School with sordid segregationist history reopens as a charter. NC Director of Charter Schools praises its commitment to diversity.

A Halifax County private school which was founded as a reaction against racial integration efforts in the 1960s has re-opened as a taxpayer-funded public charter.

North Carolina Director of Charter Schools Dave Machado attended Wednesday’s opening ceremony and praised the school’s transformation, saying “They kept coming back with stronger applications and I just think it’s exciting to see this large population of very diverse students.  It’s exactly what a charter school should look like.”

Hobgood’s charter application was laser focused on giving children a way out of poverty through education.  It noted that “the potential exists to turn the tide of poverty in this community through excellence in education” and referred to Hobgood as “the perfect place to impact the most vulnerable of our children.”  Hobgood’s professional development plan for teachers also includes diversity training using Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty–materials which have been criticized by some for reinforcing biases and ignoring the systems that actually perpetuate poverty.

While goals of helping children of poverty and working toward more integrated schools are laudable, they’re also effective marketing points for a private school whose only hope in staying open may be to turn charter.   

During Hobgood’s campaign to convert to a public charter school, a Google Site called “Let’s Charter Hobgood” was set up to organize and inform the school’s parents.  After Rodney Pierce and I published a piece about Hobgood in the Washington Post, access to that site was restricted.  (I copied its contents beforehand and you can still view it here.)  

The Hobgood parent site confirms that the primary reason behind the school’s desire to become a public charter was not to increase diversity and expand opportunity for children of poverty at all.  Rather, it was to allow children who already went to the 87% White school to continue to attend it, instead of going to Halifax County Schools, where only 4% of students are White.  According to 2010 census data, Halifax County’s residents are 40% White and 53% Black.

The site referred to the steady increase in tuition and corresponding decline in enrollment as “deadly thin ice,” holding up other area private schools that had previous closed as ominous examples of what could happen if something didn’t change.  Hobgood’s charter application to the state also mentions “significant decline in enrollment” and acknowledges that the school’s $5,000 a year tuition may be a barrier to some families.

Hobgood parents who had concerns about converting from a private school to a public charter had raised questions to those leading the charge, and a handful of answers to those questions were posted to “Let’s Charter Hobgood.”  One of the answers reads “No current law forces any diversity whether it be by age, sex, race, creed.”  The question is missing, but it’s not hard to figure out what those parents were worried about.

It’s no coincidence that the history of Hobgood Academy is also rooted in desire by Halifax County’s White community to resist efforts at racial integration, as 2019 North Carolina Council for Social Studies Teacher of the Year and Halifax County native Rodney Pierce chronicled in a Twitter history lesson earlier this year:

Hobgood Academy was founded in 1969 and opened in September 1970. IMO, this was a direct response to the U.S. Justice Department’s rejection of the Halifax County Schools District’s plan of desegregation in March 1969 that did not comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The county’s White residents resisted integration in public education so much so that the late Rep. Thorne Gregory, who was from Scotland Neck, actually filed a bill in January of 1969 to establish a separate school district for his hometown. 

Blacks made up only 18 percent of the town’s population at the time and the bill would allow the town’s mayor and commissioners to set up a five member school board and establish a supplemental school tax of 50 cents for each $100 property valuation.  Additionally, there were 8,000 Black students and 2,300 White pupils in HCS, a ratio of nearly 4:1. 

Thorne’s bill passed the House in February 1969 and the Senate in March, with some impassioned pleas from late Senator Julian Allsbrook of Roanoke Rapids.  The Justice Department filed suit against the district in June 1969 and the case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs in June 1972 (U.S. v. Scotland Neck City Board of Education).  

Given the proximity of the town of Hobgood to the city of Scotland Neck, and the history of White residents of Scotland Neck attempting to establish their own separate public school district, I don’t think it’s a reach to think that some of those families who resisted integration banded together to start a private academy for their children. 

Demographic data for the newly christened Hobgood Charter Academy is not yet available on the North Carolina Department of Instruction’s statistical profile, so it remains to be seen whether its racial composition has significantly changed to resemble anything close to that of the county around it.  

What is clear is that North Carolina’s newest charter school will now receive more than $2 million in state funds.  The majority of that tab will be paid by Halifax County Schools via charter pass-through transfer funding, taking resources away from students in one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.

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NC Superintendent offers iPads to charter schools–but there’s a catch

North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson has offered to provide the state’s charter schools with iPads.  The catch? They only get the tablets if they agree to use the controversial new K-3 reading assessment Istation.

