to buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act have to do so through the federally-run exchange. About 550,000 North Carolinians did just that, and most of them, says Duke University public policy professor Don Taylor, received tax breaks to help pay for their premiums.

“Ninety-one percent of the North Carolinians have gotten a subsidy,” Taylor said,  “and the average amount of that subsidy is about $315 a month.”

The plaintiffs in the case argue the Affordable Care Act does not allow the federal government to give those subsidies to people in states that don’t have a state-run exchange.

“So if the Supreme Court had a simple finding for the plaintiffs,” Taylor said, “then the tax credits that are coming to North Carolinians today, they would lose those tax credits, their insurance bills would then go up, and then presumably many of them would them drop their coverage.”

Taylor says not only would such a ruling affect those who dropped their coverage because they couldn’t afford the premium, it could topple the entire federally-run exchange:

“The problem is the people who wouldn’t drop coverage, the people who are desperate to keep their insurance, are probably people who are sick. And any type of insurance market—whether it’s car insurance, homeowner’s or health insurance—if the healthy people flow out because the premiums go up, and you only have sick people left, then that’s called ‘death-spiral,’ and that insurance market is unsustainable.”

If the Court does rule for the plaintiff, Taylor says depending on the details of the ruling, there could be some legislative fixes at the national and the state levels to keep the tax breaks coming.

“Maybe North Carolina could pass a simple law that says we desire for the subsidies to still flow in North Carolina. But then it’s back to a political question again.”

The Supreme Court is expected to release a decision by Monday, June 29.

Hillsborough Confederate Memorial Stays Up, For Now

South Carolina lawmakers are debating removing the confederate battle flag from the state capitol; Governor Nikki Haley endorsed the change after the mass shooting last week at a historically black church in Charleston. Meanwhile, the town of Hillsborough voted to let stand a memorial to the Confederacy on the Orange County Historical Museum—at least for now.

Weeks before the shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston ignited national debate about the Confederate flag, the town of Hillsborough began a conversation about three lines of black letters above the entrance of the County Museum: “Confederate Memorial, 1934.”

“Since I’ve seen that lettering up there, it—you know, it makes me uncomfortable,” Hillsborough Town Commissioner Jenn Weaver said.

Weaver has been a vocal advocate for taking the memorial down since the Orange County Historical Society, which runs the museum, asked the town to remove the letters at the end of May. The Historical Society says the memorial deters residents from taking advantage of the museum’s resources.

“If you don’t want to go in the building because of the fact that it has a Confederate memorial across the front that makes you feel unwelcome, then you’re not able to enjoy a museum that we have here for our community,” Weaver said.

The Confederate memorial debate is a complicated and emotional issue for many southerners. Some Hillsborough residents say the memorial should stay as a remembrance of the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. But University of North Carolina History Professor W. Fitzhugh Brundage says many Confederate memorials, especially those built after 1900, weren’t constructed just to honor fallen soldiers.

“More and more of the monuments were erected in public spaces, in front of courthouses, conspicuous thoroughfares, etc. And those monuments had a much broader goal, which was to impose a Confederate version of the past on the public as a whole. So they were intended to be didactic not just about loss and grief, but about the redemption of the Confederate cause.”

The building at the center of the Hillsborough debate wasn’t always a museum. The United Daughters of the Confederacy funded its construction as a whites-only library and a memorial to the Confederacy. Brundage says he can’t be certain how directly the Hillsborough memorial can be tied to a white supremacist agenda. But as a whites-only library and a Confederate memorial, he says it certainly was a product of a white supremacist mentality.

“Those women and the generation that they were part of were erecting a monument with little thought to being members of a diverse society in which all citizens, all residents for that matter, should be comfortable in public spaces,” Brundage said.

On Monday, the Board voted 3 to 2 against Weaver’s motion to take down the Confederate memorial lettering. Mayor Tom Stevens and other town commissioners said the Board needed more time to hear public comment on the issue. The Historical Society also says it needs more time to decide how it will incorporate the building’s history into its exhibits.

Large Disparities Exist Even in State’s Healthiest County

Orange County children may be the healthiest in North Carolina, according to child-advocacy nonprofit NC Child. But a closer look at Orange County shows that the block you grow up on may matter more than your county.

Orange County is the wealthiest and most educated county in the state, and overall its children are the healthiest. Orange County Health Director Colleen Bridger says that’s not a coincidence.

“The more highly educated you are, the more likely you are to have a professional job that provides you with health insurance, time off to go to the doctor, time off to take your kids to the doctor and a living wage,” Bridger said.

But Orange County’s wealth and college degrees aren’t divided equally among all its residents. Census estimates show wide socioeconomic gaps between adjacent blocks.

“Even though Orange County in the aggregate is doing well, there are pockets of poverty and places where people are struggling that rivals any other place in the state,” Bridger  warned.

Bridger says the greatest health disparities within Orange County often come down to disparities in education. There are areas in the county where two-thirds of third-graders are reading below grade level. The county says it’s working to improve health outcomes by closing the education gap through a project called the Family Success Alliance. The program replicates an initiative out of Harlem in New York City.

“They’ve basically said ‘anything a child needs from before she or he is born to the time he or she has a job after they’ve graduated from college, we want to provide it.’ And so we want to replicate that here so that we are able to ensure that every child in Orange County can succeed, regardless of where they live,” Bridger said.