How Much Student Testing Is Too Much?

How Much Student Testing Is Too Much?

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If it’s springtime, it must be standardized testing time in schools across the country.

It’s also when the debate over whether students are inundated with too many tests becomes hot.

Experts say testing is up. Parents who want their children to skip the tests say their ranks are growing. Lawmakers say they’re hearing a loud message about too much unnecessary testing.

The Common Core, a set of tougher classroom standards adopted by more than 40 states, has further inflamed the critics.

But new legislation might change the school testing landscape.

Congress will debate education this spring as lawmakers attempt to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the law spelling out the federal role in public education. Passed in 2002, it mandated annual testing and attached severe consequences for schools whose test scores didn’t show enough progress.

A bipartisan agreement in the Senate on its update of the education bill might reduce the pressure to test. It gives states, not Washington, the job of ensuring that schools are doing good work and deciding what to do about those that aren’t.

The legislation “should produce fewer and more appropriate tests,” according to Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

That’s still down the road. What’s new this year is that for the first time most states are using new computer-based tests that require more critical thinking.

What’s not are the complaints. Some parents worry that schools base their lesson plans on what the tests focus on. Poor test-takers are at a disadvantage. Critics say too much money is spent on testing. The consequences of failure can mean closed schools, lost jobs, and an impact on student progress.

“We need fewer, better, and fairer assessments,” Susie Morrison, chief education officer and deputy superintendent at the Illinois State Board of Education, said at a recent meeting of state school officials in Washington.

Parents deserve to know how their children are doing, she said. Tests also are needed to help reduce the large numbers of students who graduate from high school but need remedial classes before college.

But not all tests are equally valuable, she said: “Some assessments used by local districts can and should go away, in our opinion.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who wants to maintain the federal role of holding schools accountable for student growth through annual tests, nonetheless has said that students, parents, and teachers have a legitimate complaint where there’s too much testing or test preparation.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were required to show “adequate yearly progress” or face outside intervention, which could result in school takeovers.

Waivers from the law’s requirements under the Obama administration came with conditions that schools base teacher evaluations partly on test scores.

“There’s always been a group of parents that don’t like testing,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education research center. “I think the reason it’s been brought to a rapid boil lately is because of these teacher evaluations.”

Tests that states require to measure progress in math and reading cover about 20 percent of teachers, Petrilli said. Many states have standardized tests in other subjects so that all teachers can be evaluated by the results.

“It’s not just the assessments that they actually take as part of the state assessment program, it’s the constant benchmarking and practice tests that take up a significant amount of students’ time,” said Scott Placek, president of the Texas Parents’ Educational Rights Network, a coalition of parents and attorneys that supports parents who don’t want their children to take the tests.

In North Carolina, the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee recommended ways to alleviate what it called the testing burden on the district level. It also found that the state had reduced the number of required end-of-course tests from ten to three in the past five years and had eliminated other state-required assessments.

Texas and Virginia passed laws that reduced the number of state-required tests.

In Florida, Rosemarie Jensen of Parkland, one of the national administrators of the United Opt Out movement, a group that opposes “test-centric educational practices,” said she’d seen big growth in the last year in the number of parents nationwide who’d been organizing in opposition to the tests and keeping their children from taking them.

In Florida, such groups have grown from a few to 26 this year. A map by Jensen’s group pinpoints parents who report they’ve refused to let their children take the tests. It shows them scattered nationwide.

“This is not a valid way to measure an entire child,” said Jensen, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher who’s the mother of two high school students. “None of this has anything to do with better education. This is about a lot of money being made on these tests, and on using the tests to grade schools and turn them over to charters and firing teachers and impacting their pay.”

In her own family, Jensen said, her son, a ninth-grader, is a good student but a poor test-taker. Her daughter, a senior, does well on tests.

“Her test scores can mask some not-so-good teachers,” she said. “My son’s make his teachers look bad, and they work so hard with him. That’s not fair.”

Debbie Veney, vice president of government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an advocacy group that focuses on students of color and those from low-income families, said too many tests were redundant, not aligned to standards, or just not useful.

“However, are tests necessary? Absolutely,” she said. “We believe it’s not enough to simply see what performance levels are. You’ve got to be able to do something when performance levels aren’t where they need to be.”

Stu Silberman, a former school superintendent who’s executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit group of advocates in Kentucky, said school districts must find a balance so that they could be accountable to the public without testing too much.

Silberman said he was a big believer in the informal tests teachers used all the time to see how students were doing, such as quizzes. These kinds of checks give teachers the clues they need to plan their lessons, he said.

But when tests get too formal, and too frequent, he said, “then it starts to feel like we’re doing too much.”

Photo: NCinDC via Flickr

Comic Book Is Rep. John Lewis’ Civil Rights-Era Teaching Tool

Comic Book Is Rep. John Lewis’ Civil Rights-Era Teaching Tool

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — March: Book Two, the second installment of the comic book version of Rep. John Lewis’ odyssey during the civil rights movement, takes readers inside the days when he and his fellow nonviolent protesters faced a rising wave of violent attacks.

The 74-year-old Democratic congressman from Georgia said that when he turned the pages, it brought that historic era, from 1961 to 1963, when he was in his early 20s, right back: the beatings, bus bombing, dogs and fire hoses loosed on children.

“The drama of what happened, how it happened; it’s so moving to me and so powerful, and for me to look at some of the drawings, it almost makes me cry,” he said in an interview.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s father used to give his son preaching advice — ” ‘Make it plain, son, make it plain,'” Lewis said. “And I think March: Book Two makes it plain and makes it possible for the young to understand, to feel it.”

Lewis’ latest account of that turbulent era comes amid renewed attention due to the film Selma, based on the civil right supporters’ famous and bloody efforts in 1965 to march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital in Montgomery to seek equal voting rights. During the first attempt, Lewis was clubbed in the head, which the film depicts.

The best-selling March: Book One takes the first-person story of Lewis from his boyhood on his parents’ sharecropper farm in Alabama to his embrace of nonviolent resistance and lunch counter sit-ins.

Book Two picks up in the fall of 1960, as the movement’s early gains lead to escalating brutal resistance. It covers the Freedom Rides and ends with the 1963 March on Washington — Lewis was one of six organizers and is the only one still living — and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four young girls.