Last week news broke that 3,269 iPads Johnson had purchased were sitting in a DPI warehouse in Raleigh.  A day later, Johnson and DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson explained that ‘extensive, strategic work’ had occurred throughout the summer to develop a plan to provide schools with resources including iPads.

But an email sent by NC Director of Charter Schools Dave Machado to charter school directors just yesterday paints a picture of a department that appears to be scrambling to figure out what to do with those iPads.  In the message, Machado explained that DPI is providing tablets “for teachers at charter schools that have signed up to use the new Read to Achieve diagnostic tool.” 

Charter schools have the flexibility to decide what tool to use to assess K-3 reading.  Increasing the number of charter schools that are using Istation would be a PR victory for a superintendent who has endured intense criticism since announcing his decision to select the assessment tool against the recommendation of a committee of evaluators.

The practice of providing iPads only to charter schools which agree to use Istation also conflicts sharply with a communication Superintendent Johnson sent to all North Carolina teachers earlier this week, in which he urged teachers to use tablets provided by DPI “for any literacy activities in your classroom you want.”

On the same day Machado emailed charter school directors this hilariously simple survey to answer in order to claim their iPads, the North Carolina Department of Information Technology issued a stay blocking the use of Istation while it reviews the process the Department of Public Instruction followed to award the contract. 

There is no word yet from DPI on whether charter schools will be issued iPads while the contract fiasco is being sorted out.

NC Department of Information Technology pauses Istation implementation in order to review contract award

The North Carolina Department of Information Technology (DIT) has granted Amplify’s Motion to Stay the Istation contract pending administrative review of the process the Department of Public Instruction followed in awarding it.

After Superintendent Mark Johnson denied Amplify’s official protest of his decision to award the K-3 reading assessment contract to computer-based Istation, Amplify appealed the denial to DIT. With the school year set to begin, Amplify also requested the contract itself be paused while the matter is considered. DIT has granted that motion and Istation implementation now appears to be on hold.

In a statement, Amplify CEO Larry Berger said, “We learned today our motion to stay the K-3 reading assessment contract award to Istation has been granted by the NC Department of Information Technology (DIT). This decision means that Istation must halt its implementation while the proceeding is pending with DIT. We look forward to working with NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and DIT to ensure that all educators in the state have the critical opportunity to understand their students’ reading development at the beginning of the school year, just as they have in the past.”

Amplify now has 30 days to prepare Prehearing Statements, and a Prehearing Scheduling Conference is set to take place at DIT on October 8.

You can read DIT’s motion below:



DIT-Motion-to-Stay

NC Superintendent addresses iPad discrepancy, promises distribution

A day after news broke that 3,269 iPads were sitting in DPI storage rather than being used in North Carolina schools, Superintendent Mark Johnson went on the defensive.  

Johnson had informed the State Board of Education last March that there were “just over 2,000” iPads at the textbook warehouse and that they would be distributed in spring or summer to be ready for use in the 2019-2020 school year.  But an August warehouse inventory showed the tablets were still sitting in storage–and the actual number was significantly higher.  

On Wednesday, DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson told the media there was an “extensive, strategic” plan to distribute the tablets to North Carolina schools, and that 800 additional iPads were purchased last month as a part of that plan.  He said details about the plan would be announced next week.

In comments to WRAL, Superintendent Johnson blamed September 2018’s Hurricane Florence for the long delay.  He also attempted to deflect attention by taking a shot at former Superintendent June Atkinson:

“It’s so exciting that the money that I saved in my superintendent’s budget – because I just spend less than my predecessor – I actually bought books for children, and we bought 800 extra iPads to put on top of that.”

Johnson didn’t explain which budget line item was used to purchase the latest iPads.  There is no “superintendent’s budget.”  

3,269 iPads are collecting dust in the NC Department of Public Instruction textbook warehouse

Almost exactly one year ago, North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson announced a major technology purchase for K-3 teachers:  everyone would be getting an iPad.  

Eyebrows shot up all over the state, especially the eyebrows of anyone who had recently seen the price tags at an Apple store. 

NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) spokesman Drew Elliot said literacy consultants had recommended iPads as the overwhelming choice for early elementary children, and that purchasing a large number of devices meant a bulk discount and no sales tax.  The department put the overall cost of the iPads at around $6 million for 24,000 tablets.

Just when taxpayers’ eyebrows had settled down to their standard position, a story by NC Policy Watch’s Billy Ball shot them right back up again.  It turned out the iPad purchase had come mere months after Mark Johnson and a handful of influential state legislators were wined and dined at Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. 

