The truth about the General Assembly’s inadequate educator pay raise bill

Last week the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill entitled “Strengthening Educators’ Pay Act” almost entirely along party lines.  As the public waits to see whether Governor Cooper will sign the bill or veto it, it’s worth taking a closer look at exactly what this bill does–and what it doesn’t do.

But first, let’s review what Governor Cooper himself proposed on educator pay.  

In early July, Cooper sent a budget compromise to leaders in the General Assembly calling for an increase in teacher pay which would average 8.5% over two years, restoration of master’s degree supplements that state legislators stripped in 2013, and a 5% pay increase for non-certified school staff, among other things.  

That proposal was met with cricket noises from the legislature.

Now state lawmakers have passed a new educator pay raise bill and sent it to the Governor.  

Here’s what the General Assembly’s bill would do for educators this year and next:  

  • Teachers with 16-20  years of experience will receive a $50/month increase for 2019-20 as compared to last year’s salary schedule.  For school year 2020-21, teachers with that amount of experience will receive a $50/month increase.
  • Teachers with 21-24  years of experience will receive a $150/month increase as compared to last year’s salary schedule.  For school year 2020-21, teachers with that amount of experience will receive a $50/month increase.
  • Teachers with 25 or more  years of experience will receive a $60/month increase as compared to last year’s salary schedule.  For school year 2020-21, teachers with that amount of experience will receive a $50/month increase.

While there is some variance in raises based upon level of experience, in general the additional pay should just about cover the case of copy paper you’ll still need to buy after the General Assembly cut funding for classroom supplies 55% over the last decade, perhaps with enough left over for a couple tanks of gas to get you to your second job.  

It’s also important to note that, for the 2020-21 school year, the language of the bill reads “it is the intent of the General Assembly” to raise salaries rather than using the word “shall” as it does for the current school year.  That means the raises for next year are not guaranteed.

If teachers with 0-15 years of experience are wondering what kind of raises they’ll see over the next two school years, there’s news on that front as well. 

For school year 2019-20, here’s the pay raise those teachers will receive:

For school year 2020-21 this will be their increase:

In addition to falling far short of his compromise when it comes to teacher pay, the new bill on its way to Governor’s Cooper’s desk includes no restoration of master’s pay. Nor will the 12 month non-certified staff get the 5% raise the Governor sought.  Instead, they will receive a meager 1% increase in salary in 2019-20. For 2020-21 the bill calls for another 1% raise but again refers to “intent” rather than saying it “shall” happen, meaning the increase is not guaranteed for the following year. Also, any non-certified employees who work less than 12 months will receive a prorated increase rather than the full 1%.  So, for example, a 10-month employee would receive an insulting .83% raise.

Politically, the intent of state legislators is to pressure Cooper to either sign a bill which falls far short of what our public schools deserve or risk accusations that he is failing to support educators:  “Why do you hate teachers so much, Governor??”

It’s the General Assembly equivalent of the classic “Why are you hitting yourself?” bully move.

State lawmakers need to know that public school educators and the general public are smarter than that.  We see how you are conducting business without basic integrity, refusing to negotiate in good faith and attempting to ram an unpalatable budget through by simply waiting for Democrats to be absent for the vote.  We see that your latest tax cut over the next four years will deprive us of more than $1 billion in revenue that is sorely needed in our schools in order to reduce costs for corporations that already enjoy the North Carolina’s lowest corporate tax rate in the country.  

I don’t speak for every educator in the state, but I can promise I speak for a lot of us when I say that we believe our public schools deserve better than what the General Assembly is trying to pawn off on us.  

That’s why we will fully support Governor Cooper’s veto of this teacher pay bill.  

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NC Senate Democrats: educators need you to take a Hard Pass on shameful, back stabbing politics and hold out for the budget we deserve

My dear friend and veteran Wake County educator Angie Scioli has an important message for Senate Democrats who are facing an important budget vote today: 

I don’t speak for all teachers, but I do speak for more than a few. Here’s the deal: Governor Cooper has “gone to the mat” for us. He has, in some manner, included all five things we teachers marched for on May 1st in his budget. He vetoed an inferior budget sent to him. He’s fought for our most vulnerable families to have access to healthcare.

