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.


Superintendent Mark Johnson is doling out iPads like Santa Claus

NC Superintendent Mark Johnson and his iPads are making news again.  

In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, Johnson sent 200 of the tablets to students and teachers of hurricane-ravaged Ocracoke School.  

Then on Monday, Johnson slid down the chimney for a surprise visit and photo opportunity at Junius H. Rose High School in non-hurricane ravaged Pitt County, dropping off 100 iPads for math teacher Tracy Moore, whom he said he “knew from a previous visit.”

At yesterday’s meeting of the State Board of Education, Johnson was asked some pointed questions by board chair Eric Davis, who wanted to better understand the selection process for iPad distribution:

“How do we respond when the question is, ‘Well, what criteria is used to make these awards and how does my school get into the queue to be considered for these awards?'” Davis asked.

“They can email me,” Johnson said.

“That’s the criteria?” Davis said.

Board members and the public are right to be concerned over the practice of one individual using taxpayer funds to arbitrarily hand out iPads as personal favors to teachers.  This approach does not allow for the equitable distribution of resources that our students deserve.  

Pitt County, for example, is certainly a high-need district, and 46.5% of students at Junius H Rose are classified as economically disadvantaged.  But Pitt is ranked as a Tier 2 county by the NC Department of Commerce in terms of level of economic distress–and it’s surrounded by six other counties that are in even worse shape economically.  I’m sure they’d also love some iPads in Wilson County. Or Edgecombe.

Unfortunately, time is running out for teachers in those Tier 1 districts to email Johnson and secure Apple’s latest technology for their students.  The Department of Public Instruction purchased 800 of the tablets over the summer, which means only 500 now remain.

The superintendent says the 800 iPads came from money he was able to save because he is so awesome at being fiscally conservative, and he claims he has the discretion to use that money as he sees fit: 

“We are doing such a better job with the operations of this department than was done in year’s past under previous leadership,” Johnson said. “Things are operating more efficiently and more effectively, and when you do that, you end up finding that there’s money leftover at the year, What I decided to do with that money at the end of the year, was to purchase iPads because they are something that’s in high demand, regardless of whether you’re a high school math teacher or if you’re a K-3 reading teacher.”

Johnson may need to answer some questions from the NC Office of State Budget and Management about transferring resources which the General Assembly has allocated for a specific purpose to separate government entities (LEAs) without authorization.  

Even Santa Claus should be subject to checks and balances.

Legislators set to add four more NC schools to floundering Innovative School District

North Carolina state legislators are poised to add four more schools to the Innovative School District (ISD)–despite a complete lack of evidence that the approach has improved outcomes for students thus far.

Unless something changes, the four schools will join Robeson County’s Southside Ashpole Elementary, which just completed its first year as the only school currently being managed by the ISD.

Results so far are grim.  When the latest round of School Report Card grades were released this month, Southside Ashpole maintained its F rating.

While math scores increased slightly over the previous year, reading results at Southside Ashpole actually declined by 5% after the first year of ISD management.

Poor academic results are not the only warning sign coming out of the General Assembly’s Innovative School District.  The success of any endeavor in education depends in part on stable leadership. The past three months have seen the departure of three key leaders in the ISD effort.  LaTeesa Allen, who served as Superintendent of the Innovative School District, left the ISD at the end of June after only 9 months under circumstances which have never been explained by the Department of Public Instruction.  Bruce Major, principal of Southside Ashpole, quit unexpectedly in July after only one year on the job.  And the CEO of Achievement for All Children, which operates Southside Ashpole, abruptly resigned his position last month.  

The Innovative School District was originally created by the Republican supermajority in 2016 with votes in both chambers breaking down largely along party lines. Under existing legislation, the ISD Superintendent must inform districts next month which schools have been recommended for placement in the ISD.  The State Board of Education then has until mid-December to approve those schools for takeover by Innovative School Operators for the 2020-21 school year.  

Accountability-and-ISD-53

A bill currently in conference committee would relax the terms of the Innovative School District somewhat, requiring only one school to be added to the ISD each of the next three school years and giving schools more advance notice and time to improve before they are taken over.  

So far, votes on SB 522 appear to be following the same party lines, with Democrats indicating they’d prefer to let Republican lawmakers live with the results of legislation which probably never should have been passed to begin with rather than help make changes which leave the failed approach to school turnaround largely intact. 

The 12 schools currently under consideration for takeover by the Innovative School District are below, along with the criteria for their selection. 