At its September 2018 meeting, the State Board of Education had some pointed questions for Superintendent Johnson, as board members objected to not being notified prior to this large expenditure.  According to meeting minutes and social media accounts by those in attendance, Johnson bristled and asked that such questions occur by telephone or email rather than at a public meeting.

Apart from the ethical questions raised by the interaction with Apple, the fact that this purchase was made by the superintendent at all was problematic.  State law holds that individual school districts should be provided with funds for electronic devices and allowed to make decisions about purchases on their own.  After all, each district’s needs and capabilities are different.  

At the February meeting of the State Board of Education, Mark Johnson acknowledged as much, admitting that some districts preferred to use Google Chromebooks and noting there were unused iPads remaining in the warehouse (apparently they were sent out to school districts that didn’t want them and then returned).  

Johnson said the plan was to distribute those iPads in the spring.  When pressed by board member Wayne McDevitt on the exact number of iPads in the warehouse, the superintendent said he didn’t have the exact number but it was in the “low thousands.”

When the State Board met in March, Superintendent Johnson was again asked how many iPads remained in the warehouse, this time by Chairman Eric Davis.  Johnson put the number at “just over 2,000” and said they would be distributed in spring and summer so they could be used for the 2019-2020 school year.

It turns out that number was off–by quite a lot.

According to a source within DPI, as of August 2019, the number of iPads currently in the warehouse is 3,269.  That’s right, nearly 15% of the iPads Mark Johnson bought without consulting districts are collecting dust at the North Carolina Textbook Warehouse in Raleigh.  

Let’s leave aside for a moment the argument that these tablets should probably never have been purchased to begin with, due to ethical and procedural considerations.  The fact is they belong to North Carolina taxpayers now. And they need to be in classrooms in front of our students.

**update: A day after this piece was published, Superintendent Mark Johnson offered an explanation for the discrepancy in numbers between how many warehoused iPads were reported to the State Board of Education in March and how many are currently in inventory. Johnson said he purchased an additional 800 iPads last month.

Help is on the way for North Carolina Virtual Public School teachers


This week more than 200 teachers with North Carolina Virtual Public Schools (NCVPS) were notified of an impending mandatory 31-day break in their service due to a state law governing temporary employees.  While NCVPS employment had been permitted under the statute for years, the Office of State Human Resources (OSHR) recently determined that the arrangement was out of compliance.

The furloughs would impact fall semester course offerings for thousands of students statewide who rely on the platform. 

In a Friday letter to NCVPS educators, State Board of Education chairman Eric Davis noted the “significant, practical” impacts the furloughs would have on teachers, students, and school districts.  With the beginning of the traditional school year right around the corner, the State Board and the Department of Public Instruction are working with members of the General Assembly and the Governor’s office to address the problem. 

Late Friday, the State Board’s Director of Government Relations Cecilia Holden said the board had requested a temporary waiver from OSHR and was working with the General Assembly to find a solution.  Among others, one option being reviewed is the possibility of identifying and enacting a limited legislative exemption from this requirement for NCVPS temporary employees.

Holden noted that House K-12 Education Committee Chair Craig Horn shared that the Staff and Education Chairs are working on a solution to this issue and feel that they have the situation well in hand.  They expect to have the problem solved before any such furloughs are implemented. She added, “In this time of need, we are thankful to our legislators who are working diligently to partner with K-12 education for the benefit of our students.”

SBE_NCVPS_memo_8022019

NC chapter of International Dyslexia Association releases statement of concern over Istation adoption

The North Carolina chapter of the International Dyslexia Association, a nonprofit dedicated to education and advocacy about dyslexia, has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the adoption of K-3 computer-based reading test Istation.

In a statement posted on its website and on social media, the group expressed concern over the assessment’s ability to “effectively identify students at risk of dyslexia” and suggested that LEAs will now need additional tools in order to screen students for dyslexia as required by state law.

Last week Superintendent Mark Johnson addressed the dyslexia issue in his denial of Amplify’s protest of the Istation contract award.  Johnson insisted that Istation’s “measures can confidently be used to screen for dyslexia,” but he added that state law “does not actually require the Read to Achieve tool to serve as a dyslexia screener for the state.” 

You can read NCIDA’s statement in its entirety below.

