NC JUSTICE NEWS: Meet the Staff: Meet the Staff - Chris Hill + Voucher Victory + The Hard Road Out of Poverty

March 4, 2014

MEET THE STAFF: Chris Hill, Director, Education & Law Project

Chris Hill, director of the Education & Law Project got the public interest work bug early, and it has stayed with him throughout his career. While working in New Jersey—where Chris was born and raised—he had a plethora of experiences focusing on economic development work, including working with organizations helping individuals living with HIV or AIDS. He started a reentry project for Legal Services of New Jersey, where he also worked with undocumented immigrants and focused on housing and consumer issues. “There’s nothing better than to crush a landlord’s attorney who’s taking advantage because your client is an immigrant,” Chris says.

Chris fell in love with the woman who would become his wife—a North Carolinian——and moved to the Tar Heel state to continue his public interest work. He was part of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, focusing on efforts to curtail or outright abolish the death penalty, and eventually joined the Justice Center in 2010. His first legislative session dealt with lifting the cap on charter schools, re-segregation issues, and the move towards privatization and vouchers, which continues to be a major focus for the project.

“We helped shape the debate on privatization issues as well as creating a strategy on how to talk about vouchers,” Chris said. “We look at everything through the lens of student achievement, and realized there is no evidence of student achievement with vouchers. Research shows that students who didn't receive vouchers—traditional public school students—outperformed voucher students in proficiency exams. Vouchers did not help. They only lead to further segregation, and give public money to private schools.”

Above all, the Education & Law Project is devoted to ensuring that North Carolina has strong public schools and that each student gets the sound basic education that they are guaranteed by the constitution. High-quality education is of particular importance to low-income families. “The entire system will improve by improving it for low-income North Carolinians,” Chris says.

Chris describes how public education shaped his own life, saying that he didn’t grow up with a lot of money but was fortunate to live in a district where he could get a good education—“Even when I tried not to,” he adds. He claims he was a horrible high school student, and it wasn’t until he began taking community college classes that he was ready to focus on the work. The community college system connected him to Rutgers University, where he ultimate earned his BA and JD.

“I had the confidence to go to law school—all based on fact that I had a really good education system,” Chris says. “When I finally decided to apply myself, things happened. People should never give up on their students or their children. They might take a while to grow. But that’s the point of strong public education system… those systems were in place for me to allow me to do the work I’m doing now.”

The work Chris speaks of covers a wide range of education issues, including: fair discipline policies, third grade retention (and an overreliance on student testing), Personal Education Plans (PEPs), dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, and ensuring students can register in schools regardless of their immigration status. The Education & Law Project, which also includes Christine Bischoff and Matt Ellinwood, recently filed a complaint alleging discrimination on behalf of students who had been inhibited from enrolling due to their status.

Chris says one benefit of working on education at the Justice Center is collaborating with the other staff to further the mission of the Education & Law Project as well as the center as a whole. (He’s secretly hoping future collaboration will not only be on the issues at hand but also possibly in the form of a Justice Center band.)

“As we strive to eliminate poverty, it’s important to realize that although our projects are separate, everything is tied together,” Chris says. “You can't end one part of poverty and think it's over. Even if you get decent housing for everybody, it isn't over. You need better jobs. If you have an income maintenance problem, you’ll have health, housing, and education problems. If you're hungry, it's hard to learn. If you don't have parents who have had a good public education, it’s harder to have parents involved in your schooling. We all have to do this work in order to ensure opportunity and prosperity for all.”

You can help Chris and the rest of the Education & Law Project continue their work by making a donation to the Education & Law Project today.

VOUCHER VICTORY: Judge halts state's unconstitutional voucher program

Late last month, there was a huge victory for public education in North Carolina. On February 21, Judge Robert H. Hobgood granted a preliminary injunction halting the state's unconstitutional school voucher program.

Judge Hobgood found that failure to grant the injunction could cause irreparable harm, and that a lawsuit filed by the NC Justice Center and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) was likely to succeed on its merits, supporting the need for an injunction halting the program.

A quick refresher: 25 plaintiffs from across the state filed a lawsuit late last year challenging the constitutionality of the school voucher law passed by the General Assembly last session. The large and diverse group of plaintiffs who joined in the lawsuit—including former Superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Ward and former Shaw University president John Lucas, parents, teachers, members of the clergy, and other community leaders—reflects North Carolinians' growing alarm at the legislature's attacks on public education. Judge Hobgood's finding will hopefully be the next step in helping North Carolina's students and education system.

"HOME TO ME": Latest audio story features a tight-knit group of women

The “Home to Me: Immigrant Stories from NC” series highlights the lives of North Carolina immigrants and their families. Through video, audio, and other multimedia components, North Carolinians will hear from immigrants in their own words. The series offers an opportunity to explore the challenges some immigrants face in our state, the importance of immigration reform, and how North Carolina has become home to thousands of people from all over the world.

This month’s audio piece features the Ornela family (some names have been changed), who sat down in Pullen Park in Raleigh to talk about their experiences. Self-described as the "Three Musketeers," mother Muriel and daughters Dani and Nora have seen each other through thick and thin, relying on each other through a relocation from New Jersey to North Carolina—Dani and Nora's father stayed in New Jersey for work—and even the occasional car trouble. Nora is currently a community college student and artist, and Dani is a recent applicant to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Although their lives in North Carolina feel relatively safe and offer some educational opportunities, as an undocumented resident Muriel often has to rely on her daughters for mundane tasks. Nora was born in the United States and is a citizen.

"It's just not the right picture, cause she's supposed to rely on me," said Muriel. "And I'm supposed to be her column in a lot of occasions. She's my column." Still, she wants what every mother wants: for her to children to get a degree, and have a career that they will like—something that will carry them through life, and enable them to be happy.