Lewis, first elected to Congress in 1986, worked on the books with co-author Andrew Aydin, a legislative aide, and artist Nate Powell.

Hundreds of schools in 40 states have used the first March book. Aydin and Lewis know because they keep a tally of the places where they’ve heard from students and teachers. Georgia State, Marquette and Michigan State universities use the book in freshman reading programs.

It helps fill a gap, Aydin said.

“Unfortunately, the civil rights movement is barely taught at all,” he said. “And there’s virtually no education for the nonviolent philosophy or civil disobedience.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, in a 2011 report, “Teaching the Movement,” found that 16 states didn’t require instruction about the movement, and in 19 others coverage was minimal, while most states failed to teach that era well.

Lewis and Aydin have been visiting schools and universities around the country.

After a grand jury decided not to indict the white police officer who shot and killed unarmed black youth Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year, students in Louisiana created an organization modeled on the national student movement Lewis led, because they’d read about it in his first book installment, Aydin said.

He said he thought the book helped young people organizing for social change put their struggles in context.

“They could all benefit about understanding how nonviolent protests succeeded in the past in pressuring political leaders to act,” Aydin said.

The March books don’t varnish anything. Lewis nearly dies early in the latest installment when an angry restaurant owner who refuses to serve Lewis’ colleagues and him locks them in the restaurant and turns on a fumigator.

Aydin got the idea for the book in 2008, when he worked as Lewis’ press secretary for his re-election campaign. One day staffers were talking about what beach they’d hit after the election. Aydin said he’d go to a comic convention. People laughed.

“Don’t laugh,” Lewis put in. He told them that a comic book in the 1950s, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, had inspired him when he was 17, growing up 50 miles from Montgomery.

Aydin asked Lewis why didn’t he write a comic book now.

“Asking an icon, a sitting congressman, to write a comic book. It was preposterous,” Aydin said. “But it was still a good idea.”

Both books flash-forward at times to 2009, when Lewis attended President Barack Obama’s first inauguration. Aydin said he was there working for Lewis that day, watching a moment in history that his boss and many others had helped make possible.

More needs to be done to shine a light on that era, he thought, and the comic book might be the way to do it.

Incoming Senate Intelligence Chief Plans ‘Real Time’ Scrutiny Of CIA

Incoming Senate Intelligence Chief Plans ‘Real Time’ Scrutiny Of CIA

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr says he plans a new approach to keeping close tabs on the nation’s spy agencies when he becomes chairman of the Senate committee that’s charged with making sure the intelligence community operates within the law.

“We’re going to focus on real time oversight, so nobody can ever say again that they forgot or they weren’t briefed or they didn’t know,” Burr said. “Because we’re going to be intense with every (intelligence) agency. What they did over the past six to eight weeks. What they plan to do over the next six to eight. We’re getting inside their metrics that they use.”

Burr’s comment was a veiled criticism of Democratic lawmakers, who said they didn’t know the details of the CIA’s abuse of detainees before they commissioned the report, which was five years in the making, even though the agency said it briefed them. The committee, still under the leadership of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, released a summary of the CIA torture report on Tuesday. Burr takes the gavel from Feinstein in January.

The 59-year-old Burr, who has background in business, has been a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence since 2007. Before he was elected to the Senate in 2004, he served for five terms in the House of Representatives and was a member of the chamber’s Intelligence panel. But now he will join the “gang of eight,” the elite group that gets special briefings on the most highly classified matters. It is made up of the chairman and minority party vice chairman of the House and Senate Intelligence panels, plus the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.

“It’s easy to get lured into thinking you’re part of the intelligence community instead of a watchdog,” said Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office. “The whole country really relies on these Intelligence committee members, especially the chairmen, as a watchdog. If they don’t do the job, agencies could be out of control.”

Joseph Wippl, a former CIA officer in the National Clandestine Service and the agency’s former director of Congressional Affairs, said he thought Burr’s approach to oversight was a good idea.

“The advantage of real time oversight is that the Congress knows what the intelligence community is doing and assisting it any way that it can to achieve the results, and also to say, ‘Excuse me, guys. That’s not going to work,'” said Wippl, director of Graduate Studies at the Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.

The committee, he added, “can also be a little bit of a conscience.”

Burr steps in as leader at a time when its members have been publicly divided over the CIA torture report, a legally and morally troubling account prepared by Democratic members and staff that revealed a gruesome history of agency efforts to squeeze terrorist suspects for information. Like most Republicans on the committee, Burr said it was full of errors and was political in nature.

The two-term senator voted in April to release the summary of the torture report to the Obama administration for redaction and release, even though he said at the time that it was flawed and biased. He said he wanted to “give the American people the opportunity to make their own judgments.”

Burr also takes over at a time when tension is high between the CIA and its congressional overseers as a result of the CIA’s intrusion into computers that the Senate Intelligence Committee used to compile the torture report.

He said on Tuesday that he doesn’t plan to hold hearings on it. Burr also doesn’t expect that partisan differences over the report will undo the committee’s bipartisan nature. Since it meets almost entirely in secret, members don’t necessarily feel compelled to toe a party line.

“I think the committee will be fine,” Burr said in a short interview at the Capitol on Tuesday. “This is a big split, but most of the differences have been shared for the last several years, not just today. The reality is we’ve got a mission in the committee. I think Dianne understands that, the members understand that. But we’re going to reiterate exactly what our oversight role is.”

Sen. James Risch (R-ID), a committee member, also said he thought bipartisanship would survive.

“The intelligence community, but for this particular issue, is one of the most bipartisan, nonpartisan things I do here,” he said.

“We’re truly bipartisan,” Feinstein said in an interview.

Burr faces re-election for a third six-year term in 2016. His work on the committee, even though mostly in secret, could give his views a bigger platform. He said he welcomes the watchdog role that is the committee’s mandate — vigilant legislative oversight to make sure that the intelligence agencies operate in accord with the Constitution and the law.

The chairman-in-waiting said he already had started to talk with intelligence officials to explain how the committee would operate next year.

“The more they share with us the better we can be,” he said. “And hopefully this will be a new relationship with the intelligence community.”

Burr has not promised greater transparency about that new relationship. In fact, he recently was quoted as saying, “I personally don’t believe that anything that goes on in the Intelligence committee should ever be discussed publicly.”