The Republicans are asking you to stab him in the back tomorrow, and they are holding our salaries hostage in the process. It’s shameful politics.

I say we don’t negotiate with hostage takers. It’s easier for me to say that- I’m a dual income family. But if we stab people in the back who fight for us, and reward people who use us as pawns, we will regret it, long term. You don’t betray people for a few pieces of silver.

I say we give “the deal” a hard pass. Let’s be faithful allies. And let’s work like crazy to make sure we win in 2020 by reminding voters how the majority played hard and fast with teachers and the working class.

I’m willing to “make do.” We teachers are so used to “making do” we hardly remember anything else.

Please support a no vote on override [today].

Identity of DPI leaker Superintendent Mark Johnson said caused cancellation of K-3 assessment procurement is revealed

News broke today that NC Department of Public Instruction Deputy Superintendent for Operations Kathryn Johnston has revealed the identity of the individual whose leak of confidential information preceded the cancellation of a K-3 reading assessment procurement earlier this year.  A DPI spokesman also provided the media with sordid details which appear intended to bolster Mark Johnson’s case that he had no choice but to scuttle the process right when it was going Amplify’s way.

Johnston, who was previously a member of Governor Pat McCrory’s cabinet, filed the sworn affidavit as a part of an ongoing review of that procurement process by the Department of Information Technology.  In the affidavit, Johnston says that details from a January 2019 meeting of the RFP evaluation committee were leaked by former DPI employee Abbey Whitford, who retired in May of this year.  Those details later surfaced in a text message exchanged by two former DPI employees which was then provided to DPI by an anonymous whistleblower.

Johnston’s affidavit also mentions that the two texting employees, identified as Anne Evans and Carolyn Guthrie (both of whom left the department in 2017), are involved with a literacy consulting business called Habits of Literacy.  The document also includes a copy of Habits of Literacy’s Articles of Organization, filed in 2017.

Johnston doesn’t explain in the affidavit what the relevance of mentioning Habits of Literacy could be, and I’ll leave that to your interpretation.

But back to the text message.

Mark Johnson has claimed the text message was an egregious enough violation of confidentiality that he had to cancel the procurement and then restart it.  Keep in mind that at time this occurred, the evaluation committee had overwhelmingly recommended North Carolina schools continue using Amplify’s mClass tool.  When Johnson restarted the procurement process, he assembled a new team almost entirely devoid of educators which ended up recommending Istation instead.

It’s important to understand the background and context of the text message.  

On January 8, 2019, the same day the text message was sent, Superintendent Johnson called a meeting of the RFP evaluation committee.  He had spent a month digesting a clear recommendation made by the team on December 4 that North Carolina go with Amplify.

According to the meeting notes, Mark Johnson began the meeting by thanking those present for their input on the K-3 screener selection.  He gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. Johnson then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for the second time–they had already recommended Amplify as finalist in their November consensus meeting–and stepped out of the room “to maintain integrity of the process.”

After the superintendent exited the room, team members wrote their choices on sticky notes, and the project manager tallied the results.  Amplify again easily came out on top, with six people recommending negotiations proceed with Amplify only, three with Istation only, and one voting that negotiations continue with both companies.  Pam Shue was tasked with informing Johnson of the committee’s recommendation the next day.

Here’s where the text message comes in.  Later the same day, this exchange occurred, apparently based on information provided by Abbey Whitford who was present at the meeting with Mark Johnson:

Here’s a transcribed version so you don’t have to strain your eyes:

Well, just got off another call with XXX 1 hour 45 minutes all about RFP.  What a mess!

Geez!  What is going on?

MJ came into their voting meeting today to basically (without coming directly out and specifying) tell them how to vote!  However the vote did not go his way so it will be interesting to see how he gets his way on this.

OMG!  I know they were shocked!

Yep, she said they walked out of the building and several people said what just happened?