Viewers are encouraged to share “Home to Me” stories on social media (using hashtags #HomeToMe and #IAMaMigrant) to demonstrate how immigrants are part of the fabric of our state and to highlight the need for policies that respect the humanity of all of our neighbors.

POVERTY & THE ECONOMY: Hard work isn't enough for families to get ahead

Sometimes working hard just isn’t enough to lift people out of poverty—that’s the heartbreaking reality for too many of North Carolina’s low-income workers.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, but a recent Budget & Tax Center report shows the war rages on and the blames lies with a changing economy, one that replaced middle wage jobs in manufacturing with poverty wage jobs in services. The jobs that pave the way to the middle class have good wages, and those jobs are disappearing rapidly.

Working hard is failing to keep people out of poverty, plain and simple. Full-time work is no longer enough to provide economic security to families. More than 3 in 10 workers in North Carolina earned wages at or below the official poverty line in 2012, up 23 percent since 2000, and the 8th-worst ranking in the nation.

Public investments such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP and unemployment insurance can support people as they work their way out of poverty. While the state’s poverty rate has jumped by more than one-third since 2000, it would have been much higher if these services weren’t available. Unfortunately, lawmakers have cut public investments in schools, colleges, and job training over the past three years, while simultaneously eliminating the state EITC. At the federal level, policymakers have allowed federal emergency benefits to expire for the long-term unemployed and agreed to cut $8.6 billion from SNAP over the next decade.

This tax season is the last time North Carolinians who work but struggle to get by on low wages will be able to claim the state EITC due to state legislators’ decision to allow it to expire. Join us in a postcard campaign to tell state lawmakers to reinstate the state EITC. Lawmakers could choose to reinstate the EITC in the legislative session this summer and there would be no interruption in the ability of low-wage workers to receive the EITC. Email Amber at amber@ncjustice.org if you would like to participate in this campaign. You can also tell lawmakers to “Stop the Tax Shift” and reinstate the state EITC here.

DEFENDERS OF JUSTICE AWARDS: Announcing the 2014 Honorees

Mark your calendars!  This year’s Defenders of Justice (DOJ) Awards will be held on Tuesday, April 22, at the William and Ida Friday Center in Chapel Hill.

We are pleased to announce an incredible slate of honorees for this year.

  • Legislative & Administrative Advocacy
    Congressman G.K. Butterfield voiced strong support for unemployment benefits for laid off workers, expansion of Medicaid to cover more uninsured families, and held numerous town halls for citizens to learn about the Affordable Care Act.
     
  • Policy Research & Advocacy
    Planned Parenthood in North Carolina mobilized and led a coalition of groups and individuals fighting for reproductive justice for women bringing constant attention to the reproductive rights debate in our state.
    League of Women Voters – Piedmont Triad organized its members and the public in fights for voting rights, campaign finance reform, and immigration reform among many other issues, and they championed a campaign for health care access through the Affordable Care Act.
    League of Women Voters – Charlotte-Mecklenburg, much like their counterparts in the Triad, also focused tremendous attention and advocacy around the changes in the state’s tax structure and state budget, fighting for progressive tax reform and investments in the state’s future.
     
  • Litigation
    Mona Lisa Wallace, partner in the Salisbury law firm of Wallace and Graham, has long fought against predatory lenders and payday loan operators who have trapped low and middle class families in unscrupulous loans. She has been a leading litigator fighting for workers who have been harmed by unsafe workplaces.
     
  • Grassroots Empowerment
    NC Moms Rising taps into the power of mothers who feel underrepresented and disempowered by providing presentations about issues such as how education cuts will harm our children, and what rights mothers have in the workplace.
    NC Raise Up is leading efforts for a living wage for fast food workers in the state and bringing attention to the struggles they have to make ends meet, while noting that the government must often provide them with benefits because of their low wages and poor working conditions.

Stay tuned for more details on the Defenders of Justice Awards over the next few months.

TAX AVOIDANCE: Multiple NC profitable companies are paying no taxes

Several companies headquartered in North Carolina top the list of profitable corporations that are paying little or no federal income taxes.

A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy finds that 111 of 288 highly profitable Fortune 500 companies paid no federal corporate income tax in at least one of the last five years, while one-third paid a U.S. tax rate less than 10 percent, including 26 that paid nothing at all.

Several North Carolina-based companies have paid no income tax, had tax rates under 3 percent, or are sheltering large portions of their profits from taxation in the U.S.

  • Duke Energy, which earned $9 billion in profits over the last five years, not only paid no income tax but also received a rebate of $300 million from the federal government.
  • International Paper made almost $3 billion in profits over the past year, but paid $74 million in taxes—effectively a tax rate of just 2.6 percent. Most middle-class families pay almost one-third of their income in personal taxes, yet this profitable corporation paid just over 2 percent.
  • Merck represents another type of corporate tax avoidance: the ability to keep profits earned in the U.S. and abroad in offshore bank accounts, in turn sheltering large portions of their profits from U.S. taxation. The company made $20.3 billion in profits over the last five years, while paying just $3.5 billion in taxes. They stashed another $22 billion in offshore accounts that escaped taxation altogether.

At a time when federal corporate tax revenues are at historic lows, now is not the time to keep giving special tax breaks to the largest, most profitable corporations in the world. Closing these loopholes doesn’t punish companies for success; it simply asks them to play by the same rules everyone else does and pay their fair share in supporting the public investments that made their success possible. These investments trained their workforce, supported their research and development, kept their plants secure from violence and fire, and provided the transportation networks that ship their goods to market.

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