But Burr said last week said he wasn’t closing the door.

“I’ll have some open hearings,” he said. “We’re mandated to have one annual open hearing on global threats. But what I’ve said is any agency that feels like there’s an issue that one, they can talk about publicly, and two, they believe there’s an educational benefit to the American people, I’m more than happy to have an open hearing.”

Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, which works to reduce the scope of secrecy over national security, said congressional oversight of intelligence has been too weak.

Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance activities under the Patriot Act, which gave law enforcement broad tools to track down terrorists, raised a public outcry about the government going too far with its bulk collection of communications of Americans.

But the Intelligence committees “basically signed off on the programs that Snowden exposed,” Aftergood said.

“The good news is I don’t think (the Senate committee) could make it a lot more closed because it’s already about as closed as it could be,” Aftergood said. “But the bad news is that is not the right direction. The intelligence system needs public confidence, and the only way you can hope to win such confidence is through open discussion with the public.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Immigration May Be Factor In Close North Carolina Senate Race

Immigration May Be Factor In Close North Carolina Senate Race

By Renee Schoof and Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

WASHINGTON — The inability of Congress to solve the problem of how to keep immigration legal, orderly and economically productive is rattling through the U.S. Senate race in North Carolina.

It’s a key issue for several important North Carolina industries and institutions, and many backed a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill passed by the Senate last year, but left to wither in the House of Representatives. Among them: the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte, high-tech companies, universities and the North Carolina Farm Bureau.

But when it comes to which party controls the Senate, the marquee question of the midterm elections, politics can trump policy.

Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who is seeking a second six-year term, voted for the Senate bill. At the time, she said the it would secure the borders, boost the economy, decrease the deficit and improve the rules governing the issue.

Thom Tillis, her Republican opponent, said the bill would have provided legal status that amounts to “amnesty” for immigrants without documentation, and fail to tighten the borders. He contends that Congress should secure the border before it passes any new legislation that would spell out how to handle the estimated 11 million people now in the country illegally.

Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, hasn’t called for deporting them, but hasn’t said what the alternative should be, either.

His views would seem to put him at odds with a pro-business organization and powerful political player like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It supported the overhaul — which included an earned path to citizenship — “because America cannot compete and win in a global economy without attracting and retaining the world’s most talented and hardest workers.”

Moreover, chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue said in January that the group, which scores members of Congress on how they vote on its top policy priorities, would “pull out all the stops” to get an immigration bill through Congress.

Even so, in North Carolina, the chamber has so far spent $4.7 million to defeat Hagan and elect Tillis.

It’s a strategy the chamber has adopted in other states with equally competitive Senate contests that could determine party control. The group is spending money to help defeat Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Udall of Colorado, all of whom backed the immigration bill, as did every other Democrat in the chamber. Fourteen Senate Republicans also voted for it.

The chamber’s campaign spending shows its goal is to maintain the Republican majority in the House and help the GOP gain control in the Senate, and with it power over the committees and the voting schedule on the Senate floor.

“We are not a single-issue organization,” said chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes, noting that taxes, regulation and trade also are important issues to the group’s members.

Just as the chamber has been a traditional Republican ally, Latino voters have played a similar role for Democrats. A recent poll shows those who have decided favor Hagan by a large margin, but 45 percent were undecided, not necessarily a good sign for the Democratic incumbent.

Though Latinos only account for two percent of the North Carolina electorate, and fewer than 20 percent cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections, a close contest like North Carolina’s Senate race can turn on the smallest developments.

Two billboards, in Raleigh and Durham, went up recently that criticize Hagan for previous votes and claim that she’s no friend of immigrants. The billboards were supported with donations and backed by a coalition of Latino families.

They refer to votes in 2006, when Hagan was in the state Senate, for changes in the law that required a Social Security number to obtain a driver’s license. The measure passed and became law. She voted in 2010 on a procedural matter that killed the DREAM Act, a bill that provided legal status for children of immigrants without documentation who met certain criteria, such as graduation from high school and having no record of serious crimes.

However, the Senate immigration bill in 2013 that Hagan did support included the DREAM Act.

The Senate measure would have increased the number of Border Patrol agents to more than 38,000, added 700 miles of fence on the southern border with Mexico and created a pathway for citizenship for immigrants without documentation who met certain requirements, including paying a fine.

It additionally required a mandatory employment verification system and a system to record the exit of visa-holders at airports and sea ports.

The North Carolina Agribusiness Council thought the bill was a good compromise, but didn’t support it in the end because it felt the cap on temporary farm workers was too low, said Erica Peterson, the group’s executive vice president. Agriculture, the state’s largest industry, has a shortage of legal U.S. workers to plant, tend, harvest and process farm products, she said.

With Congress so divided and no prospects for immigration changes ahead, immigration advocates have expected President Barack Obama to provide temporary legal status for some of the nation’s undocumented immigrants. Tillis has said he would vote against any nominee to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder who did not agree to stop Obama from doing that.

Hagan has said that Obama should not take executive action on immigration, but leave the decision to Congress.
The Candidates on Immigration Policy

1. How should the nation resolve the issue of an estimated 11 million people here illegally?

Tillis: “The president and Senator Kay Hagan have failed on immigration policy and now the president says he’s going to act on his own after the election. I’m opposed to amnesty and any legislation or unilateral action by the president that would give amnesty to those who are here illegally. Sen. Hagan supported President Obama’s immigration bill, which provided amnesty to illegal immigrants and failed to secure our borders. Washington should prove its commitment to securing the border before we pass any other immigration reform. Congress does not even have the credibility to debate immigration reform until it proves it can secure the border. If Congress proves it can secure the border, I predict we will quickly achieve bipartisan consensus on improving our immigration system.”

Hagan: “These individuals should have to pass a criminal background check, pay fines and back taxes, learn English and go to the back of the line before they become eligible for temporary status.”

2. What do you think of e-verify, the Internet-based system that allows employers do determine if employees are eligible to work in the United States? Should Congress support it?

Tillis: “I support e-verify, which helps ensure that employers are not hiring illegal immigrants. While an e-verify system is necessary, we also need to make sure that it doesn’t inadvertently become an unnecessary regulatory burden on some industries.”