Someone, XXX should have recorded it on her phone!

She thought about it, but her phone was lying on the table in front of everyone

Oh yeah, that would have been tough…who else was in the room?  Have they named a replacement for XXX?

XXX She and XXX and XXX and XXX and XXX and XXX and XXX voted for children.  XXX and XXX and one of Mark’s staff voted for helping teachers. She said he talked about helping teachers and never once mentioned children and saving the teachers time.  

Ass

The sad thing is, he may win his next race because he will talk about how he helped teachers!

Well that’s why he’s pushing this.  Children can’t VOTE so we appease lazy ass teachers.

Exactly!

Two months after the text message was sent, Superintendent Mark Johnson had his General Counsel Jonathan Sink inform the team that the RFP process would be cancelled due to an unspecified confidentiality breach.  We now know that was this text message.

Does the above message sound like it constituted a breach serious enough to cancel the whole process, or did it simply provide a convenient pretext at a time when Mark Johnson was desperate to swing the procurement in a different direction?

Mark Johnson’s Communications Director Graham Wilson is certainly doing everything he can to make two ex-employees blowing off steam about the superintendent’s shenanigans sound like a very big deal.  Wilson told WBTV that when Whitford was confronted about the leak, resigned and turned in her computer equipment, the computer appeared to have been “professionally wiped” to remove evidence.  Wilson also said the issue would likely be referred for a criminal investigation.  

Note that the Department of Public Instruction is providing these sordid details to the media at the same time that the Department of Information Technology is working to determine whether DPI followed proper rules in the procurement process.  

That’s curious timing indeed.

Declining NAEP scores underscore failure of Berger’s Read to Achieve

The latest round of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results were just released, and North Carolina Senator Phil Berger’s scores are not looking very good.  

The NAEP measures math and reading proficiency for 4th and 8th grade students every two years.  I am not a fan of standardized tests, but the scores do provide one data point in evaluating how well Berger’s signature Read to Achieve legislation is doing at moving the needle on reading in our state.

North Carolina’s 4th grade reading proficiency dropped from 39% scoring at or above proficient in 2017 to 36% this year.  Scale scores declined from 224 to 221.

When Read to Achieve was passed in 2012, the legislation was intended to end social promotion and help 3rd graders avoid what Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger called the ‘economic death sentence’ awaiting students who are unable to read proficiently:  

The goal of the State is to ensure that every student read at or above grade level by the end of third grade and continue to progress in reading proficiency so that he or she can read, comprehend, integrate, and apply complex texts needed for secondary education and career success.

While improving reading outcomes is a worthy goal, it was obvious from the beginning that Read to Achieve lacked the educator’s touch.  The initiative attempted to improve reading by increasing the volume of assessments in grades K-3 and ratcheting up the threats of retention, essentially punishing children for not being able to read well enough in early grades.  It’s not the approach an effective teacher would take.

According to former NC superintendent Dr. June Atkinson, when Read to Achieve was drafted, the Department of Public Instruction was very candid about the challenges it presented and the impact it would have.  

DPI warned the General Assembly that the volume of assessments the legislation added to 3rd grade was too high and that the pace and funding of implementation didn’t provide enough professional development for teachers to effectively transition to the new system.  The General Assembly had also slashed Pre-K funding 25% from pre-recession levels at the time, and DPI informed legislators that quality early childhood education was one of the most important components of building a foundation for literacy.  All of that feedback fell largely on deaf ears.

Berger did sponsor a bill this year which, among other things, would have attempted to identify effective reading approaches going on in North Carolina schools to share on a statewide level.  SB 438 allocated no additional funding and was ultimately vetoed by Governor Cooper, who said “Recent evaluations show that Read to Achieve is ineffective and costly…This legislation tries to put a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed.”

Six years and approximately $200 million wasted taxpayer dollars after the debut of Read to Achieve, this latest round of test scores reinforces what many of us have been saying for years: state legislators need to focus on providing sufficient funding for public education in our state, stop legislating in the classroom, and let the professionals figure out how to get the job done.

