A state legislator is howling indoctrination because my 7th graders are learning the ocean is polluted

A member of the North Carolina House of Representatives held up my teaching as an example of harmful indoctrination of children this week as state legislators met to discuss a new bill which would require teachers to post their lesson plans online for public review.

The K-12 Education Committee approved HB 755, also known as “An Act to Ensure Academic Transparency.” It passed the House by a vote of 66-50 and now moves on to the Senate.  

The legislation mandates that all lesson plans, including information about any supporting instructional materials as well as procedures for how an in-person review of lesson materials may be requested, be “prominently displayed” on school websites.  

Iredell County Republican Representative Jeffrey McNeely gave the bill two enthusiastic thumbs up, pointing to my teaching as an example of the hidden indoctrination that will be exposed if the bill is passed into law:

We tend to come to teach our kids with everything with a twist to it.  And I think transparency is one of the most important things we can do, and maybe what we’ve learned from this pandemic, through virtual, some of the parents actually seeing what their children are taught and how they’re taught. 

I saw in the Charlotte Observer the other week a English teacher was complaining because he had to do remote learning and in-person learning at the same time and it caused him to shorten his English class on environmental pollution. 

What you think about that? 

So I think this putting out to me this will help the parents going to the next grade be able to look and see what that teacher taught the year before, and hopefully we’re just gonna teach the kids, we’re not gonna try to indoctrinate ’em or teach ’em in a certain way to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write the ability to read.

McNeely is referring to an editorial I published in the Charlotte Observer last week about my experiences with hybrid teaching during the COVID 19 pandemic.  In the article I discussed being in the middle of a lesson with students both in person and on Zoom when the fire alarm rang, forcing me to prematurely end class for my remote students in the middle of an important conversation.

The Iredell County legislator ignored the overall point I was making about the challenges the pandemic has wrought for teachers and students, directing his tunnel vision at my opening words:  “Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class…

For McNeely, this line, which I “prominently displayed” in the state’s three largest newspapers, exposes a sinister plot to deviate from state standards in support of the leftist agenda.  Why else would an English teacher be discussing environmental pollution with students, if not “to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write the ability to read”?

I teach 7th grade English Language Arts in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  We use EL Education’s Language Arts curriculum, which is organized into modules that last several weeks.  (The curriculum is open source, so materials are prominently displayed here.)

While working toward mastering state ELA standards, this year my students have studied the Lost Children of Sudan and the Harlem Renaissance, and right now we’re learning about plastic pollution.  Through our current module, Mecklenburg County’s 7th grade students have gained an understanding of how plastic has become an integral part of our lives over the years but also how much of it makes its way into the world’s oceans as microplastics, harming wildlife and posing a threat to humans as well.  

not “something other than the facts”

Not having a background in education, Representative McNeely may not be aware that teaching students to read and write involves selecting topics for them to read and write about

This process allows teachers to create a broad and engaging educational experience for students and enables us to integrate instruction across subject areas so that our students see connections in class content between my English class, for example, and their social studies, science, and math classes.  It’s not a leftist plot, it’s how school is supposed to work.  

This drum beating over indoctrination of students is getting completely absurd.  

The vast majority of the public trusts teachers to do their jobs and understands that we already have way too much on our plates without adding the enormous burden of posting everything we do in class online for the pleasure of Representative McNeely and the fringe handful of his constituents who are convinced they’re fighting an end of days culture war.

McNeely and his misguided colleagues need to put down their pitchforks and focus on doing what they were elected to do:  creating policies which will actually improve the lives of North Carolinians.

Hybrid COVID-19 classrooms are not sustainable for NC schools

*this article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer

Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class when the fire alarm rang. Fire alarms are a regular occurrence in schools, but this time I happened to have half my class present in the room and the other half attending on Zoom. With no idea whether it was a drill or a real fire, I was forced to tell my remote students class was ending, quickly shut down my laptop and lead my in-person students out to safety in the parking lot.

In a school year where unexpected challenges have become commonplace, this SNAFU didn’t seem to faze students. But as their teacher it struck me as a vivid example of the limitations of the hybrid model.

Hybrid teaching has been absolutely necessary this year. The COVID pandemic has killed almost 600,000 Americans and it’s still not over. It has been crucial to provide families with a remote option so they can make the right decisions for their own health and safety, and conducting business in survival mode has meant that public schools have not had the time or resources to create high quality virtual-only alternatives.