Accountability-and-ISD-54

Accountability-and-ISD-52

Mark Johnson’s open defiance of a government agency decision is a big deal

Image result for mark johnson nc angry

*this article was originally published by the Charlotte Observer

Superintendent Mark Johnson’s startling defiance of another state agency’s authority has thrown the process of assessing North Carolina’s K-3 students into uncertainty as the new school year gets underway.  

Last year a broad evaluation committee made up of Department of Public Instruction (DPI) employees, professional educators, and subject matter experts overwhelmingly recommended Amplify’s mClass for the assessment contract.  Johnson then cancelled the procurement process under dubious circumstances and assembled a new committee which would recommend Istation’s computer-based assessment instead. When details emerged that called the process’s adherence to procurement rules into question, Amplify appealed the decision to DPI.  After DPI rejected the appeal, Amplify filed a Request for Administrative Hearing with the Department of Information Technology (DIT).  That’s the state agency charged with making sure that other agencies follow North Carolina’s rules and procedures when procuring information technology.

DIT was concerned enough by Amplify’s allegations to grant its request for a temporary stay of the Istation contract’s implementation while the agency reviews the process the state superintendent followed in awarding it.  Upon completion of that review, DIT has the authority to issue a decision on whether or not the Istation contract is valid.

In his initial public statement about the development, Mark Johnson referred to the stay as “improper” and said, “DIT lawyers need to understand they are accountable to North Carolinians, not the CEO of Amplify.”  Just a few days later, Johnson announced that Istation would provide its services for free so that North Carolina schools could continue using the tool, saying, “Istation believes in supporting public education in North Carolina so much, they have agreed to continue training teachers at no additional cost during this ridiculous DIT review.”  Istation President Ossa Fisher said the company would “work with DPI, educators, parents, and students without pay until the issues surrounding the stay are resolved.”

Istation may be providing its product for free, but it’s free in the sense that a puppy is free.  Use of a brand new assessment tool requires a significant investment of time and energy by school personnel.  Those things aren’t free.

With the state superintendent indicating that schools should keep using an assessment which another agency has put on hold, the vitally important work of assessing our youngest readers has descended into confusion all over the state.  Some districts such as Wake and Cabarrus have contracted directly with Amplify to use the mClass tool on their own dime, and some are using other tools to track student reading progress. But a considerable number of districts are following Johnson’s lead and proceeding as if Istation’s contract will be upheld, training teachers on how to use Istation and assessing students on the tool.  The mClass application has been removed from the state’s electronic platform NCEdCloud and replaced with Istation. With Mark Johnson’s blessing, Istation assessments are now collecting data on North Carolina students, despite the fact that the company’s contract has been put on hold by DIT.  

While Superintendent Johnson can disagree with DIT’s decision, he should know better than to run roughshod over due process.  After all, as Johnson reminded everyone last month, he’s not just superintendent, he’s also a lawyer. Personally endorsing and advocating for a product that hasn’t gone through proper procurement to operate in North Carolina–as the free offering of Istation has not–appears to be a deliberate attempt to subvert the decision of a governing authority.  North Carolina’s public school families deserve better than this poor leadership and the chaos that surrounds the important work of evaluating our children’s reading abilities.

NC House Republicans resort to slimy tricks to prevent decent educator pay raises

As schools opened their doors to students across North Carolina this week, the budget stalemate dragged on with no end in sight.  Taxpayers have now spent more than a million dollars since Governor Cooper’s veto to support Republicans’ false hopes of an override.  The daily cost is roughly equivalent to the average salary of a public school counselor.  Let that sink in for a minute.

Here in Charlotte, educators who worked hard last year to help elect a more education-friendly Board of County Commissioners and saw a county budget passed which makes CMS teachers the highest paid in the state are not seeing a single cent of that raise while the impasse continues.

A new piecemeal strategy is emerging with state legislators introducing a series of “mini budget” bills which are essentially just individual pieces of the state budget Cooper vetoed two months ago.  On Friday the governor signed into law pay raises for state employees such as State Bureau of Investigations, Alcohol Law Enforcement and Highway Patrol.  The bill did not include pay raises for educators. Cooper said, “We appreciate our hardworking state employees across North Carolina. However, Republicans are insisting that teachers get a smaller pay raise than other state employees. This hurts our efforts to attract and keep highly qualified teachers in every classroom. I urge Republican legislators to pass a pay raise that doesn’t shortchange teachers.”

Pay raises for some educators were actually proposed in a separate bill this week.  Under the House proposal, non-certified staff including custodians, bus drivers and teaching assistants would have received an insulting 1% annual increase.

When House Republicans got wind that their Democratic counterparts planned to offer amendments to increase the pay raises, they resorted to a little-known legislative trick to prevent those amendments from being heard. 