Is Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey claiming CMS endorsements he doesn’t really have?

After coming in second to challenger John Higdon in the October 8 primary by a margin of 55 to 42, incumbent Matthews Mayor Paul Bailey is looking for support wherever he can get it.  

Now it appears he might also be manufacturing support where he doesn’t have it.  

According to multiple people who were at the October 15 candidate forum of the Matthews Woman’s Club Service League, Bailey told those in attendance that he had full support of two unnamed members of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education for his reelection campaign.

The news came as a surprise to those who had followed tensions between Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and Matthews leadership over HB 514, a state law passed last year that gave Matthews and 3 other largely white Mecklenburg County towns the right to set up their own municipal charter schools.  CMS officials objected to HB 514 on the grounds that such an action would increase segregation in an already highly segregated school district.

Bailey was a strong proponent of the law from its earliest days, saying it was necessary because CMS had no plans to build new schools in Matthews.  As the relationship devolved, Bailey accused the Board of Education of being more focused on political retribution than on educating children.  

Now Bailey faces the prospect of losing his office to John Higdon and is trying his hardest to change the writing on the wall.  Higdon, who currently serves as a Matthews town commissioner, has consistently opposed plans to open municipal charter schools and has made improving relations with CMS a central tenet of his campaign.

But back to those mysterious endorsements.  It’s telling that Mayor Bailey, himself a former member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education, declined to name the board members he claims support his bid for reelection.  I think we can all agree that that’s not at all how political endorsements work.

It’s probably safe to assume that CMS District 6 Board of Education representative Sean Strain is all aboard the Bailey train.  However, after confirming as much with the eight other board members, I can assure you that Strain would be the only one.

Mayor Bailey did contact several members of the Board of Education just prior to the October 15 candidate forum in an apparent attempt to smooth things over, but he reportedly did not even ask for endorsements.  While their reasons varied from support for his opponent to a desire to avoid getting involved in Matthews politics, all CMS Board of Education members not named Sean Strain have clarified since the candidate forum that they would not be interested in endorsing Bailey’s campaign.

I reached out to Mayor Bailey to ask if he could identify the two board members he claims have pledged their support to his reelection campaign.  He didn’t respond.  

Low-turnout election offers great chance for voters to have an impact on education in Mecklenburg County

This year’s general election is underway.  It will likely have very low turnout, and it has very important implications for education in Mecklenburg County.  Because of the low turnout, your vote will have a much higher impact.  Please take 15 minutes out of your day to stop by one of the many convenient early voting locations and make your voice heard.

There is a quarter cent sales tax increase on the ballot.  The revenue will be transformative for arts and culture programs, will bring much needed improvements to parks and greenways, and will allow schools to hire additional support staff and teachers assistants.  I’m voting For.

Everyone also gets three votes for At Large Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board, which will greatly impact the direction our school district takes in the next four years.  These are my votes:

Elyse Dashew has been fantastic on her first term on the board.  She brings important experience, an incredible work ethic and accessibility, and a willingness to thoughtfully listen and fight for what is right for teachers and students.  We need Elyse back for another term!

Jennifer de la Jara has worked in education for nearly two decades, a lot of that serving Charlotte’s immigrant and refugee communities.  Her addition to the board will ensure that quickly-growing segment of our population is well represented.

Dr. Monty Witherspoon is a very well-respected minister at Steele Creek AME Zion.  He’s a CMS graduate but also has the experience of having struggled in our school system.  Rev. Witherspoon will bring a sharp focus on equity and a solid moral compass to the board.

Please spread the word and get out and vote, friends!!

A ‘For’ vote on Mecklenburg sales tax increase referendum can help bring much needed change to our community

*note: this article was first published in the Charlotte Observer

Beginning with early voting on October 16 and continuing to election day on Tuesday, November 5, Mecklenburg County voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the following referendum question: 

[ ] FOR [ ] AGAINST

Local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other state and local sales and use taxes.

The ballot language was written by the North Carolina General Assembly, and it fails miserably at offering enough detail for voters to be able to make an informed decision.  

