Monday, December 16, 2013

Rucho: I won't apologize for saying truth

What's worse for a public official: Tweeting something incredibly inane or standing by it after having time to think about it?

State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, was on WBT radio this afternoon, defending his tweet from Sunday in which he declared: "Justice Robert's pen & Obamacare has done more damage to the USA then the swords of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined."

Offensive? No, Rucho says. It's just that the "socialist elites" -- meaning the 99 percent of people who think that tweet is over the top -- "are just misrepresenting the facts."

WBT host Erik Spanberg asked Rucho if he could understand why a tweet comparing health care legislation to the deaths of millions of innocents would be offensive. "Nowhere in my tweet does it say that," Rucho responded. "The comparisons are being made by people who want to take away from the message." People "are just misrepresenting the facts on that one."

"There's no way I'm going to apologize for saying the truth," Rucho said.

Spanberg asked Rucho why he would try to convey such a message within Twitter's 140-character limit instead of through, say, an op-ed in the newspaper.

"I've tried op-ed pieces before with the Charlotte Observer and they were rejected," Rucho said. "... Under the circumstances, that was not an avenue."

For the record, we have run several op-eds from Rucho over the years, and know of only one that he has offered that we've not published in the past year. We invited him today to send us one defending or explaining his tweet. No reply so far.

-- Taylor Batten

Note: An earlier version of this blogpost said Rucho hadn't offered the Observer any op-eds in the past year. He did offer one in August.

Enabling the offensive Bob Rucho

Sen. Bob Rucho's tweet about Nazis and terrorists was beyond offensive, and not just because it had three grammatical errors in one sentence.

The Republican from Matthews demonstrated that he has lost all touch with reality. He tweeted it at 7:41 a.m. on Sunday, so it's unlikely that he was under the influence of anything other than far-right delusional thinking.

Saying that Obamacare -- or any legislation passed by Congress, whatever you think of it -- is worse than the killings of millions of innocent people shows utter disrespect for the victims of the Holocaust, 9/11 and other tragedies. Did Rucho consider for a moment the feelings of their descendants? Obamacare is unpopular and appropriate fodder for debate. But labeling it as worse than some of the worst atrocities in world history shows a complete lack  of perspective.

Many of us have said -- or tweeted -- things we later regret. Not Rucho. He defended his comments with this:

But of course, that is precisely why Rucho's tweet deserves condemnation. Words and ideas are powerful, they do matter. Because the pen is mightier than the sword, one of the leading Republicans in the state should be immensely more careful with his pen.

Tweeting vitriol isn't a new thing for Rucho. Last week, he dismissed his critics as "liberal weenies," not exactly the level of discourse you'd want from a Senate leader.

So do Rucho's Republican colleagues -- and Republican voters -- endorse him? Rucho is not some forgotten back-bencher; he is the co-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, chairman of the Redistricting Committee and chairman of three other joint legislative committees. If Senate leader Phil Berger leaves him in these positions, it is a tacit endorsement of Rucho and his ideas.

Rucho represents a district that's exceedingly safe for Republicans. It's highly unlikely he could lose next November. If Republicans let him run unopposed in the May primary, that will speak volumes about what they stand for and about what kind of people they want running the state.

-- Taylor Batten

Friday, December 13, 2013

Cancel 2014 congressional elections?

Then-Gov. Bev Perdue stepped in it in 2011 when she suggested (jokingly or not) that the 2012 congressional elections should be cancelled so Congress could focus on economic recovery instead of campaigning for re-election.

But if the 2014 congressional elections were cancelled, it would barely change a thing. Elections expert Charlie Cook is out with his new ratings of U.S. House races. They suggest that, as usual, there's very little to be decided, and even less in North Carolina than some other states.

All 435 House seats are up for reelection. Of those, 362 are locks for either the Democrat or the Republican. Thirty more are practically locks, very likely to go to the dominant party in those districts.

That leaves 43 seats that are at all competitive, the Cook Political Report says, and 30 of those lean one way or the other. Just 13 are true toss ups in Cook's estimation. None of the 13 is in the Carolinas and only one of the 43 is -- Rep. Mike McIntyre's N.C. District 7 seat, which leans safe to him.

In other words, here we sit, nearly a year before 20 seats in Congress from the Carolinas will be decided, and a fifth-grader could accurately predict how all 20 will go. It's the result of gerrymandering, clever mapmaking in which politicians pick their voters rather than voters picking their politicians.  

Is this really the best way to pick the leaders of the leading republic on earth? Of course not. It's time for North Carolina and other states to follow Iowa's lead by having the maps drawn by bureaucrats forbidden from considering the political implications.

-- Taylor Batten

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Vouchers: Unconstitutional, or just a bad idea?