Hagan: “Yes. The bipartisan bill improved and updated the e-verify system that will help make sure everyone plays by the same rules.”

3. Should Congress fund a system that lets officials check in foreigners who enter and now if they overstay their visa?

Tillis: “It is imperative that we know who enters and leaves the United States, and an entry and exit system is a useful tool that can help keep our nation safe. President Obama and Senator Hagan have failed to ensure we know who is entering or exiting our country in order to keep us safe and secure. If a 12-year-old can enter across our border, surely a member of ISIS or someone wishing to do us harm can get across our border undetected. Having a secure border means having the ability to monitor border crossings by those who are not citizens.”

Hagan: “The bipartisan bill improved tracking of entry and exit to ensure that people who overstay their visas are not allowed to remain in the country. This is an important step to secure our border.”

4. Should the number of legal immigrants be reduced?

Tillis: “Not across the board. Legal immigration is a source of strength for our country as is respect for the rule of law. We are a nation of immigrants, and we shouldn’t hinder the legal immigration process, which would prevent law-abiding people from achieving their American Dream. But President Obama and Senator Hagan’s failure on illegal immigration is making it more difficult for those who want to come here legally.”

Hagan: “Our immigration system is in need of reform to make it more predictable, fairer, and more responsive to economic needs. We must also be working to ensure that our educational system is producing American graduates for the jobs that U.S. companies need to fill.”

Photo: Mr T in DC via Flickr

Turnout Will Be Crucial In Tightening North Carolina Senate Battle

Turnout Will Be Crucial In Tightening North Carolina Senate Battle

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Jordan DeLoatch, a Duke University senior from Cary, set out on a recent Saturday with a clipboard to knock on doors for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, ready to talk about whatever voters had on their minds.

Most people, if they’re home, are willing to open up, he’s found.

“People do care about the issues. This affects them every day,” said DeLoatch, a public policy major who also knocked on doors for President Barack Obama in 2012. “A lot of people are really supportive, and even people who are undecided — they’re all willing to listen.”

There’s no script.

“It’s about connecting with each voter,” he said. “It’s about getting them to care about the election.”

Volunteers for both Hagan and her Republican opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, hope to connect with enough voters to win. Some have been going door-to-door for months. Now those efforts are ramping up as early voting begins on Oct. 23 and the Nov. 4 election draws closer.

With the race tightening, both campaigns say turnout is the key. But what will work? North Carolinians are inundated with ads and mailers. You can mute the TV and toss the mail, but a friendly face on the doorstep is different, especially if it’s a local volunteer, a neighbor even.

Tillis, joined by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), visited several of his campaign’s field offices last weekend, where volunteers made calls and fanned out to knock on doors.

National Republicans and Democrats are using sophisticated databases to direct their volunteers to the people who already have indicated they’re supporters, or are at least leaning that way. Outside groups allied with them also are using data to target the voters they want to turn out.

Democrats claim an advantage, built on the success of Obama’s presidential campaigns. They say their big investment in voter turnout dwarfs what Republicans are doing. But Republicans this year say they also have developed the technology for effective canvassing.

What’s more, the hurdle for Democrats is higher. Republicans generally show more enthusiasm in midterm elections. A national Gallup Poll in September found 44 percent of Republican respondents were extremely motivated to vote, compared with 25 percent of Democrats.

And an Elon University poll in September found that 38 percent of Republicans said they have given “quite a lot” thought to the election, compared to 29 percent of Democrats.

That’s typical for a midterm election for the party that doesn’t control the presidency, said Kenneth Fernandez, director of the Elon University Poll. “Republicans are more angry than Democrats are enthused,” he said.

Hagan says turnout will make the difference for her. She has been going to her party’s 35 field offices around the state since August, encouraging her volunteers. A big team of young workers, meanwhile, works behind the scenes on logistics at the campaign’s headquarters in a Greensboro office park.

Neither side will detail its strategy, except to say they’re spending millions of dollars with thousands of volunteers to motivate their supporters. Democrats go out with clipboards, printouts of names and addresses to contact, and brochures. Volunteers enter the information into computer databases. Republicans door-knockers often have a mobile phone app that lets them punch in the data and send it directly.

“But at the end of the day, regardless of the tools being used, it’s people,” said William Allison, a spokesman for North Carolina Republicans. “The willingness to go out there and pound the pavement and talk to people; that’s what gets the job done. We’ve done a good job of that so far and we’re going to push ahead with that in the last few weeks.”

Republican field staffers started to set up their mobilization effort in the summer of 2013, the earliest they ever started in an election cycle. The party now operates more than a dozen offices. Other groups, operating independently of the campaigns, also are on the streets to get out the votes for their favored candidates.

The Congressional Black Caucus, Planned Parenthood’s political action fund and organized labor have all hit the streets to solicit support for Hagan, while Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that promotes small government has been countering their message.

The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), was in North Carolina earlier this month. She also plans to be part of a bus trip by members of the caucus who will be going to campuses and churches in North Carolina and five other states considered crucial to Democrats’ hopes of holding on to power.

Democrats want to identify voters who voted in the 2012 presidential election, but not in the 2010 midterms. Just a 1 percent increase in turnout among African-Americans could make the difference for Hagan, said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, vice chair of voter registration and participation for the Democratic National Committee.

Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund also had people going door to door, targeting supporters who typically don’t vote in midterms. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the group’s action fund, said women voters tended to tune out political ads, but they trusted Planned Parenthood, a health care provider in the state for many years.

“We’ve seen the issue of women’s health and equal pay; these are very motivating issues for women,” she said. “But we can’t count on them getting this information from traditional news sources.”

Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, has put canvassers in the Triad area, reaching as far as Raleigh, Salisbury and Winston-Salem. Matt Morrison, the group’s political director, said they’ve logged 4,000 conversation at doors in the state per week and plan to reach 50,000 people by the election. The goal, Morrison said, “is helping Kay Hagan win.”

Canvassers report that the top issue in North Carolina is education, followed by jobs and the economy and health care, he said.

Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, which has been funded by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, has been pushing its anti-Hagan message. AFP has not endorsed Tillis, but organized a “Call out Kay” series of rallies last month that echoed Tillis’ criticism that Hagan has supported many of Obama’s policies.