A “For” vote on this item is a Yes for one quarter of a cent sales tax increase–or 5 more cents on a $20 purchase.  The tax would exclude groceries, prescription medicine, and gasoline but would apply to things like clothing and prepared food.  It would allow us to generate more revenue from visitors who use our services but don’t reside in Mecklenburg County.

Our county has only three ways to generate revenue.  Property tax makes up 60% of county revenue and has become increasingly regressive due to gentrification.  Sales tax accounts for 17%, and the remainder of our revenue comes through fees. As long as North Carolina is governed by a state legislature that prioritizes income tax cuts, local governments that want to improve services will have few alternatives.  For Mecklenburg County, increasing the sales tax is best option.

So what will those improvements in service look like if the referendum passes, adding an estimated $50 million to annual county funds?

$8 million of the revenue would go to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and would be used to add support staff such as school counselors and psychologists.  At a time when students need more social and emotional support than ever, and our current staffing for these positions lags far behind recommended ratios, the additional personnel would be very welcome.  It would also put more teaching assistants in elementary classrooms–where they are desperately needed after the General Assembly has reduced their numbers by 31% over the last decade.  Finally, the revenue would increase our local salary supplement and help make Mecklenburg County a more desirable place to teach for North Carolina educators.

$17 million of the money generated by the one quarter of a cent sales tax increase would be used to support Mecklenburg County’s parks and greenways.  The nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL) recently ranked Charlotte 96th out of America’s 100 largest cities after analyzing access, investment, acreage, and amenities.  TPL noted that only 36% of county residents live within a 10 minute walk of a park, while the national average is 54%.  Parks and greenways play a vital role in the social and physical health of our communities, and increased funding will help ensure that access to those opportunities does not depend on your zip code.

Finally, $22.5 million of the new tax revenue would be dedicated to funding local arts, science, history, and culture programs which currently receive only $2 million from the county.  The additional support would increase equity in school field trips to arts and cultural organizations. Those experiences have been hard to come by since the recession and are often left to schools with well-heeled PTSAs.  The funding would also allow for expansion of workshops and residencies offered during the school day, after-school and summer professional development opportunities, along with professional development for teaching artists and educators. 

Please take the time to help educate your fellow voters on how the tax would work and where the revenue would go.  Provided with enough information to make a sound decision, they can help bring much-needed changes that will improve our community for years to come.

Why Representative Craig Horn would be a terrible state superintendent

Representative Craig Horn has confirmed rumors that he is considering a run for the office of state superintendent, a position currently held by fellow Republican Mark Johnson.  

In an interview with WRAL’s Kelly Hinchcliffe, Horn said he might run if Johnson decides not to stand for re-election.

Horn acknowledged that the fact he’s never been an educator might be a bit of a problem, but he downplayed the importance of a superintendent understanding how the work looks from the classroom side:

“I’m not a teacher. I’ve never been a teacher.  But people pointed out, superintendents don’t teach, superintendents manage.”

Horn is absolutely wrong to claim that education experience is inconsequential to being an effective superintendent.  However, he’s right that we need to consider his management experience.  

As a legislator who was first elected when the GOP won a supermajority in North Carolina in 2010, Horn has been at the forefront of managing the ongoing devastating decline of public education in our state.  For much of that time he’s chaired the House K-12 Education Committee.  

These are just a few of the major changes that have occurred while Horn has been in office.  

  • Uncapping the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state.  We now have 200, and they are steadily draining resources from traditional public schools and increasing racial and economic segregation in our state.
  • Creating a voucher program that uses public tax dollars every year to send children to unaccountable nonpublic schools which are legally allowed to discriminate based on religion and sexual identity.  That program will have spent more than a billion dollars by 2027-28.
  • Failing to pass a school bond to help districts deal with billions of dollars of capital needs that they can’t afford on their own.
  • Slashing teacher assistant positions by more than 7,000 over the last decade.  This move has crippled the ability of our elementary teachers to manage behaviors and differentiate instruction and negatively impacted academic outcomes.
  • Proposing that our state’s poorest 4 year olds be given virtual Pre-K rather than working to identify and address obstacles to those families accessing actual Pre-K.  That awful idea is specifically Horn’s baby.
  • Passing a mandate that districts lower class sizes but not funding it.  
  • Cutting allotments for textbooks, technology, and school supplies.
  • Stripping away retiree health benefits and pay supplements for graduate degrees, making it far harder to attract good educators to North Carolina.
  • Passing budget after budget that drastically underfunds our state schools while voting for massive tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals.  Then saying with zero shame, “I’m sorry we don’t have the money to do more.”

