NC JUSTICE NEWS: Wake School Board Open Meetings + MH/DD/SA services + Early Education Funding

May 18, 2010

PUBLIC EDUCATION: Judge Finds School Board Acted Unreasonably

A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled that the Wake County School Board acted unreasonably in preventing some members of the public from attending and participating in key meetings of the board concerning proposed changes in the district's school assignment policy. The ruling came down in a lawsuit filed by a group of parents, students and citizens who were excluded from a March board meeting. The plaintiffs were represented by the Justice Center, the ACLU of NC Legal Foundation, the North Carolina NAACP, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the UNC Center for Civil Rights, and multiple private lawyers.

Despite this favorable finding, Judge William Pittman found that the open-meetings violations are unlikely to be repeated, thanks to changes in the board made to its procedures in response to the lawsuit and public outcry. The court denied plaintiffs' request for court intervention regarding the highlighted problems, and gave the board the benefit of the doubt that it will fulfill its promises to make sure future meetings are open to the public.

Despite the outcome of the lawsuit, it was important for the community to stand up and say the board's actions were wrong. While all those involved hope this will be the beginning of a healthier and fairer relationship between the school board and the citizens of Wake County, the plaintiffs and the agencies that represented them will be carefully monitoring future board meetings to ensure that the court's and the plaintiffs' concerns are addressed.

PUBLIC EDUCATION: A Win for Special-Needs Students

Wake County students did get a win last week via the state Department of Public Instruction. DPI ordered the school district to create an alternative program for students on long-term suspensions who were being educated at home. State investigators found the district violated state and federal law by failing to provide an appropriate education for long-term suspended students with special needs.

Wake County's alternative high school used to provide students with on-campus and on-line classes, but the on-campus offerings were eliminated due to budget cuts. DPI found that on-line classes are not adequate to serve students with special needs, whose educational rights are protected by state and federal law.

HUMAN NEEDS: Protecting Services for the Developmental Disabled

In the state budget, services for people with mental health issues, substance abuse problems and developmental disabilities are all handled under the same department, known by the acronym MH/DD/SA.

As you probably remember, news reports over the past year have highlighted the great problems with the state's mental health system, including significant cost overruns. So the state is planning to expand a new program called Managed Care Waivers statewide. The goal of this system is to control services and, therefore, costs.

Families of those with developmental disabilities are scared, and advocates for fighting the move. The problem is that while people with mental health and substance abuse issues need medical help and may improve to a point where they no longer need services, that is not the case for those with developmental disabilities. Developmental disability services is a long-term support model, not a medical one, and decreasing services for a family that is "doing well" could put them into a state of crisis. In addition, DD services have not experienced the cost overruns that MH and SA have.

EARLY EDUCATION: Up to 2000 More At Four Slots in Jeopardy

The Senate Appropriations education sub-committee released its budget yesterday, and it included a funding reduction of $10 million for North Carolina's nationally lauded pre-kindergarten program, More At Four. While some of the cut may be absorbed in administrative savings, up to 2000 slots in program for at-risk children may be lost.

In a presentation at Duke University in late-March, Nobel economist and University of Chicago professor, James Heckman concluded that, "The optimal policy towards disadvantaged children is to invest much more than we currently do in the early years of childhood."

Important cognitive (i.e. reasoning) and non-cognitive skills such as motivation and application are learned early in life as the brain matures. Research shows that economically disadvantaged children who receive a quality pre-kindergarten education are significantly less likely to commit a crime, be arrested, to have been unemployed for more than two years or have ever been on welfare by age 40. At age 27 those having that quality pre-K education earn significantly more than those who do not.

In short, investing in the education of young children saves money that would be spent later on justice, corrections and other programs and boosts future tax receipts and workforce productivity. In tough economic times with tight budgets, efficiency and high returns are to be prized. As legislators consider adjustments to the 2009-2011 state budget, they would do well to consider the wisdom that Heckman and the best social scientists have to offer on how to improve the productivity and wealth of North Carolina. Before considering more tax breaks for corporations or ill-conceived highway projects in the name of economic development, legislators should aim to prioritize spending on early childhood.

HEALTH CARE: Court Upholds "Certificate of Need" Law

Earlier this month, the NC Court of Appeals upheld an important principle of North Carolina health care law. The state's "certificate of need" law is in large part meant to ensure that health facilities aren’t only located in the wealthy and populous areas of the state. After all, when left to the free market, why would anyone build a facility in a poor rural area where there’s little money to be made? Some health providers challenged the law, but Court of Appeals rejected their arguments, saying, "The General Assembly’s desire to ensure that citizens have affordable access to necessary health care is a legitimate goal, and it is a reasonable belief that this goal would be achieved by allowing approval of new institutional health services only when a need for such services had been determined."

This is a small but critical part of health reform, which is why the Justice Center filed a brief with the court in the case supporting just such a result. As health reform is implemented and more rural North Carolinians get health insurance, it will be interesting to see whether the economic incentives for building health facilities change.

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