The result has been teachers doing the best they can to teach both online and in-person students at the same time. This approach has had definite drawbacks. Students who are learning from home are often not getting the individual attention they need, and those in the classroom are still spending way too much time staring at screens. With the added chaos of regular technology challenges, it has been far too easy for unengaged students to slip through the cracks despite the valiant efforts of their teachers to hold it all together. And the time and energy required to teach two different ways at once has many educators on the edge of burnout.

Too often our practice as a society is to put more and more on the plates of classroom teachers without sufficient attention to how our actions are impacting staff morale or the quality of instruction. As this school year draws to a close, it’s time to talk about how we will handle remote learning going forward to ensure that it’s a good experience for all stakeholders.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the innovation this health crisis has required has revealed things about all of us that we didn’t previously know. Virtual learning has worked very well for some. Certain teachers have developed amazing online teaching skills, and some students have flourished with the added responsibility and independence that it takes for successful learning from home. Having had a year to watch things play out, public school parents in many North Carolina counties are calling for an expansion of remote alternatives beyond the pandemic.

Durham Public Schools has already announced the launch of a new all-remote academy for the 2021-22 school year. Wake County is in the planning phase of a similar move. For its part, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is getting ready to survey parents to gauge interest. Legislation has been filed in both the North Carolina House and Senate which could also impact how virtual schools operate in the fall, so there are quite a few balls still in the air. All of which will cost money. Lawmakers should be prepared to help districts pay.

As our decision makers wrestle with how to chart the right path forward for virtual learning, the starting point must be acknowledging that hybrid learning is a “break in case of emergency” only option. Remote learning should require a long term commitment by families, and virtual schools need to be staffed by teachers who are skilled at that work and are able to focus on it exclusively.

Good teaching requires continual reflection on what’s working and what isn’t in an effort to continually improve. Here’s hoping that approach shapes policy decisions on virtual schools as well.

Standardized testing during a pandemic makes zero sense

*this piece was first published by USA Today

When Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump for the presidency in 2020, many of our nation’s pandemic-weary educators had reason for optimism.  The change in leadership meant an exit for the spectacularly unpopular Betsy DeVos, a Secretary of Education whose lack of ed credentials and support for privatization had galled public school teachers for four years.  It meant we’d have a real teacher as First Lady in Dr. Jill Biden, someone with first-hand knowledge of the plight of educators who could hopefully encourage President Biden to live up to his lofty campaign promises about education.  

One such promise had to do with standardized testing.  

In December 2019, at an MSNBC public education forum for Democratic presidential hopefuls, Biden was asked if he would commit to ending standardized testing in public schools.  His answer was emphatic and clear: 

“Yes. You are preaching to the choir.  Teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.”

One month into Biden’s tenure as president, that educator optimism took a big hit recently when the Department of Education released a memo clarifying its position on standardized testing for spring 2021, saying the department would not consider “blanket waivers of assessments.”  

As Biden pick for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has not yet been confirmed, the memo was written by Acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum. Rosenblum has been a strong supporter of the use of standardized tests and a vocal critic of those who opt out of such tests in his role as Executive Director of education reform nonprofit The Education Trust–New York.

The Department of Education memo explains that standardized testing is necessary at this moment because “it is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning.”  At the same time, the DOE acknowledges that “the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year,” and suggests that remote administration of tests is one approach for districts to consider.

As a teacher who has been teaching online in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the last year, I find it hard to believe that the Department of Education can talk about the importance of accurately measuring the impact of the pandemic on learning and suggest remote administration of standardized tests with the same breath–and keep a straight face while doing it.

Questions about the general legitimacy of this form of assessment for measuring student learning aside, the results I’ve seen from formative standardized tests administered online this school year as a classroom teacher have been all over the place.  

Some students are repeatedly flagged for “Rapid Guessing” by the testing software, indicating they aren’t spending enough time on each test item to actually be reading the questions and answer choices.  Those students’ results are generally significantly lower than I know their abilities to be from my own classroom level assessment data.  Other scores are so high and out of line with results from previous years that they raise questions about who might actually be taking the test on the other end.  

As a result, much of the test data is highly suspect and has to be taken with a huge grain of salt when making instructional decisions.

The Department of Education memo argues that standardized testing during the pandemic is also essential for equity purposes, saying the data will help us to “be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs.”   

This virus has disproportionately impacted people of color, and that fact has led, unsurprisingly, to students of color choosing remote instruction in higher numbers.  Given the alarming lack of validity of test data when assessments are administered at home, it makes zero sense to proceed with remote administration out of an urgent need for accurate data.

That’s not to say that students should all have to come to the physical school building to take standardized tests.  In the absence of guidance from the Trump administration, North Carolina schools required students to report to buildings to take required first semester End of Course tests–even if their families had opted for full remote out of health concerns.  The Department of Education memo acknowledges that’s not the right approach to take, saying, “We do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test.”  

In a district like Charlotte Mecklenburg, where more than 40% of students are attending school remotely due to the ongoing high rates of community COVID spread, that doesn’t leave schools with any good options for testing in school year 2020-2021.

We all agree that understanding where our children are academically and devising a plan to meet their needs is critical.  That’s what our public schools do every day, pandemic or no pandemic.  Forcing students to take standardized tests in the middle of a public health crisis will not enable us to do that work better.  Such an exercise would only exponentially increase the stress that students and staff already face in order to generate data that is largely unusable.  

If the federal government is truly interested in finding out what resources and supports public schools need at this moment, why don’t they try asking us?  We’d be more than happy to tell them.

Mecklenburg County judge officially dismisses lawsuit against CMS and NCAE

A Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge has officially dismissed all claims in a lawsuit filed by a group of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools parents who were unhappy about the district providing remote instruction during the pandemic.

Judge Karen Eady-Williams found that the plaintiffs had not established a Constitutional violation of the right to a sound basic education since the district was simply utilizing an instructional approach authorized by the governor.

She noted the facts as presented by the plaintiffs did not support “an illegal contract” between CMS Board and the North Carolina Association of Educators and also said facts didn’t show that remote instruction constituted an illegal work slowdown.

The judge’s order was filed today, and you can read it in its entirety below:

KEW-Foy-et-al-v-CMBE-et-al-FILED-ORDER

Free speech is still alive–court dismisses lawsuit against CMS and NCAE

A Superior Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education by a group of parents who are opposed to remote learning.

The suit stated that COVID-19 is less dangerous than the flu and that remote instruction is unnecessary and harmful. Plaintiffs argued the constitutional rights of students to a sound basic education and statutory right to uniform public schools are being violated by denying them in-person instruction, which they referred to as “Active Instruction.”

They asked the courts to force CMS to “reestablish Active Instruction to the fullest extent permitted by the Governor of the State of North Carolina.”

You’re probably wondering, what does this all have to do with NCAE?

Last July I was among a number of educators and community members, some NCAE members and some not, who voiced COVID safety concerns to the board and district leadership via email and public comments at a meeting of the Board of Education.

After that meeting, our school board decided to forego a planned two week in-person onboarding period and instead begin the school year in Plan C.

This lawsuit claimed that the action of educators speaking up about our own safety and that of our students constituted a violation of North Carolina state law prohibiting strikes, defined in law as “a cessation or deliberate slowing down of work.” It said “NCAE has coordinated a deliberate slowing down of work of CMS by way of denying and/or delaying Active Instruction to CMS Students.”

In the likely event that you didn’t follow that absurd logic, plaintiffs were arguing that educators speaking during public comments at a board meeting and then board members voting to open in Plan C amounted to an unlawful strike.

The suit singled me out repeatedly by name, accused me of having a “clear bias against Active Instruction” and claimed that “members of the NCAE organized a campaign to improperly influence and intimidate the Board members and Mr. Winston into issuing the Suspension of Active Instruction.”

Obviously NCAE has no authority on decisions about schools reopening, but the suit asked the courts to prohibit NCAE from advocating its position to the Board and to compel NCAE–a nonprofit organization supported by the dues of its members–to pay court costs.

In his Brief in Support of Motion to Dismiss, NCAE’s attorney Luke Largess noted that CMS’s actions were authorized by Governor Cooper’s executive orders and that under the separation of powers doctrine it’s not possible to declare the school district’s selection of an instructional option approved by the governor unlawful.

As for the claims specifically against NCAE, he pointed out that the same statute cited by plaintiffs prohibiting strikes also says the following:

nothing herein shall limit or impair the right of any public employee to express or communicate a complaint or opinion on any matter related to the conditions of public employment so long as the same is not designed to and does not interfere with the full, faithful, and proper performance of the duties of employment. 

He added, “Calling support of a lawful instructional plan an illegal work slowdown is not a cause of action – it is rhetorical flourish born of the palpable disdain of Plaintiffs and at least one board member for NCAE/CMAE support of remote instruction as a safety measure.”

Fortunately the judge agreed.

This pandemic is taking a toll on all of us.  It’s turned our educational system upside down, ruined people financially, and cost far too many families their loved ones.  It’s not surprising that we would have major disagreements over how to proceed as we try to find our way through to the other side.

With that said, the ability of public employees to petition their elected representatives and to speak out about workplace safety should be something that we can take for granted in a democratic society.  We cannot allow our legal system to be used in ways that result in people being afraid to do either of those things.

I’m grateful for the efforts of NCAE’s legal team in standing up for the rights of its members and successfully arguing for the dismissal of this frivolous suit.  There has never been a better time to join NCAE than right now.  For any North Carolina educators who are interested, please feel free to reach out to me for more information, or visit this link.  

Want more in-person classes? Vaccinate educators

*This piece first appeared in the Charlotte Observer

On the day North Carolina’s first COVID vaccine was administered last month, Governor Cooper tempered optimism, saying, “Seeing vaccinations underway gives us hope at the end of a hard year. But this virus continues to be extremely contagious and deadly.”

In the six weeks since, we’ve seen a frightening nationwide spike in viral infection rates and hospitalizations.  A change in guidelines by the CDC expanded early vaccine eligibility to include everyone age 65 and older.  The new criteria placed a lot of people ahead of essential workers, effectively moving North Carolina’s educators further back in the line.  There are currently no vaccines on the horizon for the vast majority of CMS educators and the rest of Group 3, and Mecklenburg County has yet to announce how it intends to vaccinate such a large group.

The lack of educator vaccines hasn’t stopped those advocating for an immediate return to in-person learning.  A recent opinion piece by CDC staff is being used as ammunition in that battle–despite the fact that it calls for a number of approaches that aren’t currently in place, including closing restaurants, ensuring outside air ventilation and using screening tests in schools to identify asymptomatic carriers.  

The rocky vaccine rollout has been confounded by factors such as limited supply and logistical snags.  But for many local educators, returning to in-person learning at a time of double digit positivity rates without being vaccinated first is a risk they’d prefer not to take.

Last week Alabama’s State Health Officer expanded that state’s vaccine eligibility to include educators.  The move came shortly after the deaths of four Montgomery Public Schools teachers led the state’s fourth largest district to draw a line in the sand and say classes would remain remote until vaccines were available for employees.  

That kind of support for North Carolina educators is sorely needed from decision makers at all levels.  Instead, having faced tremendous backlash from reopening advocates after recommending virtual instruction, County Health Director Gibbie Harris made one key change last week when extending a county health directive through February:  language advising remote learning has been removed.  The county’s announcement of the modified directive paraphrased the same CDC opinion piece as saying “with appropriate safety measures in place schools can be a safe location for students to learn.” It failed to mention that the safety measures in question are not actually in place.  

Harris’s 180 paves the way for the Board of Education to return students and staff for face-to-face instruction in February.  To be clear, the board has no control over vaccines beyond advocating for student-facing staff to be prioritized–which it did before vaccines were even available.  But it is responsible for deciding whether to resume in-person learning at a time when CMS dashboard metrics for public health are still well in the red and vaccines are not on staff calendars.

North Carolina’s educators have grown accustomed to feeling underappreciated in a state that has valued tax cuts over education for years.  Time and again we’ve heard lip service to the sacrifices we make and gratitude for our willingness to do more with less.  But in this moment the stakes of doing without a vaccine are life and death.  That’s a scary prospect.

Imagine if all stakeholders involved in this pandemic education struggle were to unite around a shared goal of calling on federal, state, and local officials to solve supply and distribution problems and begin Group 3 vaccinations.  Imagine if those utilizing lawsuits, harassment, and financial resources to push for an immediate return to face-to-face learning were to instead use their energy to make that return considerably safer for all involved, including their own families.  

Like so many things about this pandemic, remote learning has not been ideal for anyone, and teachers want nothing more than to be back in the classroom where we belong.  Let’s get our educators vaccinated so we can do so safely.  

North Carolina Senate bill to force in-person learning would not apply to charter schools

A bill expected to be voted on in the North Carolina Senate today would force an immediate return to in-person instruction for North Carolina schools.

That is, some of them.

The legislation is sponsored by Senators Ballard, Lee, and Hise, and rumored to have some Democratic support as well. The bill cites mental health and academic impacts of pandemic building closures and claims they are a “disaster that some children may never recover from.” It asserts that for every one-third of a school year physical school buildings remain closed “current students will suffer a 3% loss in income across their entire careers.”

The bill requires that “all local school administrative units shall provide the option of in-person instruction to students in grades kindergarten through enrolled in that unit in accordance with this act for the remainder of the scheduled 2020-2021 school year.” But the term “local school administrative units” applies only to public school districts, not to charter schools or private schools.

If the law passes as written and is signed by Governor Cooper (or his veto overridden with support from Democrats), districts would be required to offer Plan A (minimal social distancing) to all students with IEPs and 504s, regardless of community COVID metrics. All other students grades K-12 would have the option of Plan B.

If the sponsors and supporters of this bill legitimately believe everything it says about the mental health of children, the lack of in-school COVID transmission risk, the impact on career earning, etc. they should extend this same requirement to all of North Carolina’s schools, not just traditional public schools.

You can read the current bill in its entirety below.

SB-37

Will North Carolina continue to whitewash history for its students?

Norman Rockwell –“Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence”

At the height of this past summer’s protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, North Carolina State Board of Education chairman Eric Davis opened the board’s June meeting by saying Floyd’s name. Davis paused, then acknowledged that “anything less further supports the comfortable silence which surrounds and upholds the systemic practices which continue to plague our nation and state.”

Chairman Davis went on to say that addressing racism would take “intentional, determined, relentless commitment and work from all, especially those of us who are white and in positions of power and leadership.”

The following month, the board voted to delay implementation of new social studies standards, directing the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to focus more on teaching the hard truths of history.  The new standards would continue to be refined, then adopted in spring of 2021 for use in the 2021-22 school year.

In September, the board adopted an equity resolution which reads, in part, “We have an imperative duty to construct educational systems that eradicate racism,” and that “the State Board will provide resources such that students see themselves reflected in the curriculum to support culturally affirming environments in schools.”  (Board members Olivia Oxendine, Amy White, and Todd Chasteen voted against the resolution.)

In November, Catherine Truitt was elected state superintendent.  She took over on January 1.

On January 6, the board reviewed the latest draft (Draft 4) of the social studies standards.  Truitt asked the board for time to meet with DPI staff to discuss potential revisions.  Chairman Davis agreed to hold a special meeting in January to review any changes ahead of a vote on the standards in February.  Standards must be approved in February because of revision guidelines outlined in state law.

Strikingly, the same day Truitt asked for additional time to make revisions to the North Carolina social studies standards, a mob of white supremacist insurrectionists assaulted the US Capitol in a deadly coup attempt before being escorted gently out of the building by law enforcement in an unmistakable display of the systemic inequity that Chairman Davis referenced in June.

The special meeting was held this week, on January 27.  At the meeting, DPI’s Social Studies Section Chief Dr. Lori Carlin reported that a public survey on Draft 4 of the standards had received 85% favorable responses.

She then announced DPI’s recommendation that the following changes in terminology be made:

At Superintendent Truitt’s direction, DPI’s latest proposal removes the word “systemic” from the terms “systemic racism” and “systemic discrimination,” and turns “gender identity” into simply “identity” in the standards.

So, for example, an American History learning objective which previously readExplain how systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination of indigenous peoples, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups have impacted equality and power in America” now reads “Explain how racism, oppression, and discrimination of indigenous peoples, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups have impacted equality and power in America,” with the only change being the removal of the word “systemic.”

