I loathe politics. There, I said it. I zone out when NPR starts talking about presidential candidates. I generally scramble to choose who I’ll vote for in local primaries at the very last moment, scouring articles and candidates’ websites over a bowl of cereal the morning before heading to the polls. I’m just more of a medical non-fiction, travel-writing, and DIY sort of gal.
And that is why I offer you this series: highlights of the issues most concerning us as North Carolinians this coming November – especially for those who stifle a yawn at the mere mention of SCOTUS. It’s far from exhaustive but it will get you started. Breathe deep. You might feel some pressure.
Nationally, education is not one of the top four policy concerns of most Americans this year. Not so for North Carolina where teacher pay has slid from the national average to consistently ranking in the bottom 5-10 states. When adjusted for inflation, our average teacher salary has dropped 13 percent since 1999. Last year’s budget increased teacher’s starting salary to $35K annually, but left out veteran teachers. As a result, more experienced teachers are fleeing the state. The suspension of a teaching fellows program, which exchanged tuition for a commitment to teach in NC, resulted in a 30 percent decline in enrollment at UNC’s education schools, expounding the problem by further jeopardizing the ability of our schools to recruit new teachers. I wish that I could say that teacher pay and retention were the only education problem facing North Carolina. We rank 46th in per-pupil expenditures. Despite research demonstrating that early childhood education is crucial and especially beneficial for at-risk children and in lowering the income gap, only 21 percent of our 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K. There are 7300 eligible children on a waitlist for pre-K in our state.
Governor Pat McCrory signed an education budget earlier this year that increased teacher pay by 5% and funded 206 pre-K slots. Pre-K funding is still $25M below it’s pre-recession level. The teaching fellows program was suspended under his watch. His budget also cut funding to public universities by $26M and increased community college tuition. He expanded funding for education vouchers to private schools for students with disabilities. The North Carolina Association of Educators call McCrory’s plan “an election-year proposal that does little to make up for years of disrespecting the education profession and dismantling our public schools.”
Democratic candidate for Governor, Roy Cooper, opposes vouchers on the grounds that they drain money from public schools, proposes reinstating the NC teaching fellows program, and supports increasing teacher pay to the national average. He also supports tuition-free community college and reforming the NC lottery formula so that a greater percentage is allocated to educational spending. Cooper is endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Hillary Clinton is a proponent of charter schools, tuition-free community colleges and in-state public schools for families making less than $125,000 a year, and preschool for all 4-year-olds through federal grants to states. Donald Trump is a proponent of “school choice” wherein parents choose to send their child to public, private, charter, or magnet schools and a federal subsidy follows the student. He has offered no specific proposals regarding Early Childhood Education or student loans and debt and is a proponent of child care deductions, which will not benefit the 40 percent of Americans that don’t owe taxes at the end of the year.
Implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has expanded coverage to an estimated 20 million previously uninsured Americans since 2010. Our uninsured rate is now 8.6%, the lowest uninsured rate in 50 years. Unfortunately our healthcare woes are far from cured. Healthcare expenditure at the most recent tally in 2014 was at 17.1% of GDP and the highest of any nation by far. Indicators of healthcare quality, including neonatal mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, and lifetime expectancy, remain poor compared to other developed countries who spend a fraction of what we do on healthcare. Insurance premiums and/or deductibles continue to increase for many Americans – by 61% in the last 10 years, outpacing worker pay and inflation. Medical bills are the single largest cause of consumer bankruptcy.
North Carolina declined to adopt Medicaid Expansion, and the 5 million federal dollars a day that came with it under the ACA. Our state has the fourth highest number of uninsured in the country and, like the other states that declined expansion, suffers from the “coverage gap” that expanded medicaid would insure. Our State Epidemiologist resigned a month ago, leaving scandal in her wake. She accused McCrory’s administration of deliberately misleading the public about the potential contamination of drinking wells near coal ash waste dumps with hexavalent chromium. A letter to homes affected assured inhabitants that the contaminant levels in the water were not above federal limits for hexavalent chromium – there are no federal limits for that carcinogen.
Governor McCrory signed off on a proposal in June to reform Medicaid from a fee-for-service to a private Medicaid-managed Care Organization (MCO) which sets monthly fees to manage all patients’ care.
Roy Cooper is a proponent of expanding medicaid and believes that our state is better served continuing to control Medicaid costs via using Community Care of North Carolina, a non-profit.
Whew. See? Like a bandaid. You’re welcome.
Stay tuned for more issues concerning the Tar Heel state next week: Economy and the Environment.