Diverting public money to private schools is a bad idea. But is it unconstitutional? There is a difference.

More than two dozen parents, teachers  and advocates filed suit Wednesday against the "opportunity scholarships" the legislature created this year. Those provide $4,200 scholarships to low-income students to attend private school beginning next fall.

Burton Craige, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, cites the language in Article IX, Section 6 of the N.C. Constitution referring to public money being used "exclusively" for public schools. "We're going to ask (the court) to declare that 'exclusively' means exclusively," Craige said in the (Raleigh) News & Observer.

But let's look at the full passage that Craige is referring to. Here it is:

"The proceeds of all lands that have been or hereafter may be granted by the United States to this State, and not otherwise appropriated by this State or the United States; all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to the State for purposes of public education; the net proceeds of all sales of the swamp lands belonging to the State; and all other grants, gifts, and devises that have been or hereafter may be made to the State, and not otherwise appropriated by the State or by the terms of the grant, gift or devise, shall be paid into the State Treasury and, together with so much of the revenue of the State as may be set apart for that purpose, shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools."

That appears quite different from saying public money must be used exclusively for public schools and not private ones. The section refers to that money "belonging to the State for purposes of public education" and money "as may be set apart for that purpose." That seems to say that money intended for public schools must go to public schools; it doesn't necessarily prohibit other money from going to private school vouchers.

These vouchers are bad public policy, as plaintiff Mike Ward, a former state schools superintendent, argues. They shift millions of dollars that the public schools need. There's little accountability. It's not at all clear that they are effective in closing the achievement gap.

And they may be unconstitutional in some way. But the context of Article IX, Section 6, suggests any unconstitutionality will have to hinge on more than the word "exclusively." 

-- Taylor Batten

'Whining coming from losers'

Concern about North Carolina's dismal teacher pay, low per-pupil spending and the lack of Medicaid expansion? "Whining coming from losers," says House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Politico today runs a 2,200-word assessment of North Carolina's upcoming U.S. Senate race. Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat, faces the winner from a field of at least five Republicans next November.

Tillis is considered the establishment favorite. And he's unapologetic about his record leading the state House.

"I think for the most part, what I see from the folks who are opposing our agenda is whining coming from losers," Tillis told Politico. "They lost, they don't like it, and they are going to try to do everything they can to, I think, cast doubt on things that I think are wise and that the average citizen when they know what we're doing, I think, like it."

Politico's Manu Raju correctly portrays the race as one that will pit frustration with President Obama and especially Obamacare's shortcomings against anger at the very conservative path the legislature has followed over the past two years. It's a theme I've written about a couple of times this year, most recently in this column from November. Hagan voted for Obamacare and says she would again, even as she has been delivering rhetoric about fixing it lately.

Polls show that Hagan's once-comfortable lead over the Republican field has vanished and the race is now dead even. Hagan's seat is one of the most competitive in the nation in 2014, and it's one of several in which Democrats in red or purple states are trying to distance themselves from Obama.

Hagan, though, hopes that any stain from Obama is outweighed by the unpopularity of the Tea Party and the policies of North Carolina's Republican legislature.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory have indicated that they will try to address teacher pay in the short legislative session that begins in May, in the middle of election season. That may be just one area where Republicans try to soften their image with middle-of-the-road voters. "I think we've learned from some of the policy decisions, and we'll make adjustments," Tillis told Politico.

Two new Gallup polls out today demonstrate why Hagan and her Republican challenger each have hope. On the Republicans' side: Congress's approval is an at all-time low. It hit 9 percent in November and averaged 14 percent for the full year. That's the lowest annual average in Gallup's history and doesn't help Hagan. On Hagan's side? Gallup finds that a majority of Americans now disapprove of the Tea Party. The all-important moderate voters disapprove 54-34. More than a third of conservatives, even, say they disapprove. That will help Hagan if a Tea Party candidate wins the primary, or if she successfully portrays Tillis as one.

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Edgy jokes flow at Good Fellows luncheon

Some 1,400 men gathered at the Charlotte Convention Center today for the annual Good Fellows luncheon. Besides their main cause - raising $350,000 or more in one hour to help the needy - the Good Fellows lunch is known for the jokes civic leaders tell based on current events.

We got the feeling that some of the edgiest one-liners were left on the cutting-room floor. But a handful of good ones survived. Here are some of the best, told by Gov. Pat McCrory, developer Johnny Harris and other city leaders, paraphrased a bit:

  • "Hey Johnny," the Republican McCrory says, "do you know how to get to Raleigh?" "Yeah," Harris responds. "You take I-85 to I-40 and when you get to Raleigh you take a hard right."
  • The town is abuzz with the return of the Charlotte Hornets name and colors next NBA season, but don't get too excited, Harris says, "because we all know, Shinn happens."
  • What do you get when you cross Andy Dulin, Ruth Samuelson and Bob Rucho? Two out, one to go.
  • What do you get when you cross John Edwards and Cam Newton? Someone who knows how to make a pass.
  • The city is considering putting movie studios at Eastland Mall. "Which tells you that 'Homeland' isn't the only Hollywood fantasy taking place in Charlotte."
Harris, who is believed to be one of the unidentified "businessmen" behind the move to strip Charlotte of its airport, was coy about where he stands on the issue. Developer Peter Pappas asked Harris what he thought of the effort.