NCIDA-response-to-iStation-for-North-Carolina

DPI’s unreleased public records could shed light on how Istation won NC contract

Last week Superintendent Mark Johnson denied Amplify’s protest of his decision to award North Carolina’s $8.3 million K-3 reading assessment contract to Istation.  He no doubt hoped it would serve as his finishing move in a conflict that began nearly two months ago with his surprise announcement.

Istation President Ossa Fisher released a statement calling on “the losing vendor” to “accept the decision of the Department of Instruction, and discontinue its aggressive political and media campaign aimed at dividing the education community” so that North Carolina’s schools can move forward with the computer-based reading test.

For its part, Amplify will now most likely look to the Department of Information Technology to review the controversial procurement process in hopes that it will intervene.  And all across the state, teachers and students will begin to use a tool which a broad and knowledgeable team of educators decided was not the best choice for our kids.

I have spent untold hours this summer–as have many others–digging into what really happened with this procurement.  Even after all that digging, the question many of us keep coming back to is why?  

Why would the state superintendent disregard the recommendation of an evaluation committee which spent weeks reviewing four vendors before overwhelmingly recommending mClass?  Why would he make such a monumental change to how nearly a half million of our youngest readers are tested, knowing full well there would be a massive backlash?  What could truly be motivating Superintendent Mark Johnson?  

The truth is, the general public doesn’t know.  However, there could easily be information in the public record which could help clarify the matter for those who still don’t feel it has been satisfactorily resolved.

On Friday, July 12, DPI released records which shed some light on the debacle–in some cases to people who had been waiting for as many as 5 weeks.  Those records clearly showed that Mark Johnson’s claims that the evaluation committee had not recommended mClass were false

Some wondered why a department with a reputation for a lack of transparency would have released documents which seemed damaging to the superintendent.  There are two likely reasons. First of all, state law is clear that public records and public information are “the property of the people.”  Refusal to provide that property upon request constitutes a violation of the law. Secondly, enough of those people requested the records and persistently demanded compliance that it was impossible for DPI to ignore them.

While DPI’s July 7 release did include information related to the work of the evaluation committee, the agency has yet to provide communication between Department of Public Instruction representatives and potential key players in the Istation saga which could very well help to answer the question “Why?” 

That communication is the property of the people, and the law is clear that the people must be given access to it if they so desire.  

This morning I filed the following request for information which I hope will shed additional light on Superintendent Johnson’s unexpected decision:
——–
Dear Mr. Wilson,

Under North Carolina Public Records Law, G.S. §132-1, I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of all communication including, but not limited to, emails and text messages from December 6, 2017, to the present date that meet the following criteria:

Communication between any employee of the Department of Public Instruction–including, but not limited to, Superintendent Mark Johnson (both email addresses mark.johnson@dpi.nc.gov and mrj@dpi.nc.gov), Chloe Gossage, and Ericka Berry–and the following:

  • Any and all employees or representatives of Imagination Station, also known as Istation
  • Any and all employees or representatives of Shanahan Law Group
  • Doug Miskew, lobbyist with Public Sector Group 
  • North Carolina Senator Phil Berger

As you know, the law requires that you respond to and fulfill this request “as promptly as possible.”  If you expect a significant delay in responding to and fulfilling this request, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.

If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.

Thanks in advance for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Justin Parmenter
Charlotte, NC
——-

I filed the request through DPI’s Public Records Request Form:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdHtqphq284ead-Bgc90z0vLxUdZ7O5BIaJjeZQnzrX4xDEiA/viewform

I then followed up with a separate email including the text of the request to DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson, who is ultimately responsible for managing information requests.  You can reach Mr. Wilson at graham.wilson@dpi.nc.gov.  

Although state law unambiguously mandates that state agencies must comply with information requests, the time frame for compliance is somewhat vague  The law simply states examination of records must be permitted “as promptly as possible.”

State employees have a lot on their plates, so I created this clock to help remind me to check in with DPI on the status of my request every couple of weeks or so.  You can create one here.

Mark Johnson seems eager to put the summer Istation fiasco behind him and move on with business as usual.  For nearly half a million K-3 children and thousands of teachers it will be anything but. They will be forced to use a computer-based tool that none of them asked for and an evaluation committee didn’t want.  

We deserve to know why.

NC Superintendent cites leaked text message criticizing his failed attempt to influence assessment outcome as reason for cancelling contract process

On Friday, NC Superintendent Mark Johnson responded to Amplify’s protest of his decision to award North Carolina’s multimillion dollar contract for a K-3 reading assessment to Istation the way many expected he would:  by defending the decision and standing by Istation.