That’s just a handful of examples.  And if Horn does decide to run, he will be held responsible for his votes on every single one of those changes and more.

The other interesting thing about Horn’s announcement is that it’s a clear expression of no confidence in our current superintendent, Mark Johnson.  It appears that Horn would agree with my feeling that Johnson is doing a less than stellar job leading our state’s education system. The difference is that, in Horn’s case, it’s 100% buyer’s remorse.

It’s important to remember that Horn sponsored the bill just a month after Johnson won election which gave a man with precious little experience unprecedented power over our state’s education funds.  Horn’s bill relegated our highly qualified, govern-by-consensus State Board of Education to the sidelines on nearly every meaningful decision related to education in North Carolina.  That legislative change has come back to haunt us over and over and over again. Our Department of Public Instruction is a smoking ruin of what it once was, and educators in North Carolina are so disgusted with the whole mess that they’ve filled the streets of Raleigh the past two years to call for meaningful change.

Craig Horn did all of that.  And now he thinks we might want him to be our superintendent?

Horn’s interview with Hinchcliffe includes the following “stick your toe in the water” statement:

“The idea of a statewide campaign is a scary thought, especially in these days of contentious politics. But if I sense that people believe in me, I would consider it.”

I think I can speak for the majority of educators in our state when I say…

We absolutely don’t believe in you.  Please don’t consider it.

NC Department of Public Instruction asks State Board to add paper and pencil K-3 reading test for students who are visually impaired or have seizures

At the very end of last Wednesday’s meeting of the State Board of Education there was an exchange so brief it was easy to miss. But it seems to have real relevance to the ongoing debate over what assessment tool North Carolina schools will use for K-3 reading.

State Board member JB Buxton said there was a request from the Department of Public Instruction for immediate action and called forward Deputy Superintendent of Innovation David Stegall.

Dr. Stegall explained that an alternative assessment needed to be added that “provides additional support through a pencil and paper process for visually impaired students and students who have seizure issues.”

DPI’s request raises important questions about why those students weren’t already receiving the support that they need.

You can listen to audio and read a transcript of the exchange below:

JB Buxton:  Mr. Chairman, without objection Dr. Oxendine and I would like to add a request from the Department for an Action on First Reading dealing with our alternate assessments for the K-3 diagnostic assessments.  If you have a moment I’d call on Dr. Stegall to explain that and then again ask that we act on that as action on the first read as this is our approved list that the districts can use as alternative diagnostic assessments.

Eric Davis:  Without objection, so ordered.

JB Buxton:  Dr. Stegall, if you could just explain this?

David Stegall:  Yes sir, thank you, Mr. Chairman and board members.  We request that one of the alternative assessments that had previously been voted on be removed due to an outdated linkage study.  We want to make sure that all that data is correct, so we’re asking for that one to be removed, and it’s been highlighted for you.  

And we’re asking that one assessment to be added that provides additional support through a pencil and paper process for visually impaired students and students who have seizure issues.  

JB Buxton:  So if there are no objections, and I don’t know if there are any questions but we’d had that as an Action on First Reading so we could get that on the identified list.

Eric Davis:  We will.