"Some of my friends are for it, and some of my friends are against it," Harris said. "And what about you?" Pappas pressed. "I'm 100 percent behind my friends," Harris replied.

-- Taylor Batten  

Mandela and Jesse Helms: Heavenly meeting?

The Greensboro News & Record's Doug Clark asks a provocative question in his Wednesday column:

"If Nelson Mandela approached Jesse Helms in heaven and extended his hand in friendship, would Helms accept it?"

North Carolina's long-time U.S. senator was well-known for his animosity toward the civil rights movement and anti-black and anti-gay statements over the years, and he came down on the side of the oppressive apartheid system during Mandela's long imprisonment. So good question.

Notes Clark's column: "The Republican senator from North Carolina fought against U.S. economic sanctions on the apartheid South African regime in 1985 and 1986. He also refused to support American demands for Mandela’s release from prison.

"Helms branded Mandela a communist and warned that if the white government in South Africa was replaced by African National Congress rule, Soviet control was the next step.

"The senator apparently didn’t soften his view even after Mandela’s election as president in 1994. When the South African visited Congress, Helms reportedly turned his back.

So would Jesse Helms accept a hand of friendship if he and Mandela wound up in heaven and faced each other? Clark thinks so - and provides an assessment of Helms that critics won't agree with. Read the rest of his article on the News & Record's website.

Speaking of Mandela, Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who snapped that photo of President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking a "selfie" of themselves on a mobile phone at Mandela's memorial service Tuesday didn't consider it a faux pas nor that it was a big deal.

In a blog post Wednesday, he noted: "I captured the scene reflexively. All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader. It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed – I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not. We are in Africa."

He said when Thorning-Schmidt pulled out her phone for the shot, "I thought the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium. For me, the behaviour of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural. I see nothing to complain about...It was interesting to see politicians in a human light because usually when we see them it is in such a controlled environment. Maybe this would not be such an issue if we, as the press, would have more access to dignitaries and be able to show they are human as the rest of us. I confess too that it makes me a little sad we are so obsessed with day-to-day trivialities, instead of things of true importance."

As for Michelle Obama's reaction, Schmidt said "In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, [British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt] included.... Her stern look was captured by chance."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

How 'bout a hotline to report distracted drivers?

Texting while driving is illegal in North Carolina. But that law is hard to enforce, and our neighbors in South Carolina are considering taking things much further. Greenville might become the first city in South Carolina to ban all use of cell phones while driving.

The city had considered banning only texting, but the police chief says that would be hard to enforce because drivers could say they were doing something else on their phones and proving otherwise would get expensive. Banning all hand-held devices would make enforcement much easier.

"If it's in their hand and we can see them doing something, it's easy for us to enforce," Police Chief Terri Wilfong said, according to the Greenville News.

There's a law on the books in North Carolina (as there are in 40 other states), but it means little. Charlotte-area drivers see it everyday: Drivers drifting out of their lane while staring at their phone.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says South Carolina is one of only two states (Montana is the other) with no distracted-driving law. A dozen states outlaw all use of phones while driving, as Greenville is considering.

The NHTSA says 3,318 people were killed in crashes caused by distracted driving last year. The group says "at any given moment during daylight hours, over 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone."

North Carolina bans any cell phone use while driving only for school bus drivers and drivers under age 18. The rest of us are free to stare at our maps and call our friends.

Some day, legislators will treat distracted drivers more like drunk drivers. Until then, we should all resist the urge, and put the phone down. And would it be too much to ask for a hotline we could call to report other distracted drivers? We'd pull over before calling it, we swear.

-- Taylor Batten


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Young people abandoning Obama?

A recent Harvard poll is getting a lot of buzz. It shows one of the staples of President Barack Obama's election wins - young people - might be abandoning him. That could mean bad news for the Democratic Party in the future.
Among the key findings of The Harvard University Institute of Politics poll, conducted in October and November, were:
- 52 percent of young people 18-24 and 40 percent of young people 25-29 would recall President Obama if they could; 19 percent of those who voted for Obama in 2012 would recall him; 58 percent of young whites, 35 percent of young Hispanics and 21 percent of young blacks would as well.
- Among 18-29 year-olds without insurance only a third said they would enroll in the Affordable Care Act exchanges; 41 percent were split on whether they would.
- 57 percent said they disapproved of Obamacare
-  55 percent said their health care coverage would get better or stay the same under Obamacare; 40 percent said it would get worse.