AFP canvassers are knocking on doors in Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro and Wilmington, attacking Hagan on the health care law, government spending and a proposal to reduce carbon pollution, which the group describes as a carbon tax. It was one of the first to target her, spending $8.3 million on ads against her early. It’s the biggest spender among outside groups.

The drive to get people to vote only works because Americans have become so partisan. Today there’s an overwhelming probability that people will vote with the party they identify with, said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University. But it was common in the 1960s and ’70s for as much as one-third of the members of each party to vote for the presidential candidate of the other, Rohde said.

“If you just focused on party and tried to turn somebody out, you couldn’t be sure they were going to vote for the candidate of the party,” he said. “It raised real mobilization difficulties.”

Photo: U.S. Senator Kay Hagan addresses a welcoming crowd and young campaign supporters at her campaign field office September 19, 2014 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Hagan was in Chapel Hill to rally her staffers and supporters from Orange and Durham counties to get out the vote against her opponent, NC House Speaker Thom Tillis in this November’s election. (Harry Lynch/News & Observer/MCT)

Senator Kay Hagan: High-Energy, Low-Key, And In The Political Spotlight

Senator Kay Hagan: High-Energy, Low-Key, And In The Political Spotlight

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Sen. Kay Hagan prefers stairs to elevators and escalators. She shoots down congressional corridors so fast she leaves attending staff members struggling to keep up.

The first-term North Carolina Democrat is known for being high-energy. On a typical Wednesday this summer, she was at the Capitol early for a closed Democratic strategy session, met with visiting constituents for her weekly Carolina Coffee, chaired a hearing of one of the two Senate subcommittees she leads and was briefed by policy experts on her staff — and that was only part of her schedule.

Every day is packed.

But Hagan hasn’t written a bill that has passed the Senate and House of Representatives and been signed into law by President Barack Obama. Bills she has written have become parts of bigger pieces of legislation that are now law. But no major law has her name attached as the primary author.

“Do-nothing Kay Hagan” is one of the criticisms of her by Thom Tillis, her Republican opponent in the Senate race, which looks to be very close. The outcome could be pivotal to which party controls the chamber starting in January.

“Kay Hagan has not authored a bill in six years that’s gone to the president’s desk,” Tillis, speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, said at their Sept. 3 debate. “We need somebody who’s going to commit to getting things done and get it done.”

Republicans and their supporters have also put the “do-nothing” label on other Democratic incumbents, such as Mark Begich of Alaska.

“You know,” Hagan said of Tillis, during a recent interview in Greensboro, “he has no idea how the Senate works, especially in these last six years that I’ve been in office.”

She said that in 2013, for example, she and Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, one of the Senate’s most conservative members, added an amendment to a budget bill to restore a program that pays tuition, one class at a time, for active-duty service members.

As a stand-alone bill, it could have languished. The amendment became law in two weeks.

“My role in the Senate is speaking on behalf of North Carolinians, being sure the policies we put forth in the Senate are beneficial, in particular to middle-class families,” Hagan said. “And like I’ve always said, I don’t care whose idea it is. If it’s good, let’s work together.”

Some of her bills have been folded into other legislation, as typically happens in Congress. Her America Works Act, which requires that operators of job-training centers prioritize skills that will lead to nationally recognized credentials that are in demand, was added to a bill that streamlines federal job training. It became law this past summer.

“Highly, highly intelligent, but never showy,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said of Hagan. “We’ve got a lot of people around here with sharp elbows that are constantly trying to get their mug in front of a camera. Kay doesn’t do that. She’s effective, but does it by being low-key.”

But partisan tensions have stymied the work of Congress, and Hagan has said it’s been a huge frustration.

“This has been an extraordinarily unproductive Congress, so it’s not difficult to attack somebody on that front,” said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a longtime observer of Congress. “Though it’s interesting that most of the people who are going after these senators for not enacting a lot of bills are the ones who don’t want to enact any bills. The whole theme of the (Republican) party is to repeal bills.”

Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., agreed that Hagan’s lack of legislation is “a symptom of a wider dysfunction that’s going on in the Senate.”

“Not a whole lot has been passed to begin with,” he said.

The Senate no longer has many moderates, a mantle Hagan claims. National Journal, a nonpartisan magazine about politics and policy, rated her as the most moderate senator last year.

Hagan, 61, has a background in business and politics. A graduate of the Wake Forest University School of Law, she worked at North Carolina National Bank (now Bank of America) in Greensboro. She was a county chair for Gov. Jim Hunt’s campaigns in 1992 and 1996, and then won a state Senate seat in 1998. She stayed through 2008, becoming chair of the powerful state Senate Appropriations Committee.

She set her sights higher in 2008, when she unseated Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

In her first term, she has followed a typical freshman path, keeping her head down, learning the job and raising money. In the tradition-bound chamber, committee chairmanships go to senators with longer standing, while freshmen can become subcommittee chairmen.

She meets frequently with Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) to work on issues of concern to North Carolina. They joined forces on a bill that became law in 2012 that provided health care to thousands of people who were poisoned by toxic water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. They recently jointly pressed for a cancer incidence study for people exposed to the Camp Lejeune water.

Burr supports Tillis, and his office didn’t respond to requests for his comments on Hagan. During the summer, the Associated Press quoted Burr as saying: “Look at the folks running for re-election. What have they done?” Of Hagan: “She’s got nothing. She’s not alone in that.”

Other Republicans, in keeping with Senate decorum, avoided politically charged remarks.

“She’s got a good business knowledge and I’ve enjoyed working with her,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. “I’m not going to get political in a contested race.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a fellow member of the Armed Services Committee, said Hagan had been “sort of mainstream on the committee. She’s been loyal to the president’s basic foreign-policy agenda. I think she believes in defense, and she’s a smart senator.”

Tillis, however, has accused Hagan of neglecting her committee duties. On Thursday, he criticized her for skipping 27 of 50 hearings of the Senate Armed Services Committee during the past two years. Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said Hagan often had conflicting hearings — a problem generally shared by every senator — while committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said she had one of the best attendance records.

As chairman of the Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the Armed Services panel, Hagan held three closed subcommittee hearings on al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria, as the Islamic State was formerly known. Most of its hearings on counterterrorism policy and cybersecurity threats have been closed to the public because the material is classified.

