by Lindsay Marchello

Each week, staff at Carolina Journal looks back at the week in N.C. politics and chooses several interesting, relevant stories you may have missed. 

Reopen the schools: Five parents are challenging Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ decision to start the school year with full-time remote learning. The group of parents filed a lawsuit Sept. 3 in Mecklenburg County Superior Court to reverse the CMS school board’s reopening plan. CMS’ plan violates the state’s constitutional obligation to provide every student with a sound, basic education, the lawsuit claims. Remote learning will expand the digital divide between economically disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers, the lawsuit says. The parents are suing the N.C. Association of Educators, a left-leaning teacher group, for improperly influencing and intimidating the board and superintendent into choosing the full-time remote plan. They’re fighting an uphill battle, said Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “I suspect that the courts will not hold CMS accountable for their ill-advised decision to adopt a full-time remote learning plan,” Stoops said. “Fortunately, families will hold them accountable by choosing to leave the district for private, home, and charter school options.”

The Choice Act: If schools won’t reopen for in-person instruction, then parents should get financial help to educate their children. That’s the goal of new legislation from U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, R-9th District. The Choice Act, House Resolution 8182, directs the U.S. Department of Education to create a grant program helping parents cover education costs if their school district fails to offer in-person instruction. Parents could use the money for homeschooling, private schools, or pandemic pods.

Unemployment slog: When it comes to doling out unemployment benefits, North Carolina still lags the rest of the country. The latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows around 63% of first payments arrived within 14 to 21 days in North Carolina, compared to the 70% national average, WCNC reported. Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, North Carolina ranked last in cutting timely unemployment checks. Carolina Journal first reported about the situation in April. When the pandemic hit, the N.C. Division of Employment Security was flooded with claims, crashing the DES website and further stalling relief. Republican legislative leaders criticized Gov. Roy Cooper for the debacle. Since March 15, 1,272,854 people applied for benefits. Roughly 884,641 were paid. Twenty-eight percent of applicants weren’t eligible for relief, DES says on its website. The remaining 3% of applicants are awaiting approval for either state or federal benefits. 

DeJoy complaint: A watchdog group is calling for an investigation into whether U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy violated state election law by promising his employees at New Breed Logistics bonuses if they made political contributions. Common Cause NC filed a complaint with the State Board of Elections based on a Washington Post story, the News & Observer reported. Employees at the N.C.-based business gave more than $1 million to Republican candidates between 2000 and 2014. Federal and state law prohibits corporations from reimbursing employees’ political contributions. Any credible allegation of such actions merit an investigation, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein tweeted.

Rocky Mount investigation: State Treasurer Dale Folwell wants a full investigation into a multimillion-dollar downtown project in Rocky Mount. The project’s lead, David Hunt, was indicted in Mississippi on alleged bid-rigging charges. Although the charges aren’t directly related to the Rocky Mount project, Folwell said a thorough investigation is needed before spending taxpayer dollars to the project. I would be highly disappointed if the elected officials in that community or this state would not be in favor of looking more deeply into the finances of the city of Rocky Mount and this project specifically,” Folwell said in the news release. The project is on hold. This isn’t the first time Rocky Mount has faced scrutiny. State Auditor Beth Wood released a report in May that found city officials gave preferential treatment to a city council member who hadn’t paid nearly $50,000 in overdue utility bills. City officials failed to follow program guidelines, resulting in thousands of dollars in uncollected loans and improper payments. The report also found that the Rocky Mount city manager racked up more than $1,500 in unallowable travel expenses.

School choice ratings: North Carolina earned a C grade on the Center for Education Reform’s national ranking of charter school laws. The ranking considers a variety of state laws governing charter schools to see how well they create educational options for families. States are scored on equity, growth, charter authorization, and operations. Though North Carolina ranked 13th, the state still received a C. While other states saw a decline in charter school freedom, North Carolina remained at 13 from 2018 to 2020. North Carolina scored high on growth, middling on operations, and poor on equity and charter authorization. Meanwhile, North Carolina ranked 12th in EdChoice’s Educational Choice Share, which looks at the number of students enrolled in education savings accounts, school vouchers, or tax-credit scholarship programs. The ranking showed North Carolina has the largest share of homeschool students in the nation at 7.6%. The next highest share of homeschool students is in Arkansas with a 3.6% share. 

Open the private clubs: Private club owners, aka bars, have an ally in the General Assembly in their fight to safely reopen their businesses. House Majority Leader John Bell, R-Wayne, sent Gov. Roy Cooper a letter Sept. 10 urging him to listen to the concerns of private club owners and their employees. Private clubs are among the few businesses still under Cooper’s shutdowns. While the governor has allowed breweries, wineries, and restaurants to reopen with safety precautions, private clubs have been left in the dark. “What is the difference between going to a restaurant for a drink and going to a bar for a drink?” Bell asked in his letter. “You aren’t required to eat at either establishment, yet your Executive Order and ‘Phases’ imply that it is safer to consume an alcoholic beverage in a restaurant.” Bell’s letter came as private club owners gathered in front of the Executive Mansion on Thursday, Sept. 10, to protest Cooper’s decision to keep private clubs closed. “Private bar owners have waited in vain for the governor to explain why he authorized our competitors to sell beer, wine and liquor while forcing us to stay closed,” the N.C. Bar and Tavern Association wrote on Facebook. “Bar owners have nothing left to lose: Cooper must immediately find a way for these bars to safely reopen or offer them immediate targeted relief.

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