The poll though had some interesting twists for Democrats and Obama.
- Among millenials, 83 percent said they would still vote for Obama today if they could recast their vote; 91 percent of Mitt Romney millenial supporters said they'd stick with the Republican nominee.
- Sixty-nine percent of the 18-29 year-olds favor people making over $1 million paying at least 30 percent in income taxes over other options including raising the Social Security retirement age.

Congress did not fare well in the poll either.

- A majority (52 percent) of 18- to 29- year olds would choose to recall all members of Congress if it were possible, 45 percent would recall their member of Congress (45 percent would not). That's about the same split as it was for Obama among all millenials (47 percent recall, 46 percent not recall). 
- And though Obama's job approval rating dropped to 41 percent, he still did better than Democrats and Republicans in Congress whose approval ratings dropped to 35 percent and 19 percent respectively among millenials.

“The reasons for the current lack of support among Millennials for the Affordable Care Act are 
many, and few are surprising given the trends that our polling has revealed for the better part of 
the last four years,” said Harvard Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe. “Young 
Americans hold the president, Congress and the federal government in less esteem almost by the 
day, and the levels of engagement they are having in politics are also on the decline.”

The survey interviewed 2,089 millenials.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

UNC scandal update: A whimper, not a bang

It's possible that in 2011, when Julius Nyang'oro created yet another summer class that UNC-Chapel Hill students didn't need to attend for academic credit, he had his eye on a $12,000 paycheck for little to no work.

It's also possible that Nyang'oro, the African Studies chairman, saw that $12,000 as a make-up of sorts for the many no-show classes he created and didn't take payment for in previous years, as UNC records show. 

It's possible, too, that Nyang'oro created the class with the knowledge and encouragement of athletic department officials. Shortly after "AFAM 280: Blacks in America" was created, it was filled with UNC football players, who took up 18 of the 19 spots.

But unfortunately, it's become probable that while we have a clear understanding of the scope of these no-show classes through the years at UNC, we won't get much closer to learning who and what might have been behind them. For those who hoped that the courts would provide illumination that the university couldn't or wouldn't provide about its academic scandal, this week's grand jury indictment of Nyang'oro is a disappointment.

The News & Observer's Dan Kane reports today that Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall apparently didn't pursue the bigger  questions surrounding the no-show classes. Woodall told Kane that his investigation focused on crimes alleged - specifically Nyang'oro taking money for a class he didn't teach - rather than the cause of the academic fraud. Woodall also said that he didn't see any further investigation justifying the additional time and expense.

All of which leaves us pretty much where we were earlier this year after the university spent $940,000 on a flimsy investigation, led by former N.C. Gov. Jim Martin, who didn't manage to talk to Nyang'oro and other key figures before concluding that UNC's academic fraud didn't involve the athletic department.

That conclusion seemed to ignore Kane's reporting on emails showing a curious relationship between Nyang'oro and members of the school's academic support staff, who offered him football tickets, sideline access and drinks. Martin, and an investigative team from the Baker Tilly law firm, inexplicably didn't get around to including those emails in their report. Martin didn't even bother addressing the issue of athletes disproportionately attending the no-show classes.

There's still a possibility that Nyang'oro will fight the felony indictment - he's charged with obtaining property by false pretenses - and in doing so shed some light on the hows and whys. But the low-level felony typically results only in probation - and those likely aren't stakes worth Nyang'oro possibly implicating himself in a wider academic/athletic conspiracy.

It's possible, of course, that there was no wider conspiracy. But Martin's investigation was too incomplete to offer that conclusion, and Woodall wasn't inclined to take his investigation there. That's perfectly fine with UNC officials, who have been eager from the start to move on from the scandal. It's looking like that's the only direction left to go.

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The nation's worst big city for walking

Charlotte lands first on another national ranking: Least walkable big city in America.

A national rating system called Walk Score ranked nearly 3,000 cities in the U.S., Canada and Australia on walkability. Of the 74 U.S. cities with populations of 250,000 or more, Charlotte ranked 74th - dead last. That put the Queen City behind such walker-unfriendly cities as Jacksonville, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Some individual neighborhoods earned high scores for walkability. They are, not surprisingly, mostly in or close to uptown: The best scores went to neighborhoods inside the I-277 loop and to Dilworth and Cherry. Most suburban neighborhoods, the survey found, require a car for almost all errands. Providence Plantation, for example, scored a 6 on a scale of 0 to 100. (The full rankings can be found here.)

