Even though the Legislature is not in session, we’re still busy at work in Raleigh on numerous study committees, which are meeting during the interim and will make recommendations for legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. I’m serving on several interim standing and study committees including the Environmental Review Commission, the Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change, the House Select Study Committee on Capital Punishment, the Joint Legislative Commission on Land and Water Conservation, and the House Select Committee on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Topics being studied by other committees include high school graduation and drop out rates, school construction needs, the rising cost of health care and increasing access to affordable care, landfills, Internet predators, and issues related to senior citizens and aging. Below is an update on several recent committee meetings.
Ø The House Select Committee on High School Graduation and Drop-Out Rates has held several meetings in Raleigh, with plans for meetings around the state, as it studies ways to ensure students receive a quality education and graduate. The committee is looking at the benefit of raising the current compulsory attendance age above 16 years old, the effectiveness of high school reform efforts in recent years, effective education programs in other states, and the economic, social, and criminal impact on a student’s life if they drop out of school.
Education Week Magazine recently cited a national study showing North Carolina’s high school graduation rate at 66 percent. Among African American males it is 49 percent and Hispanic males graduate only 47 percent. North Carolina is ranked 45th in the nation in the percent of ninth graders who graduate four years later, with only 41 percent entering college and 19 percent graduating with an associate or bachelor degree within six years. Our state’s dropout rate also has a tremendous impact on our economy and society. A high school dropout in 2000 had less than a 50 percent chance of getting a job. That figure drops to 25 percent for African-American students. The dropout’s job will earn less than half of what the same job earned 20 years ago. Wages are increasing only for those with at least a college education, and a lack of education is increasingly correlated with incarceration and a dependence on welfare.
Governor Easley and legislators have created several new programs in recent years aimed at increasing high school graduation rates and encouraging more students to attend college. The Learn and Earn early college high schools initiative provides high school students the opportunity to graduate in five years with a high school diploma and an associate’s degree or two years of college credit. North Carolina launched the New Schools Project to assist in the creation of small, economic development-themed high schools across the state. The smaller high schools focus on growing economies and job sectors by offering classes in health care, computer technology, biotechnology, and engineering based on a student’s interests and possible future career.
Ø The House Select Committee on Public School Construction is studying ways the state and counties can build the schools needed to accommodate tens of thousands of new students each year. North Carolina will need to spend close to $10 billion over the next five years on school renovations, new buildings and furniture. The $2,372,013 from lottery proceeds recently allocated to Guilford County for school construction will supplement local school construction funds.
The legislative panel, as well as other organizations across the state, has held several recent meetings to discuss possible options for financing school construction projects, bond referendums, public-private partnerships, lottery funds, and the possible use of alternative facilities, such as empty buildings like grocery stores, for schools. Since 2000, the rate of enrollment in the state’s high schools has increased three times faster than in elementary and middle school, but experts expect the trend to change in the next five years. Elementary enrollment in the next five years is expected to grow twice as much as middle schools and eight times larger than high schools, according to a state survey. According to a recent facility needs survey, North Carolina has more than 7,000 mobile units and temporary classrooms, which act as classrooms for about 178,000 students.
Ø The Joint Select Committee on Environmental Justice, a panel created to evaluate the impact of present and future landfills on minorities and the poor, recently heard testimony regarding a study on the location of landfills across our state. Adjusting for population density, the report found solid-waste facilities were twice as likely to be located in a community where more than 10 percent of residents were minorities. The odds of a community having a landfill were 40 percent higher in an area with average home values less than $100,000 compared with more than $100,000. However, since 1990, landfills were permitted less often in low-wealth housing areas without landfills.
The Select Committee on Environmental Justice was created by legislation passed this summer, which I pushed for, that placed a one-year moratorium on permitting new landfills in North Carolina. The ban, which took effect August 1, delays development of at least four proposed mega dumps that would expand the state’s narrowing landfill capacity. The panel is expected to recommend early next year how to ensure that human health concerns and citizen equity are protected when landfills are considered. The Environmental Review Commission, on which I sit, is examining how to improve rules on permitting landfills.
Please be in touch if you have questions or comments.