Hagan also chairs the Subcommittee on Children and Families, part of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She’s held hearings on financial literacy, human trafficking, online efforts by adoptive parents to find new homes for their children, newborn screening and family leave.

Hagan “looks for common ground,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat and friend.

One liberal group finds Hagan too tepid, at least on environmental issues. NextGen Climate PAC has spent $22 million on behalf of Senate Democrats in other states, including New Hampshire and Colorado, but has no ads in North Carolina to support her.

Founded by investor Tom Steyer, the group calls for politicians to work toward solutions for climate change. Hagan has said it’s an urgent problem, but she also supports the continued search for more fossil fuels.

Hagan has shown that she will oppose positions popular with her party. She has opposed efforts to block government regulation of the tobacco products, and supports the XL pipeline that would carry Canadian oil to the Gulf Coast.

But on most issues, Hagan has agreed with the president, one of Tillis’ lines of attack. A Congressional Quarterly analysis of 2013 votes shows that on legislation where the administration had a position, she backed it 96 percent of the time, and with the Democratic Party 86 percent of the time. In comparison, Burr voted with Republicans 91 percent of the time.

Hagan has directed her staff to work on constituent services. Her staffers have settled 32,000 cases — helping constituents receive military benefits, refinance homed or, in one case, getting an overseas aid worker home to the U.S. for emergency surgery.

It’s the meat and potatoes of being a member of Congress. How much it helps with re-election is unknown.

Photo: Third Way via Flickr

White House Starts New Public Awareness Drive To Prevent Sexual Attacks On Campus

White House Starts New Public Awareness Drive To Prevent Sexual Attacks On Campus

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Friday launched a new public awareness campaign at campuses across America to prevent sexual assaults.

Called “It’s on Us,” the new campaign will try to get students and others on college and university campuses to play a part in trying to stop sexual violence before it happens. A new public service announcement aired for the first time on Friday.

Advocates say many rapes are not reported, and that on campuses the assaults most often occur during women’s first two years at college by someone they know.

The new campaign will have a strong focus on engaging college-age men to take part in bystander intervention and raise awareness of the problem on campuses.

RAINN, an anti-sexual assault group, is one of the groups and companies that make up a partnership with the White House on the campaign.

“One of the most effective ways to prevent rape is to mobilize men and women on campus to join together in stopping perpetrators before they can commit a crime,” Scott Berkowitz, president and founder of RAINN, said in a statement.

“RAINN has joined the ‘It’s On Us’ campaign as a partner to help bring attention to the important role that students play in keeping their friends safe and preventing rape on campus. We also need to make sure that if a friend is sexually assaulted, students know how to support him or her and ensure they have access to the help they deserve through the National Sexual Assault Hotline and local resources.”

Other partners include the NCAA; Electronic Arts, a video gaming company that will carry the message on its games; and Viacom, which will use it on MTV, VH1, BET and CMT.

The new public awareness campaign is the latest in a series of steps the White House has been taking recently to reduce campus sexual violence. In 2011, the administration gave guidance to help schools understand their obligations under federal civil rights law to prevent and respond to sexual assaults on campus.

On Friday, the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, which was set up in January, also released three documents of best practices to help colleges and universities improve their responses to sexual assault. The documents will be posted on the website

AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski

Coal Industry Fuels Republican In N.C. Senate Race

Coal Industry Fuels Republican In N.C. Senate Race

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Money from coal companies has been fueling North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis’ race to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) including $21,100 from the nation’s largest privately owned coal company.

The contributions came from the Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. The owner and founder, Robert E. Murray, is a major backer of Republican candidates and a fierce opponent of President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, especially over a proposal that would limit heat-trapping emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Murray Energy is Tillis’ fifth largest contributor, having received money from the owner, company officers, employees, and family members, and the company’s political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group.

The coal industry has not been a major political donor of Hagan’s, who is seeking a second term. But Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based power company that relies on coal as source of fuel, has been among her top 20 financial contributors.

The company’s employees, lobbyists, and political action committee have given her $20,400 between 2007 and 2014, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.

Tillis received the $21,100 from Murray and related individuals in the first quarter of this year. In all, company employees have given $522,093 to political candidates across the country in 2013 and so far in 2014.

All of the contributions from Murray Energy this campaign cycle have been to Republicans, except for $2,500 to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who’s running for re-election this year. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who’s also running in November, has received $21,850.

Some Murray executives listed their occupation on the Federal Election Commission forms as “coal miner.” One of them, Ronald D. Koontz, is general manager of the Ohio Valley Coal Co., a Murray subsidiary, according to a 2012 company news release. He donated $1,000 to the Tillis campaign, part of more than $13,000 he has given to Republican candidates since 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Koontz did not answer calls for comment.

Wayne E. Conaway Jr., of Farmington, W.Va., who works in Murray Energy’s safety department, said he gave $375 to Tillis because Tillis supports coal. He said the company emphasized to employees that “we’ve got to get out and protect our livelihood.”

“We have no comment,” said Gary Broadbent, Murray Energy’s media director and assistant general counsel, in response to questions about the company’s support for Tillis.

But in a message on the company’s website, Robert Murray, who founded the company in 1988 with the purchase of a single mine, said his industry is “embattled from excessive federal government regulations and, to a lesser extent, by the increased use of natural gas for the generation of electricity.”

He added: “In my fifty-seven years of coal mining experience, I have never before seen the destruction of an industry that we are witnessing today, with reliable, low-cost electric power also being eliminated.”

In June, Murray Energy filed the first lawsuit against the EPA to try to block the rule on power plant emissions limits. The suit asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to prevent the EPA from implementing what the company said in a news release was “this illegal and disastrous rule on electric power generation.”

Twelve states filed a separate lawsuit against the administration on Aug. 1 in another attempt to stop the proposed rule: West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Murray also has disagreed with the scientific view that the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is the main reason for warming of the planet. In an interview with West Virginia Executive Magazine for a story published in May, he was quoted as saying the Obama administration was lying about global warming. Murray contended that the Earth was cooling.

The company has 12 coal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Utah and employs more than 7,300 people.

In 2007, a collapse at the company’s Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah killed six miners. Three more people died 10 days later in a rescue attempt. Murray subsidiaries agreed in 2012 that violations contributed to the accident, including improper mine design. The subsidiaries paid $1.15 million, which covered penalties for the collapse and the settlement of other violations at other Utah mines.