This does not come as a surprise to anyone who lives here. But we might forget sometimes just how unusually car-dependent we are in Charlotte. Other cities, both bigger and smaller, have developed in a way that make it easier to walk to restaurants, shops and other amenities.

Former Observer associate editor Mary Newsom, an expert in urban planning who is now at UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, reports that these aren't just another in the endless lists of rankings. This is one the city of Charlotte tracks and in which it wants to improve. Newsom has a smart take on these rankings, the methodology, how Charlotte got this way and the challenges of undoing it, over at the PlanCharlotte blog.

-- Taylor Batten

Secrecy around Harry Jones' replacement

The secrecy around the hiring of Mecklenburg County's next manager could soon reach a new high -- or low.

First, county commissioners blocked certain commissioners from knowing anything about the candidates seeking to replace the ousted Harry Jones. Now, commissioners won't commit to inviting the public in on the conversation, even after the field has been cut to three or so finalists.

They should. Mecklenburg's manager fills one of the most important roles in this community, overseeing about 4,000 employees and a budget of well over $1 billion. The manager works for the commissioners and ultimately the public, and his or her decisions and recommendations have a big effect on residents, from property taxes to school funding.

Exposing the candidates to the public is good for the public, the county and the finalists. The process prompts a thorough digging into the candidates' backgrounds and records, while giving the ultimate winner a valuable take on the pulse of the community.

The Observer's David Perlmutt reported Tuesday that the full board met with the county's search firm in closed session, apparently to talk about three to five finalists. It would be the first time the full board had seen the search committee's slate of finalists.

Commissioners will now winnow the field further. Before they cut the field to less than three, those candidates should meet the public. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board arranged such meetings before hiring Heath Morrison as superintendent, and the City Council did so before hiring Ron Carlee as city manager. In both cases, those public meetings were enlightening.

The county's human resources director, Chris Peek, says the board hasn't decided whether to invite the public to meetings to get to know the finalists.

"That could take more time," Peek said. "The city and school board had a number of forums with the community invited to meet the top two or three candidates in the same room. The board has not decided what they want that process to look like."

Here's what it should look like: Inclusive. Open. Responsive to the public.

-- Taylor Batten

Read more here:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

N.C. Poll: Fund education before giving tax cuts

A poll released today shows what teachers and other education supporters - including the Observer's editorial board - has been shouting all year long: N.C. residents don't like cutting funding for public schools even if the savings are passed along to taxapyers in the form of a tax cut.

Sixty-eight percent of the respondents to a Public  Policy Polling survey taken during Nov. 8-11 said they opposed such shorting of education spending to cut taxes. And that view was shared across party or ideological lines. Eighty-four percent of people calling themselves somewhat liberal and 68 percent calling themselves very liberal opposed such cuts. Fifty-six percent  of those dubbing themselves as somewhat conservative and 51 percent of those dubbing themselves very conservative opposed the cuts. Eighty percent of moderates opposed cuts to education. 

By party, 77 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans opposed such school cuts; just 14 percent of Dems and 25 percent in the GOP supported the cuts. 

Just 19 percent of all respondents supported that idea of cutting public school funding, and the numbers were even low for conservatives - 24 percent for those somewhat conservative and 31 percent for those very conservative.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who along with the N.C. legislature has been criticized and protested against by dissatisfied teachers and education supporters, may have already gotten the message. The legislature passed a budget and new tax plan that cut taxes and slashed funding for public schools by millions. The budget gave teachers no pay raise, took away teacher assistants and raised class sizes. In recent days, McCrory has been on the stump publicly saying his administration is looking at options to increase pay for teachers.

He and N.C. lawmakers might want to take note of some other things the 701 likely voters in the state had to say in this poll. The majority - 62 percent - said they think an educated and well-trained workforce is more important to attracting businesses to locate and invest in the state than low corporate income tax rates.

Alex Sirota, head of the Budget & Tax Center that commissioned the poll, said it "highlights that when presented with the real trade-offs, the majority of North Carolinians favor investing in public education and building a quality workforce that can compete for good-paying jobs rather than cutting taxes."

North Carolinians rightly recognize that the biggest bang for the buck the state can get is through support for and boosting investments in education. The poll underscores that N.C. taxpayers are more than willing to put their money toward that cause. As lawmakers get ready for the short legislative session, they should keep that in mind and make adjustments accordingly.

 - Fannie Flono

Read more here:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Arne Duncan: Sorry for 'White suburban moms' remark

This is not helping the cause.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, not known for his timidity, defended the Common Core state standards to a gathering of state school superintendents last week by attacking a previously unknown enemy: suburban moms.

Duncan, speaking in Richmond on Friday, told the superintendents that he found it "fascinating" that the opposition to Common Core included "white suburban moms who - all of a sudden - their child isn't as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were."