Threats of litigation undermine efforts to hold elected officials accountable

“An evil magistrate intrusted with power to punish for words, would be armed with a weapon the most destructive and terrible. Under pretence of pruning off the exuberant branches, he would be apt to destroy the tree.”  – Benjamin Franklin

In the summer of 2019, Justin Parmenter and Kim Mackey were among education activists who were hard at work raising public awareness about two critical issues.  Parmenter is a Charlotte, NC middle school teacher whose writing for his website Notes from the Chalkboard and elsewhere has kept the public informed on education issues and policymakers on their toes since 2016.  Mackey teaches high school near Raleigh and is newly active in providing insight on education policy that moves people to civic engagement through her blog Educated Policy.

The first issue was that Superintendent Mark Johnson had announced his surprise decision to award a contract for the state’s K-3 reading assessment to a computer-based company called Istation–a move which meant significant changes for our youngest readers.  The other was State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s Clear Pricing Project, which had more than 720,000 teachers, state employees, and retirees on a crash course potentially leading toward catastrophic increases in medical expenses. The work earned both Parmenter and Mackey Cease and Desist letters threatening costly civil litigation. 

These educators are not alone in facing repercussions for their advocacy work in North Carolina.

Adrian Wood, North Carolina education activist and author of Tales of an Educated Debutante, received a Cease and Desist letter earlier this year from lawyers representing Wilmington charter school Coastal Prep Academy after expressing concerns about their lack of academic growth.  Wood has also been sued for defamation after shedding light on a case of alleged abuse of a special needs student at a West Virginia school.  

A Wake County parent is also currently facing a civil suit filed by Utah-based curriculum company Mathematics Vision Project after repeatedly claiming at school board meetings and in writing that MVP’s curriculum is harmful to students.

These developments could represent a new strategy to stifle public discourse at a time when public school students and employees are desperate for someone to speak out on their behalves.

Istation:  Justin Parmenter

On June 7, 2019, as many were focused on the beginning of summer break, Superintendent Johnson announced that he was awarding the contract for a K-3 reading assessment to a company called Istation.  Effective immediately, students in these grades would be taking reading assessments alone on a computer rather than reading to a human teacher.  

Two days later, Amy Jablonski, who had worked at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) under Mark Johnson until the end of December, 2018, revealed on social media that Johnson’s choice to award the contract to Istation directly contradicted the advice of a recommendation committee she had led.  

I spoke to Jablonski to get more detail about what had happened.  She said that a broad committee of evaluators had voiced concerns about Istation’s developmental appropriateness and its shortcomings as a screener for dyslexia, among other things.  The committee unanimously selected Amplify’s mClass tool and made that recommendation to Superintendent Johnson.

After corroborating Jablonski’s account, I wrote a blog post about the issue which was shared widely and helped to raise awareness at a time when not many people were talking about it.

As public outrage began to build, both DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson and Johnson himself stated the claims were false and the committee had made no recommendation.  Johnson also warned that non-disclosure agreements prevented those involved from discussing the process–an assertion that was quickly refuted when the agreement forms surfaced, showing any expectation of confidentiality had ended when the contract was awarded.

Hoping to get some light on the truth, I filed a public records request for documents related to the procurement process and encouraged others to do the same.  In mid-July, the Department of Public Instruction finally released records related to the procurement process and contract award. The documents showed that the committee had overwhelmingly recommended mClass.  

Johnson later canceled the procurement process entirely and created a new, smaller evaluation committee which included his close advisors but was almost entirely devoid of educators or subject matter experts with relevant experience.  This new committee recommended Istation instead.

Around the same time the records were released, Istation’s North Carolina attorneys threatened legal action against me, Amy Jablonski, and a school psychologist named Chelsea Bartel who had done a lot of research on Istation.  Their Cease and Desist Demand & Preservation Notice accused me of “making demonstrably false, misleading, and defamatory statements about Istation” and claimed my conduct amounted to defamation and tortious interference with a contract.  The attorney demanded I preserve all text messages, social media posts, voice mails, chat logs, emails, and any other relevant information or I could be severely sanctioned by a court for spoliation of evidence. 

