- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

May 26

The News & Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, on private group boosting charters:

Sometimes, the Republicans in charge of the North Carolina General Assembly make us wonder, “What are they thinking?” Or perhaps, “Are they thinking?”

Sometimes the answer is that they’re thinking they’ll do whatever they want unless and until a court says they can’t.

That seems to be the case with the latest effort to weaken traditional public schools in the name of promoting choice. The state House has approved a measure to give a private group $1 million of the taxpayers’ dollars to help start charter schools in rural counties.

Have Republicans now grown so arrogant that they’re writing checks on the public’s account for a million bucks just because they can? This is preposterous, when the state has a Department of Public Instruction to do this job.

This group, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, advocates more charter schools, and it would be able to give out state money to new charters to help with start-up costs. Charters, of course, run on the public’s dime and are public schools, though unfortunately some have not done well when they’ve operated as if they were private schools. And charters also draw money from the public education budget, which is why there should be a limited number of them.

That was the idea, anyway, when the charter movement got kicked up more than 20 years ago. The schools would be laboratories, free of some of the constraints and requirements of regular schools and their successes then would be incorporated into mainstream public schools. The vast majority of people in North Carolina send their children to regular public schools, by the way.

And some of the same Republicans who are pushing so hard for more charters also are pushing for things like vouchers, or public funds, to go to some parents who want to send their kids to private school.

The GOP would do better to focus on more investment in public education instead of looking for ways to undermine it.




May 22

Sun Journal, New Bern, North Carolina, on needing reliable passenger rail:

Less than a day after a passenger train derailed in Philadelphia, killing eight people and blocking lines up and down the Eastern Seaboard, a U.S. House panel voted to cut Amtrak’s budget by $252 million, or one-fifth.

True, the cuts were on capital improvements, not safety features. Still, this vote shows the short-sightedness that is crippling transportation.

America needs passenger trains, but for the most part, we don’t have them. Wilmington lost its last passenger rail route in 1968. To catch a train, folks here must get to Fayetteville, then wait till late at night for the right train to arrive.

Even where train service is available, the cars are often old, the tracks rickety and the equipment mostly outdated. (A safety device that could have slowed the Philadelphia train before it jumped the tracks won’t be installed on the line till later this year, maybe.)

Americans who think we’re the most advanced nation on Earth need to travel more. In Europe, in Brazil, in Japan or China, they’ll see slick modern trains in beautiful, smoothly run stations, cruising at speeds of 125 mph or more between cities. By contrast, some of our rail terminals, and even airports, seem like bus stations.

OK, our population is less dense and far more spread out than most of those countries. Also, their governments subsidize their railroads heavily. They think it’s worth the cost, reducing urban congestion, cutting pollution and taking thousands of cars off congested roads.

To be honest, Uncle Sam subsidizes cars and airlines in many ways, direct and indirect. Our passenger rail system, Amtrak, however, is supposed to turn a profit and “run like a business.”

Face it: Passenger traffic was always a loss leader for America’s railroads, which made their money off freight.

President Nixon did the railroads a favor by relieving them of this burden and creating Amtrak in 1971. Some conspiracy theorists hold that Nixon intended for Amtrak to fail, so it could be quietly abolished later.

But we didn’t abolish it, because we need it. So, Congress has nickeled and dimed it ever since.

Studies show that passenger rail can work over mid-sized distances - say, 500 miles or less. The Northeast Corridor, between Washington and Boston, is a classic example.

Other examples might include a Wilmington-to-Raleigh link. Or, travelers could trade lower ticket prices for a little extra time and ride a train to Charlotte to catch their airline connections.

Train travel may become even more important as our nation ages, keeping options alive for elderly people who cannot drive.

Before that can happen, though, we’re going to have to fix up the old, broken rail system we have now.

Conservative estimates of that price tag have gone as high as $21 billion.

Adding high-speed trains and tracks would be even more expensive. Still, we found the money to build the interstate highway system.

We found the billions to launch communications satellites. Surely we can afford more than a Third World rail network.

In the past decade, ridership on U.S. railroads has increased from 24 million to 31 million per year, even with all the headaches. If we build them, they will ride.

A version of this editorial first appeared in the Wilmington Star-News, a Halifax Media Group newspaper.




May 25

Charlotte Observer on the ag-gag bill:

Let’s say your elderly mother lives in a nursing home. The employees’ treatment of some of the residents is atrocious: They berate them; they refuse to change soiled sheets; they handle them roughly.

An appalled worker secretly uses her smartphone to film the mistreatment and uses the video to expose the wrongdoing.

She’s a hero, right? Not to N.C. legislators. To them, she’s disloyal, and is liable to the nursing home owner for damages.

One would think that lawmakers would clamp down on illegal activity at businesses. Instead, they are clamping down on those who would expose it.

Only Gov. Pat McCrory can fix this now. House Bill 405 passed the Senate last week and now sits in McCrory’s inbox. He should veto it.

The bill says that an employee who uncovers damaging activity by taking video or making a recording, or taking or copying documents, can face severe penalties for hurting the business: “equitable relief,” compensatory damages, attorneys’ fees and “exemplary damages” of $5,000 per day.

That’s for action that damages the business owner. The bill makes no mention of the business’s action that damages the public.

The intent of the bill was made clear when Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, offered an amendment. He would have given employees protection if the activity they recorded was illegal. Senate leaders wouldn’t even allow a vote on that.

Such anti-whistleblower laws are making their way through conservative legislatures across the country. They are frequently known as “ag-gag” laws, because they protect agricultural operations - such as poultry plants and hog farms - from do-gooder employees. North Carolina’s bill is even worse in that it encompasses all businesses, such as day cares and nursing homes, not just agricultural plants.

This bill is flawed for many reasons. It punishes the person who reveals the illegal act, rather than the business that commits it. It smears everyone with the same brush of suspicion, including those responsible businesses who play by the rules. And it raises constitutional questions, limiting a person’s free speech rights based on the content of the speech, even if it’s truthful.

Supporters of the bill say it protects businesses from activist groups who could have an undercover employee reveal damaging information. This, though, goes further than protecting trade secrets or other private information. Current law already protects such things. This bill targets those who reveal illegal activity that could harm workers or the public. We should instead be encouraging such revelations.

Most North Carolinians and scrupulous business owners oppose this bill. Gov. McCrory should ship it back to the legislature.



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