Update: 4:39 p.m.: Duncan apologized to CNN moments ago. "My wording, my phrasing, was a little clumsy, and I apologize for that," he said. That came after a day in which media coverage and backlash over the remarks intensified. According the Associated Press: "American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said Duncan "really doesn't get it." Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, tweeted that Duncan "should be fired for dismissing #CommonCore critics as just white suburban moms with dumb kids."

Some quick background: The Common Core standards have been going through a bit of a rough patch lately. After officials in 48 states agreed on developing consistent, demanding math and reading standards for their students, a few states have hit the pause button, and others are wondering if they should back off their commitment.

Adding to the vulnerability: Several states, including North Carolina, are unveiling their first batch of results on standardized testing linked to the Core. The results have been jarring everywhere. In North Carolina, only 34 percent of eighth graders are proficient in math, with only 41 percent meeting reading standards.

The scores also revealed an achievement gap even starker than most imagined, with stunningly small percentages of low-income students scoring well across the country. Middle- and high-income students also are experiencing a drop in scores - albeit smaller. As you might expect, no one is happy to be surprised with a poor test score, especially when you thought your child and his/her school was doing just fine.

So there's a grain of truth in what Duncan said. He just didn't need to say it so acidly.

Duncan and Common Core's advocates already have to deal with opposition from conservatives who despise everything that the Obama administration touches. He has to fight the silly claims about a federal takeover of education, and the sillier claims about the Core being a vehicle for feds to collect data on students and their families.   

Some teachers also are unhappy with the lack of preparation and training they've been given in transitioning their classrooms to the new standards. But most threatening, perhaps, is the budding argument that the Core is just another education fad - and one that adds more testing to already burdened classrooms.

That's the kind of argument that suburban moms - and dads - can latch onto. The argument they need to hear is that the low scores they might be seeing are ultimately a good thing. They're showing how much better our schools need to be.

Duncan said that, too, on Friday. And he acknowledged that parents have been rattled. "You've bet your house and where you live and everything on 'My child's going to be prepared.' That can be a punch in the gut."

Yes. They didn't need a verbal kick in the teeth, too.

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A reminder from Billy Graham's brother-in-law

Billy Graham's 95th birthday celebration last week grabbed attention not only because it was a landmark in a legend's life but also because of the conservative personalities it attracted. The Observer's Peter St. Onge wrote a column calling it a "Fox News gala" and said: "Fox News and its combative agenda seems not to fit with the traditionally open arms of Billy Graham's message. Or does it?"

Now, Graham's brother-in-law, the Rev. Leighton Ford of Charlotte, has written a meditation for Graham's 95th birthday that reflects on the totality of Graham's life by emphasizing the centrality of Jesus Christ and the cross to Graham's ministry.

The gate to God's kingdom, Ford wants us to remember, is open to all people -- "liberal, conservative ... straight or otherwise ... Sarah P and Nancy P."

A Meditation for his 95th birthday, by Leighton Ford.
The cross!
The cross!
the young preacher cried
to the vast crowds
in the football stadiums of the world.
The cross!
the old man says in his husky voice
sitting next to his dog
on the porch of his log house,
gazing with faded eyes at the blue ridged hills.
The cross!
Above his chair in the kitchen
a small cloth banner … a reminder:
“God forbid that I should glory,
save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
But why?
Why glory in the cross?
Didn’t Jesus on the cross ask “Why?”
I think I know my brother-in-law
well enough to know
why the cross matters to him so
that after these ninety-five years
he makes it his last word.
He knows how much he himself needs grace.
When he meets the Lord
he’s not going to puff his chest, stick out his hand
and say, “ I’m Billy Graham, your chief envoy.”
Knowing him he’ll be prostrate, on his face,
Saying “Thank You for your mercy,
for choosing me, a sinner.
But it’s not as if he thinks of the cross only as a ticket to heaven.
He knows that coming to the Cross costs nothing, and everything.
How many times I’ve heard him quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“When Christ calls a man, he calls him to die.”
And Jesus: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
He knows that the Cross offers both free grace
And a call to die daily to self-glory.
Billy is a preacher, not a poet,
but I think he’d agree with a poet who writes,
“I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross
when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness,
cries out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’”
  (Christian Wiman)
I have seen him gaze with longing at the picture of
his departed and beloved Ruth, wince at the pain
that runs through his jaw and down his leg.
At the Washington Cathedral after 9/11 he said,
“I don’t know why God allowed this. It’s a mystery.”
But he knows that on the cross God was saying
 “I am with you, not beyond you, in suffering.”
There’s more. A Chinese scholar once told me,
“When Billy Graham came to China
he came not with a closed fist, but an open hand.”
That’s because he knows there’s a paradox in the cross
(though he might not call it that).
The cross is both the narrowest gate
and the widest welcome to new life.
The narrowest, for Jesus said, “I am the door, the way.”
The widest because he also said,
“Whoever comes to me I will not turn away.”
That gate is open to all who seek God’s grace
   and are willing to receive it,
   people of every kind and condition –
liberal, conservative
Tea Party, Occupier
Straight or otherwise
Republican, Democrat, Libertarian
Sarah P and Nancy P
Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, or “none”
All kinds of sinners and seekers.
In the cross of Christ God throws open the gate of new life and says,
“Welcome. There’s room in my house for you. Come in.
And you’ll be changed into what I created you to be
 – a human fully redeemed.”
We can hang a cross round our neck,
gaze at it on a steeple,
but it is far more than an icon.
The cross tells us that life itself, creation itself
is cross-shaped, cruciformed,
the hope of  healing for a broken world.
The cross!
Billy has preached the cross,
He also has lived it, or, better
lived by it,
Leighton Ford
November 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Poll: Obama gets thumbs down all over