It was the first time I’d been threatened with a lawsuit, and the idea of facing a $100 million corporation in court certainly gave me pause.  I stepped back and took a critical look at all of the work I’d done on Istation.  What I saw was my strong desire for truth and transparency in government and a system where our education policies are informed by the consensus of the people who are most knowledgeable about how they will affect our children.  That desire had led me to devote countless hours to  researching the matter, speaking with dozens of people who are deeply invested in education and government in North Carolina and learning much about everything from dyslexia to procurement rules.  In sharing information that I felt would be helpful to the public, not one time had I stated anything that I did not understand to be absolutely true. So, with a continued eye toward truth and accuracy, I followed the advice of a trusted friend and “kept cooking.”

Clear Pricing Project: Kim Mackey

This summer, a swirl of uncertainty pervaded conversations among North Carolina’s public school teachers and state employees as they tried to wrap their heads around State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s Clear Pricing Project (CPP).  The intent of this project was to decelerate rising health care costs through transparent pricing, but Folwell’s strategy to achieve this goal by threatening out-of-network status to providers who did not sign on made over 720,000 members feel like hostages in a health care showdown.

This confrontation rekindled other concerns I had with actions taken by the NC General Assembly and Treasurer Folwell since he took office in January 2017.  To me, this was just the latest action in a series of attempts to reduce membership in the State Health Plan. I chose to turn my mental notes into public ones. 

I wrote a blog post detailing my concerns and posted it on July 23.  On July 26, I created an infographic summarizing the key points.  This infographic of inconvenient truths was shared widely and accelerated a campaign against the CPP as teachers ,state workers, and retirees contacted lawmakers to demand an end to their hostage status.  It also triggered my receipt of a cease and desist letter with a threat of possible civil litigation from Treasurer Folwell’s office.

The letter accused me of trademark infringement for using the logo of the State Health Plan of North Carolina within my “internet material.”  A State Health Plan attorney alleged that my use violated the Lanham Act by “causing confusion among the Plan’s customers” and “infringe[s] and dilut[es]” the confidence in the trademark and “goodwill of the Plan.” 

As I understand it, the protest material I created this summer is protected under the First Amendment with freedoms of speech, press, and petition as validated by precedents set by the National Labor Relations Board.  Nonetheless, I removed the logo as a courtesy.

To comply with the request, I was unable to just update the infographic in previous posts, and had to remove the entire post, which also erased most of the digital democratic dialogue that had taken place across social media.

A representative of the Treasurer’s Office acknowledged my compliance with their request and wrote, “We consider this matter resolved at this time.”

On Labor Day, I shared my cease and desist letter and related concerns, since a trend in advocates receiving such threats had appeared to emerge this summer.  As far as I could tell, I was the fourth North Carolina educator to receive such a letter. I hoped sharing this information would empower other possible recipients to share theirs.  I also hoped calling out this concerning fact pattern could discourage these potentially intimidating tactics.

After reopening the sign-on window in an attempt to keep the CPP on life support and facing growing public pressure,Treasurer Folwell relented.  To the relief of public school teachers , state employees, and retirees, there will now be two networks where new network signatories and current providers who did not sign on to the program will continue to be in-network.

Are these tactics designed to impose the will of the Treasurer’s Office?  Are they appropriate? After criticizing Plan decisions I was threatened with legal action.

Impact on public discourse and the path forward

While the real motivation behind these lawsuits and threats is only known by the actors behind them, the impact of those actions is crystal clear: people who face being dragged through expensive legal proceedings are less likely to voice concerns about our elected officials’ policy decisions.

Acts of litigation which are intended to intimidate and silence critics is sometimes known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP.  Twenty nine states currently have some sort of anti-SLAPP laws on the books.  In Texas, for example, courts can expedite dismissal of SLAPP suits and enforce sanctions against plaintiffs in such cases designed to “deter the party who brought the legal action from bringing similar actions” in the future.  There are no anti-SLAPP statutes in North Carolina.

Robust public discourse is essential to a healthy democracy.  It helps shape public opinion which, ideally, should guide policymakers who are elected to serve their constituents.  The Founders of this nation were concerned enough about protecting that discourse to craft the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. If threats of litigation diminish today’s public debate or silence criticism of elected officials, it’s something that should concern us all.