Here’s how CMS Government Relations Coordinator Charles Jeter explained the shenanigans in his weekly newsletter:

A little known rule in the NCGA is the amendment process to bills on the floor. See, most people assume that any relevant matter to a bill can be put forward as an amendment. And in most cases that’s true. So if we’re debating a bill about the speed limit and the bill says NC is going to lower the speed limit to 65mph statewide, I could make an amendment on floor to change it to 100mph statewide instead. But, I cannot run that amendment if it changes the title of the bill. So my amendment to change the statewide speed limit to 100mph is perfectly fine if the bill title is An Act to Set the Maximum Speed Limit in North Carolina. But that exact same amendment is out of order and cannot be considered if the title of the bill is An Act to Set the Maximum Speed Limit in North Carolina to 65mph. See, if the title of the bill includes a specific speed limit, then by NCGA rules, I cannot make an amendment to change the proposed speed limit of 65mph since it would change the title of the bill. Got it? Well welcome to HB 426. See HB 426 was dealing with pay raises for non-certified school district employees, state retirees, and community college employees among others. But while the Republicans in the House assumed that this bill would pass just as quickly and unanimously as the other four similar bills did, they were surprised to learn that the Democrats decided to file about ten amendments to adjust the percentage of pay increases listed in the bill. Since the House Republicans were primarily focused on passing pay raises that matched the exact same numbers that were in the budget passed by the NCGA back in June, Democrats decided this was the perfect opportunity to start stalled budget negotiations again. And now, because these amendments would change the title of the bill, they could no longer be offered. In response to this bill title change, the Democrats pledged to vote against the bill, and with that, the bill was removed from consideration with no indication whether or not it will ever be considered again.

In case you’re curious, the title Republicans gave the bill is as follows:

A BILL TO BE ENTITLED AN ACT CONSISTENT WITH THE PROVISIONS OF THE CONFERENCE COMMITTEE SUBSTITUTE AND COMMITTEE REPORT FOR HOUSE BILL 966 OF THE 2019 REGULAR SESSION (1) APPROPRIATING FUNDS TO AWARD LEGISLATIVELY MANDATED SALARY INCREASES IN EACH YEAR OF THE 2019-2021 FISCAL BIENNIUM TO EMPLOYEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AT A FUNDING LEVEL SUPPORTING A ONE-HALF OF ONE PERCENT INCREASE AND TO EMPLOYEES OF THE COMMUNITY COLLEGE SYSTEM AT A FUNDING LEVEL SUPPORTING A ONE PERCENT INCREASE PURSUANT TO POLICIES ADOPTED BY THE BOARD OF GOVERNORS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA AND THE STATE BOARD OF COMMUNITY COLLEGES, RESPECTIVELY, AND ALSO APPROPRIATING FUNDS FOR FACULTY RETENTION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA IN THE AMOUNT OF SIX MILLION DOLLARS FOR THE 2019-2020 FISCAL YEAR AND ELEVEN MILLION FOUR HUNDRED THIRTY-THREE THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED THIRTEEN DOLLARS FOR THE 2020-2021 FISCAL YEAR, (2) APPROPRIATING FUNDS FOR THE 2019-2020 FISCAL YEAR TO PROVIDE A ONE PERCENT SALARY INCREASE FOR NONCERTIFIED PUBLIC SCHOOL EMPLOYEES OR A PRORATED AMOUNT AS APPROPRIATE AND EXPRESSING THE INTENTION OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO APPROPRIATE FUNDS FOR THE 2020-2021 FISCAL YEAR TO PROVIDE A ONE PERCENT SALARY INCREASE FOR NONCERTIFIED PUBLIC SCHOOL EMPLOYEES OR A PRORATED AMOUNT AS APPROPRIATE, (3) REQUIRING THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION TO STUDY AND REPORT TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY ON SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST AND SCHOOL COUNSELOR POSITIONS, (4) SETTING THE EMPLOYER CONTRIBUTION RATES FOR RETIREMENT AND RELATED BENEFITS, (5) PROVIDING TWO ONE-TIME COST-OF-LIVING SUPPLEMENTS THAT ARE BOTH IN THE AMOUNT OF ONE-HALF OF ONE PERCENT OF A BENEFICIARY’S ANNUAL RETIREMENT ALLOWANCE, (6) APPROPRIATING FUNDS TO IMPLEMENT CONNER’S LAW, AND (7) AMENDING SPECIAL INSURANCE BENEFITS OFFERINGS. 

Republican legislators seem to be operating as if they still hold a veto-proof majority.  They don’t. It’s time for lawmakers to come to the table and engage in good faith negotiations, including allowing for the debate which is so essential to a healthy democracy.  

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.

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.