The rollout of the Affordable Care Act and President Obama's infamous vow that if you if you like the health care plan you've got you can keep it has turned Obama into George Bush.

Not literally of course. But a new national poll released Tuesday has Obama's approval ratings falling "to the level of former President George W. Bush at the same period of his Presidency," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

And Obama doesn't have two wars to blame.

Said the Qunnipiac poll: American voters disapprove 54 - 39 percent of the job Obama is doing, his lowest approval rating in any Quinnipiac University national poll since he became president. Even women disapprove 51 - 40 percent.

Disapproval is 58 – 37 percent among men, 91 – 6 percent among Republicans and 63 – 30 percent among independent voters. Democrats approve 79 – 14 percent. White voters disapprove 62 – 32 percent while black voters approve 75 – 15 percent and Hispanic voters disapprove by a slim 47 – 41 percent margin. 

A hilarious Saturday Night Live skit a couple of weeks ago featuring actress Kerry Washington had black support for Obama at 93 percent - and that was a drop. But this poll shows more cracks in black support than pundits - or comedians - have taken note of. Fifty-seven percent were dissatisfied with the direction of the country.

The Quinnipiac poll shows voters in every income and age group disapprove of the job Obama is doing, with the biggest disapproval, 59 – 36 percent, among voters over 65 years old. 

As critical for Obama, for the first time the majority of voters don't think the president is honest: American voters say 52 - 44 percent that Obama is not honest and trustworthy. His previous lowest marks on honesty were May 30, when 49 percent of voters said he was honest and 47 percent said he wasn't.

Obama's dumpster ratings can be tracked mostly to the health care law, which is unpopular with people of all ideological stripes. Many liberals though didn't think the law went far enough and preferred a single-payer plan while most conservatives don't want the law and have worked for its repeal. 

This poll shows Americans divided 46-47 percent on whether the president "knowingly deceived" the public when he said people could keep their existing health care plans if they wished.
Voters also support 73-20 percent extending the March 31, 2014 deadline for signing up for coverage without fixing penalty.

The poll didn't ask whether the law should be changed to honor the pledge to let people keep the insurance plans they liked that insurance companies cancelled because they did not meet the basics of the Affordable Care Act - something Obama hinted at on a recent TV appearance and that former President Bill Clinton and others are now urging. Whether Congress - even though politicians on both sides of the aisle say the support the change - would approve it is an open question. Bipartisan efforts tend to die in the GOP-dominated House.

A Weekly Standard piece, "Why It's Not Too Late for the Keep Your Health Care Plan Act" does provide some insights into what could happen. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

And Patrick Cannon's opponent in 2015 is...

In April, we released our inaugural Mayoral Power Rankings immediately after Anthony Foxx announced he would not seek a third term. It was a Top 10 list of candidates we thought had the best shot to be Charlotte's 56th mayor.

Now-mayor-elect Patrick Cannon debuted at No. 4 on the list. Republican Edwin Peacock, then No. 2, was ahead of him only because Peacock had declared he was in the race and Cannon hadn't. State Sen. Dan Clodfelter was No. 1 and state Rep. Becky Carney was No. 3. Neither ran. Cannon leaped over Peacock to No. 1 in our rankings as soon as he announced.

With Cannon being sworn in Dec. 2, is it too early for a little fun speculation about 2015? Never! If Cannon has a successful term, it's hard to imagine he wouldn't win reelection, perhaps several times. And if he stumbles?

He could face a primary challenge from a fellow Democrat. But who will represent Republicans on the November ballot?

Here are our inaugural Republican rankings for 2015. They come with the usual caveats: These are not endorsements. They will change over time. They are just an early peek at who might have a chance.

Who did we leave out? Who should be ranked higher or lower? Comment below.