Johnson’s explanation of the decision included interesting new details about why he chose to disregard the recommendation of his evaluation committee that North Carolina continue to use Amplify’s mClass tool and then cancel the initial Request for Proposal (RFP).

The superintendent cited language in a non-disclosure agreement signed by members of the RFP evaluation committee which states that “If it is discovered that there has been a breach of confidentiality by a member of this Committee . . . [t]he solicitation may be cancelled . . . .”  

He then provided a text message from “an anonymous whistleblower” which he said constituted a breach of that agreement and necessitated cancelling the procurement process.

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

RFP-meeting-January-8-with-Mark-Johnson

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

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!

While holding up this leaked text message as one reason for cancelling the procurement process, Johnson fails to acknowledge the charges it levels against him.  Individuals present in that January 8 meeting clearly felt that his intent was to convince them to change their unambiguous Amplify recommendation to a different vendor.  They also speculated that, when he failed to persuade them, he would try to find another avenue to get his way.

Two months later Johnson had his General Counsel Jonathan Sink inform the team that the RFP process would be cancelled due to an unspecified confidentiality breach (which it now appears was this text message) and the team’s failure to achieve unanimous consensus.

Now that its protest has officially been denied, Amplify will likely ask the Department of Information Technology to review the procurement in hopes that it will intervene.

NC Treasurer Dale Folwell has unexpected encounter with educators harmed by his health plan changes

photo credit Michael Landers

This week State Treasurer Dale Folwell had an unexpected encounter with two of the many North Carolina educators facing catastrophic increases in medical expenses as a result of changes he is making to the State Health Plan.  

It did not go very well.

Folwell claims his new Clear Pricing Project is necessary because confidential costs in medical care currently have the State Health Plan on a path toward insolvency.  Folwell’s plan establishes a new North Carolina State Health Plan Network which will set its “own rates instead of paying providers rates that are set under confidential contracts.”  Doctors and hospitals that choose not to participate in the Clear Pricing Project will be considered out of network and can charge patients whatever they want.

Here’s the problem:  Very few hospitals and doctors are interested in taking Folwell’s offer.  In fact, when his July 1 registration deadline passed, only three out of the roughly one hundred hospitals in the state had signed on.  

If nothing changes significantly in the standoff, many of North Carolina’s more than 700,000 state employees and retirees may soon find their current providers out of network and be saddled with medical bills they can’t pay.

Susan Ringo is a middle school librarian in Wilkesboro. She was recently diagnosed with a congenital health issue requiring regular treatment at a hospital which has not signed on to the Clear Pricing Plan.  She calls this a “truly terrifying situation.” Cabarrus County English teacher Michael Landers is diabetic and relies on Atrium Health–also not currently taking Folwell’s deal–to meet his health care needs.  Landers estimates his medical costs will double and that he will be unable to afford treatment on his teacher’s salary.

On Wednesday, Folwell came face to face with both of these educators on the set of the NC Public School Forum’s weekly television show Education Matters.  The treasurer had accepted an invitation to appear on the show and talk about the Clear Pricing Plan.  However, he was apparently unaware that he would have to be in the same room with people who are about to see their lives turned upside down by his changes to the health plan.  

Folwell appeared very uncomfortable with the feeling of accountability.

According to Michael Landers, Folwell was visibly agitated upon learning that the other participants in the show were educators.  When he was introduced to Landers and Ringo, Folwell asked how long they had been working in schools. Landers explained he’d been teaching 21 years, and the treasurer retorted, “How come you weren’t worried about this 20 years ago?”  Landers gave Folwell some background on his Type 1 diabetes, his insulin dependency, and fears over the pending increase in the cost of his medical care. Rather than reacting to the concerns with empathy, Folwell suggested Landers shop around and referred to the hospitals as “cartels,” a contemptuous term he has also used in public.  It’s an ominous sign of the mindset our state treasurer brings to sensitive negotiations as the well being of hundreds of thousands of state employees and their families hangs in the balance.

Mr. Folwell would do well to engage in some soul searching about the root cause of his discomfort on the set of Education Matters.  I would imagine it’s a lot easier to live with the negative impact of your actions when those most affected are largely anonymous to you.

But the state employees who are facing serious harm because of Folwell’s Clear Pricing Project are more than just numbers on a spreadsheet.  They are Susan Ringo, and Michael Landers, and thousands of others who have dedicated their lives to serving our state. They deserve a lot better than to be unwilling victims of Dale Folwell’s dangerous game of chicken.

You can catch this week’s episode of Education Matters in the following ways: