Testing Culture: A Community Conversation

This past weekend, I enjoyed attending a program that brought together educators and community leaders from across NC to discuss the use of standardized tests in our public schools. We were fortunate to have Dr. Diane Ravitch, Founder and President of the Network for Public Education, to participate in this conference by video link. While she was instrumental in establishing the No Child Left Behind program, she came to realize how standardized testing has resulted in teachers here in NC and across the United States focusing their teaching and their attention to helping kids to achieve high scores on standardized tests as opposed to using tests or their equivalents to diagnose student performance. One statistic that I discovered this weekend was that here in NC, during a student’s time in elementary school, a student will spend the equivalent of a full school year testing and preparing for tests.

It’s important that each child’s potential should be assessed, and the student’s progress measured in a constructive means that provides feedback to students, teachers, and families. Historically, teachers have been able to use their own tests to evaluate student performance, however, today, many teachers no longer have that option. Since they must prepare their students only for the information on a standardized test as opposed to using other means to diagnose the strengths or weaknesses of a student to help that student reach his or her highest potential. In my opinion, we need to come up with alternative means to evaluate students and to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses. I would also like to see teachers assist students in developing analytical skills as well as skills that will help them to become writers. I’d much rather see students explain their thoughts in an essay or short answer question as opposed to simply choosing the best of 4 multiple choice answers. I’d like to thank Dr. Jen Mangrum, the NC Families for School Testing Reform, and the other groups that collaborated to host this informative conference.

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2019 Rise & Shine Breakfast

This past week, I enjoyed attending the 2019 Rise & Shine Breakfast sponsored by Partners for Youth Opportunity. This organization is committed to helping approximately 125 Durham High school and college-aged youth in Durham pursue their educational and vocational goals. They run a wonderful mentoring program, in addition, they assist students in obtaining internships and even preparing applications for colleges. They’ve done a great job in inspiring the youth in our community and encouraging them to live up to their fullest potential. This program was established in 2012 when Susan McCraw and Julie Wells began the program with 20 students living in the West End Community in Durham. I am so very proud of all they have accomplished in shaping the views, visions, and aspirations of the lives of the students that have been a part of their program. I wish them continued success.

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An Evening with Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee

I recently had the privilege of meeting Chief Richard Sneed of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. He was joined by members of the Tribal Council. I was very impressed by the Chief, but more importantly, by the extraordinary work which the council has done in providing for a better future for those that are a part of their tribe. As a result of revenues generated from Harrah’s Casino, which is situated on the reservation, the council in recent years was able to build a new $80 million-dollar hospital as well as other public facilities. In addition, members of the tribe receive payments that average about $12,000 per year which has greatly improved the standard of living for many living on or near the reservation. It’s great to see these Native Americans charting a positive course for the next generation to follow in opening up pathways of opportunity and hope.

Durham Public Schools’ Legislative Breakfast

I recently had the pleasure of meeting with the Superintendent of Durham Public Schools, Dr. Pascal Mubenga, and members of the Durham County Board of Education to discuss their legislative priorities for this long session year. Among their priorities is returning school calendar control to local Boards of Education, increasing teacher and principal pay to assist them in recruiting and retaining top talent in our classrooms, restoring teacher assistant positions to their pre-recession levels, providing sufficient funding for school nurses, school psychologists, social workers, and guidance counselors, and obtaining authority to allow Durham to construct affordable housing for Durham Public School Teachers. I would like to thank the Superintendent and members of the school board for their commitment to excellence in Durham Public Schools and for creating an environment where all of our students can excel.

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The Sanford School of Public Policy Visits Governor Roy Cooper

This past week, I joined the faculty as well as alumni of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University for a special reception hosted at the Governor’s Mansion where Governor Roy Cooper provided aspiring remarks. It was great to see Dean Judith Kelley as well as distinguished alumni of the school who I have worked with including Lee Roberts, who was the State’s Budget Director under Gov. Pat McCrory, as well as Kristin Walker, who is currently serving as Governor Roy Cooper’s Deputy Budget Director. I’ve known and worked with Kristin for more than a dozen years, and she is a first-class professional who I deeply admire and respect. Over the last two years, I have also had the pleasure of teaching a course at the Sanford School of Public Policy and several of my students attended this reception. My Duke Law School classmate, Mac McCorkle, also participated in this event, and it was great to see him as always.

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Affordable Housing Challenges Facing North Carolina

This past week, I had the privilege of speaking to a breakout group relating to Affordable Housing that was part of the Emerging Issue Forum in Raleigh. The issue of affordable housing is broad and expansive, and, in addressing this issue, you have to begin at a starting point of asking “what is the definition of affordable housing?”