The GOP rankings:

1. John Lassiter. After licking the wounds from his loss to Foxx in 2009, might he jump back in? We doubt it, but he'd have a decent shot if he did.

2. Pat Mumford. Former City Council member has been out of the limelight for a while, but he has the moderate stripes and likability that will be required.

3. Ruth Samuelson. She will have left her House seat and might have the itch to jump back in the fray. Legislative record could hurt her in blue Charlotte.

4. Edwin Peacock. Two years is a long time in politics. If Cannon trips in office, voters could want a rematch.

5. Kenny Smith. Maybe the new District 6 council member makes a splash in his first term. But he might be too conservative and too new to the scene to pull off a mayor's race in 2015.

Tied for a distant 6th: Andy Dulin, Rob Bryan, Scott Stone, Ric Killian and Dan Bishop. (This post originally mentioned Bob Rucho and Jim Pendergraph, but they doesn't live within the city limits.)

Want a wild card? School board member Eric Davis. We doubt he'll stay on the school board for life. But would he run as a Democrat, a Republican or an independent?

-- Taylor Batten

Another factor hurting Charlotte Republicans

Jim Morrill and Gavin Off, in their Observer story and map this morning, showed the clear demographic changes that are hurting Edwin Peacock and other Republicans in Charlotte. Now Greg Weeks, the chairman of UNC Charlotte's political science department, makes an important addition to that analysis.

Weeks, who writes a Latin American politics blog, points out that the rising number of Hispanics in Charlotte will make local elections even more difficult for Republicans because Latinos tend to vote Democratic. He includes this map, which shows Hispanic births in 2009 were spread throughout Mecklenburg County, and were a significant part of the population growth in much of the city. (The darkest red reflects areas where Hispanic births were a quarter or more of the total.)

Weeks acknowledges that these kids won't be of voting age for another 14 years. But many of their parents are already citizens, and non-citizens, Weeks says, "will slowly naturalize, faster if immigration reform with some sort of amnesty with path of citizenship is passed."

Hispanics do not vote in huge numbers in Charlotte yet, but the numbers will continue to grow.

I wrote a column in Saturday's Observer that noted that non-Hispanic whites became a minority in Mecklenburg County last year. "You can embrace it or you can be terrified by it, but you can't deny it," I said. "Thanks to immigration and birth rates, our already-diverse community will become an increasingly multi-colored quilt."

Weeks is teaching the same thing to his students: "As I keep repeating to my class," he says on his blog, "it doesn't matter if you like or dislike this. It's just the way things are, and demographic shifts are going to have major political impacts."

-- Taylor Batten

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Justices: Devil-worshipers OK with prayer?

So, the Supreme Court takes on whether government meetings can begin with a prayer and the justices' questioning Wednesday devolves into consideration of "devil worshiping." No kidding.

And the question came from the court's staunchest conservatives, Antonin Scalia.

Bryan Resnick of the National Journal captured the give-and-take with Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religion at the University of Virginia, who said that prayers could be allowed if they were not sectarian. 

The case the high court is hearing centers around a small N.Y. town that begins its monthly meetings with a Christian prayer. The suit was brought by residents who say having only Christian prayers is a government endorsement of such prayers and that's wrong.

On Wednesday, the justices queried Laycock about whether there could be one prayer that different kinds of worshipers would find unoffensive. That led down the rabbit hole of talk about - devil worshipers.

Some of the dialogue drew laughs:

JUSTICE SAMUEL ALITO: All right. Give me an example. Give me an example of a prayer that would be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. Give me an example of a prayer. Wiccans, Baha'i.
JUSTICE SCALIA: And atheists. Throw in atheists, too.
MR. LAYCOCK: Well, some religions that believe in more than one god believe that all their many gods are manifestations of the one god. But the true polytheists I think are also excluded from the McCreary dissent.
JUSTICE SCALIA: What about devil worshippers?
MR. LAYCOCK: Well, if devil worshippers believe the devil is the almighty, they might be OK. But they're probably out —
Of course, this really isn't a laughing matter. How the Supreme Court rules will affect how many towns and cities begin their government meetings. A federal injunction has blocked Rowan County  here in North Carolina from beginning its board of county commissioners' meetings with one specific prayer. The ACLU though says the case before the Supreme Court is different from the case against Rowan County. The high court case, they say, involves clergy delivering prayers at governmental meetings and the Rowan case involves elected officials themselves delivering prayers.
Still, many eyes are on the Supreme Court this week for guidance. The justices seemed to have a difficult time with the question according to Adam Liptak of the New York Times.
Earlier, in a rare alliance, President Obama’s Justice Department and congressional lawmakers — nearly all Republicans — filed legal briefs  asking the court to rule in favor of prayer at government meetings.
The answer will be interesting - coming from a group, the Supreme Court, that begins its sessions an invocation to God.