Besides Murray Energy, other coal company and mining industry political action committees have contributed to Tillis. Alliance Coal’s LLC PAC gave him $5,000 in June. Federal Election Commission records also show $10,000 from two PACS of the National Mining Association; $1,500 from the PAC of Arch Coal, Inc.; $2,000 from the Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. PAC; and $2,000 from Patriot Coal’s PAC.

Other coal company executives and employees also made individual contributions.

North Carolina in 2013 got 38 percent of its electricity from coal, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Colleges Lax On Campus Sexual Assault Cases, Senator Finds

Colleges Lax On Campus Sexual Assault Cases, Senator Finds

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — An in-depth survey of American colleges and universities on sexual violence on campus found that many schools fall short in how they investigate and resolve such claims, Senator Claire McCaskill, who commissioned the survey, said Wednesday.

“There are some schools that are working hard to protect their students, but this shows there are way too many schools that are failing,” the Missouri Democrat said at a news conference.

McCaskill said that perhaps the most disturbing finding in the survey was that 41 percent of schools in a national sample of 350 schools said they hadn’t conducted a single investigation on sexual assaults in the past five years. By law, every case must be investigated, she said.

“When we know the prevalence of this problem, it is obviously a serious indictment that you have that many schools that have not investigated a single case,” McCaskill said.

A former sex crime prosecutor who in recent months has also taken on the issue of sexual assault in the military, McCaskill said the confidential survey was the largest, most comprehensive of its kind ever conducted. The Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which she chairs, did the survey.

Some of the issues that emerged from the survey, which involved dozens of questions, included not taking steps that would encourage students to report sexual violence, such as letting the reports be kept confidential; lack of sexual assault training for students and faculty and staff; and lack of training for campus police in how to respond to reports of sexual violence.

The survey found that many schools did not take steps that would encourage students to report sexual violence, such as keeping the reports confidential. Schools also failed to provide training for students, faculty and staff on how to respond to reports of sexual assault.

Among other findings:

    1. 43 percent of the nation’s largest public universities allow students to help adjudicate rape claims, which McCaskill said was a bad practice. In a criminal court, members of a jury can’t know the defendant, which she said was not the case in campus sex crimes adjudications.
    2. 30 percent of campus law enforcement officials in a national sample of 350 schools received no training on how to respond to reports of sexual violence.
    3. 22 percent of schools in the sample allow athletic departments to oversee sexual violence cases involving student athletes. “You cannot expect the athletic department, which is in charge of giving scholarships, or depends on the athletic prowess of young men or women, that they will be fair, or at least have the appearance of being fair,” McCaskill said.
    4. 51 percent of institutions had a hotline for students who have been raped and 44 percent provided the option of reporting sexual assaults online. About 8 percent of institutions do not allow confidential reporting.

The national sample was made up of 350 schools that represented large and small, public and private, and for-profit and nonprofit institutions. McCaskill’s staff received responses from 236 of these schools. She said the survey was statistically valid.

Additionally, her staff also surveyed the 50 largest public four-year institutions and the 40 largest private nonprofit four-year schools.

The survey report said that campus sexual assaults are under-reported, citing a Department of Justice report that said fewer than 5 percent of college rape victims report the attack to law enforcement.

One of the best ways to get a reading on sexual assault issues on a campus is to take confidential student surveys, McCaskill said, but only 16 percent of schools did so, according to the survey.

“If we’re going to get a portrait of whether students feel safe,” she said, “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we asked them?”

Photo: Vkp_patel via Flickr

Parents, Nurses Fear School Nurse Cutbacks Can Be Dangerous To Children’s Health

Parents, Nurses Fear School Nurse Cutbacks Can Be Dangerous To Children’s Health

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Parents in Charlotte, N.C., celebrated this month when their county commissioners approved a budget that includes $1.8 million to make sure every public school has a full-time nurse.

The agreement capped two years of work by a parents advocacy group started by Teri Saurer, the mother of daughters who just finished first and third grades.

Saurer got involved with the nurse issue in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools because her younger daughter, Hannah, has a history of seizures and serious food allergies. But she said nurses made schools safer for all students. Other parent advocates joined the effort because their children suffered concussions at school. One had a child who experienced a first-time food allergy.

“You want to know that if something happened to your child — they’re at school so many hours of the day — that there’s going to be somebody with medical training who can attend to them,” Saurer said.

Several hundred parents wrote to the Mecklenburg County commissioners urging them to approve the money for school nurses, Saurer said. A sample letter on her group’s website argued that nurses should be part of every school’s safety plan.

Members of the group attended the county commission meetings wearing bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Healthy children learn better. School nurses make it happen.”

Many other parts of the country don’t have nurses in every school. The situation varies state by state, and often county by county.

Some places, such as Pennsylvania, have had school nurse positions reduced because of budget cuts. But the bigger problem has been that tight budgets in many places have meant that full-time registered nurse positions aren’t being added to keep up with population growth, or school RNs who retire are replaced with aides or nurses with less training, said Erin Maughan, director of research at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a public health philanthropy, and an Executive Nurse Fellow at the National Association of School Nurses.

“Much of the country does not have sufficient coverage of school nurses,” she said. “This means that school nurses are covering multiple schools, so they rely on secretaries and unlicensed personnel, even teachers and principals, to step in and do the daily duties a school nurse would do.”

Sometimes that works. But some decisions require the trained assessment that only a school nurse can make, she said.

In Philadelphia last year, sixth-grader Laporshia Massey died from asthma complications that started at school, where no nurse was on duty. Last month, 7-year-old Sebastian Gerena died after he collapsed in another Philadelphia school when — again — no nurse was on duty. A retired nurse who was volunteering at the school that day helped perform CPR on him before medics arrived. A coroner said Sebastian’s death was due to a heart defect.

Advocates for more education funding in Philadelphia are calling for enough money to restore nurses, teachers, and other school staffers whose positions have been cut.

Nurses help children manage chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and seizures so they don’t miss school. They also treat injuries and counsel students about physical and emotional issues.

It’s difficult to know just how many schools have full-time nurses. The nurses association’s last survey was in 2007, when it found that 45 percent of public schools have a full-time school nurse every day, and an additional 30 percent have nurses who work part time in one or more schools.

U.S. school staffing surveys from the Department of Education show 81,410 full-time and part-time nurses in all U.S. schools in 2011-12, the latest year available. That’s down from 90,910 in 2007-08. The nation has about 132,000 public and private schools.

Last month, a report in JAMA Pediatrics, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said many schools district in recent years have cut or reduced nursing services in schools. Looking at school nurses in Massachusetts, it found that for every dollar spent for the school health program, society got back $2.20. The savings resulted from less work time lost by parents and teachers and fewer outside medical services needed by students.

The National Association of School Nurses says that having a nurse at school saves teachers an average of 20 minutes per day.

Photo: USDAGov via Flickr

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Female Voters Will Be Pivotal In Key North Carolina Senate Contest

Female Voters Will Be Pivotal In Key North Carolina Senate Contest

By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Women were the key to Senator Kay Hagan’s election in 2008, and in what is likely to be a close race for re-election this year, she is stressing issues aimed at them — equal pay, health care, birth control and education.

The strategy is part of the North Carolina Democrat’s efforts to attack the policies pushed over the past three years by the Republican-controlled state legislature, where her GOP opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, has played a major role.

Hagan’s game plan tries to capitalize on her party’s strength among women voters and gives her campaign a message that it hopes will appeal to women who vote independent as well. Boosting the Democratic turnout in the November mid-term election is crucial for Hagan, and Democratic candidates across the country. Midterms are traditionally low-turnout elections and often hurt the party in power, and this year it’s Hagan’s.

“In all close Senate races, male or female, Democrats win by winning women more than they lose men by,” said Democratic political strategist Celinda Lake. “So women are key to their victory.”

Particularly important for her will be the groups that traditionally drop off in off-year elections — unmarried women under 55, younger women and women of color, Lake said.

In a recent interview, Hagan said she would have “the biggest, most effective turnout operation North Carolina has ever seen in a Senate race.” She said it would include “neighbor to neighbor” visits to women by campaign volunteers.

On Monday, the campaign will unveil another piece of her strategy, the formation of “Women for Kay,” which will fan out seeking support and post campaign news on Facebook.

The group’s chairs are Betty McCain of Wilson, the former head of the state Department of Cultural Resources; Nelda Leon of Charlotte, a criminal justice consultant and president of the Hispanic American Democrats of Mecklenburg County; civil rights leader Minnie Jones of Asheville; and youth advocate Constance Hyman of Wilmington.

Hagan’s message will be pointing out policies that Tillis supported in the state legislature that her campaign believes are detrimental to women. Among them, according to the campaign, was his opposition to a state equal pay measure; and his opposition to a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage — from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 –that Congress also rejected.

Tillis also voted for restrictions on abortion services last year, and for a veto override on a budget bill that cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Hagan’s campaign says that Tillis has said states should have the right to ban contraception, though he hasn’t said whether North Carolina should do so.

Her campaign has also criticized him for supporting a constitutional amendment on “personhood,” which would grant legal protections to a fertilized human egg and possibly ban some forms of birth control.

Under Tillis’ leadership, the legislature’s 2013 budget also cut spending on education, opposed raises for teachers and ended a pay supplement for teachers with master’s degrees. In the current legislative session, however, Tillis supports an across-the-board pay raise for teachers for the coming year. Republican Senate leader Phil Berger and Republican Governor Pat McCrory also have said they support the raise.

Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw said that the Republicans will “target our message” to women as well, and will portray their Senate nominee as someone who can “get the nation’s economy back on track.”

“I feel that Speaker Tillis has done that during his three years in Raleigh, in showing an ability to pass balanced budgets,” Shaw said. “We also feel like there needs to be a demonstrated ability to put more money in the pockets of taxpayers and less money to the government.”

Hagan’s campaign, meanwhile, ticks off a list of measures that she has supported that it says benefit women: raising the minimum wage; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, which restored rights to sue for pay discrimination stripped away in a 2007 Supreme Court decision; and the Paycheck Fairness Act, which, among other provisions, prohibited retaliation by employers against workers who disclose the wages of others in response to complaints. The measure failed to get the 60 votes it needed in the Senate in April.

Her campaign also says that she supported “measures that increase women’s access to preventive care and stopped insurance companies from charging women more than they charge men.” Both are part of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have attacked Hagan and other Democrats for voting for it and assuring voters that they could keep health care plans if they like them, when instead some, whose plans didn’t comply, were forced to get new coverage.

Hagan also voted against a bill to defund Planned Parenthood in Congress, which failed to pass.

Planned Parenthood North Carolina plans to spend $3.3 million on Hagan’s re-election. It’s major effort will be to target a group of 135,643 voters in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, many of whom vote infrequently.

Tillis, according to Paige Johnson, vice president of external affairs for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Central North Carolina, has “run this legislature far to the right and has really pushed through extremist policies. And we are a moderate state. The extremism going on in Raleigh has, I think, sort of woken up people and they’re paying attention.”

Republican strategist Katie Packer Gage, a partner at Burning Glass Consulting in Alexandria, Va., who focuses on political messaging to women, said she wasn’t surprised that Hagan has made women a priority. She suggested that the senator is trying to divert voters’ attention from the health care law and the economy.

Gage said that many women feel worse off under the Affordable Care Act, or have heard stories of others who say they’re paying more or have found their doctors aren’t included in their insurance plans, she said.

The reason for all the political attention is that women vote in higher numbers and make up a bigger part of undecided voters than men do, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which provides scholarly research and data.

They are also more likely to support Democratic candidates than men are, and they make their choices on the basis of the candidates’ policies, not their gender, said Debbie Walsh, the center’s director.

Noting that they earn less, save less for retirement and tend to live longer than men do, “Women feel more economically vulnerable than men do,” she said. “That sense of insecurity tends to lead women voters toward the party that supports the social safety net.”

When Hagan won her seat in 2008, she carried 55 percent of the women’s vote in North Carolina, compared with 41 percent for the Republican incumbent, Elizabeth Dole.

Still, Walsh said, this year will be a jump ball.

“I think you’re going to be seeing all over the country on both sides of the aisle a big push to reach women voters,” she said. “They have been a pivotal vote in elections.”

Photo: Third Way via Flickr