Currently, there are many people who spend a substantial percentage of their income simply to pay for housing. Nationally, it has been agreed that if you spend more than 30% of your budget on housing, then you’re considered to be “cost-burdened.” For example, in Durham County, 47% of renters and 23% of homeowners are considered to be cost-burdened, however, in Halifax County, 51% of renters and 29% of homeowners are considered to be cost-burdened. On average, 30-37% of North Carolinians are cost-burdened each month when you take into account renters and homeowners.

Housing has a profound impact on all policy sectors. It is a primary social determinant of health. For example, students who live in safe, stable, affordable housing have better educational outcomes and higher educational attainment. Additionally, quality housing stabilizes communities, reduces crime, and improves health outcomes for its residents. For every 8 NC families in need of affordable housing, there is only 1 affordable home available.

The North Carolina Housing Trust Fund is the state’s most flexible tool for addressing housing needs in our state. The trust fund last year was appropriated $7.66 million dollars; however, its funding has been cut 60% since 2007. In addition, the WorkForce Housing Loan Program was created in 2015 to replace the state’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit which was eliminated when the state underwent tax reform. The Workforce Housing Loan Program currently receives a $20 million-dollar appropriation; however, this is approximately one half the value of the tax credit at the time it was eliminated. There is an incredible number of projects that would benefit from tax credits that could result in increasing the supply of affordable rental housing for those who make 60-80% of an area’s median income. Unfortunately, there is more demand than there are tax credits available to support these projects. These are some of the facts and statistics which I shared during my presentation. I realize this may not be of interest to many of you, however, it is another one of the important issues that I and others must undertake in addressing the critical issues facing North Carolina.

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Moms Demand Action Making a Difference

I would like to thank Moms Demand Action for hosting an event yesterday evening on the eve of the anniversary of the horrific Parkwood School shooting in Florida. This event brought together a variety of groups and organizations that support common-sense firearm regulations. Those groups included Moms Rising, North Carolinians Against Gun Violence, and Be Smart. In addition, members of Durham’s City Council, Durham’s County Commissioners, as well as a representative from the Durham City Police Department and the new Sheriff Clarence Birkhead attended this event in addition to members of Durham’s Legislative Delegation. I provided an update on legislation which I am currently drafting that relates to gun reform in addition to legislation that will increase the number of school psychologists and school counselors in NC’s public schools. I’d like to thank Moms Demand Action for their advocacy. Before the Parkland Shooting, this group had eight chapters in our state. Today, the number of chapters has grown to 22. This organization is making a difference, and they are to be commended.

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NC State AFL-CIO’s Annual Banquet

I’d like to thank members of the North Carolina AFL-CIO who visited my Senate Office yesterday in support of their legislative agenda. I would also like to congratulate Rep. Susan Fisher who received the Legislator of the Year Award during last night’s banquet for the organization. Last year, Rep. Fisher and I both filed bills that would increase the minimum wage here in NC to $15 an hour, which is one of the issues this organization has championed. I would also like to commend Ms. Mary B. MacMillan, who is the President of this organization, for her exceptional leadership on their behalf. It was great seeing Mary B. as well as Jim Andrews, who is the former President of this organization, whom I have known and worked with for close to four decades.

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Feed the Need Gala 2019

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Feed the Need Gala at the Washington Duke Inn in Durham. Proceeds from this event will be used to support the Meals on Wheels program which provides and delivers over 500 meals per day to those in need in Durham County. I’d like to commend Gale Adland who serves as Executive Director of this program for her leadership which has led to the remarkable success of Durham’s Meals on Wheels program. During the event, a special attraction was a person known as the Poetry Fox. This person who was dressed in a fox costume would literally type a poem if a person provided him with a one-word theme that would be used as a basis for the poem. I have been many places and seen many things, however, the Poetry Fox was a delightful and entertaining feature of this special celebration.

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A Black History Month Commemoration at UNC’s Law School

I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Law School as part of their Black History Month commemoration event. I was invited by a group known as the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), however, the speech was well attended by a racially diverse group of students as well as faculty. It is quite ironic being invited to speak by this group since my father, Floyd B. McKissick Sr., filed a lawsuit known as McKissick vs Carmichael which resulted in the racial integration of UNC’s Law School and our state’s entire public university system in 1951. My dad was represented in this landmark case that was decided by the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit by Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American Judge on the United States Supreme Court. I enjoyed providing historical perspective to these students of the laws which were a part of this state’s and our country’s history even prior to the abolition of slavery. I also provided context of the gains made during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s as well as the challenges which face us as a state and as a country moving forward. I’d like to thank Erica Bluford for an early invitation extended to speak at this event. I wish each of these students success in the years ahead.