When asked by board member James Ford about why the revision was made, Truitt explained, “I think systemic racism does not imply that certain laws or policies are racist, systemic racism indicates that our entire system of government and our constitution, as it is written and has been amended, are racist.”

Board members Amy White and Todd Chasteen also indicated their discomfort with an overly critical view of United States history.  White asked “Do these standards fall under the framework and the basic understanding that the United States of America and North Carolina is a great nation and a great state?”  Chasteen said he felt the standards included too much negativity and needed to focus more on “advancements and progress.”  

Ford said the input of the 85% of stakeholders who approved of Draft 4 needed to be respected and that the revised language was too vague, adding “Our job here is not to rescue America from constructive critique or to project optimism.”

The State Board of Education will meet again next week to vote on the proposed changes and implementation of the new social studies standards for next school year.  What is on the table will be the version with Superintendent Truitt’s amended language which removes “systemic racism,” “gender identity,” and “systemic discrimination” from the standards, but it’s still possible for someone on the board to make a motion to instead approve the Draft 4 standards that the public overwhelmingly endorsed.

My personal view is that the newly watered-down language serves the agenda of people who are comfortable with this nation’s status quo and/or don’t believe that institutional oppression exists.  This last second adjustment to the standards shows a clear lack of commitment to the change that our students deserve, the change our students have been promised repeatedly in the past few months by this very board.   Changing the language welcomes back the “comfortable silence which surrounds and upholds the systemic practices which continue to plague our nation and state” that Chairman Davis pledged to end in June.  

If you agree that our students deserve better than whitewashed history, and if you side with the 85% that overwhelmingly endorsed the standards before Superintendent Truitt “refined” them, please consider reaching out to the state board members who will be voting next week to ask them to approve Draft 4.

eric.davis@dpi.nc.gov 
alan.duncan@dpi.nc.gov 
olivia.oxendine@dpi.nc.gov 
reginald.kenan@dpi.nc.gov 
amy.white@dpi.nc.gov 
todd.chasteen@dpi.nc.gov 
James.Ford@dpi.nc.gov 
Jill.Camnitz@dpi.nc.gov 
Donna.Tipton-Rogers@dpi.nc.gov 
JWendell.Hall@dpi.nc.gov
mark.robinson@dpi.nc.gov 
dale.folwell@dpi.nc.gov 
catherine.truitt@dpi.nc.gov 

Below is a list of Superintendent Truitt’s proposed revisions:

Systemic racism – 1 time in American History (replaced with: racism)

AH.C&G.1.4  Explain how systemic racism, oppression, and discrimination of indigenous peoples, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups have impacted equality and power in America.

Gender Identity – 3 times in Civic Literacy & 1 time in 8th grade (replaced with: identity)

CL.C&G.4.6  Critique the extent to which women, indigenous, religious, racial,  gender identity, and ability groups have had access to justice as established in the founding principles of government.

CL.H.1.2 Compare competing narratives of the historical development of the United States and North Carolina in terms of how each depicts race, women, tribes, gender identity, ability, and religious groups.

CL.H.1.3  Interpret historical and current perspectives on the evolution of individual rights in America over time, including women, tribal, racial, religious, gender identity, and ability.

8.C&G.1.5  Compare access to democratic rights and freedoms of various indigenous, religious, gender, gender identity, and racial groups in North Carolina and the nation.

Systemic discrimination – 1 time in Civic Literacy (replaced with: discrimination)

CL.H.1.6 Exemplify ways individuals have demonstrated resistance and resilience to inequities, injustice, and systemic discrimination within the American system of government over time.

Mark Johnson flips the State Ethics Commission the bird on the way out the door

When former Superintendent Mark Johnson rolled out his Common Core campaign stunt last February, it was not the first time he’d used his position for self promotion.  

Johnson had already earned countless educator eye rolls for the luxurious, colorful flyers with pictures of himself he was fond of blanketing school mailboxes with, and his use of the now-defunct ncsuperintendent.com website for official purposes was the frequent subject of scorn.

But when Johnson came out swinging against the Common Core State Standards for the first time ever–a full three years into his term as superintendent and just three weeks before he was due to run in the March 2020 Republican primary for Lieutenant Governor–it was just so obvious and shameless.  

A crowded Republican field.  The need to distinguish himself.  The choice of a favorite conservative boogeyman.

What was different this time was how Johnson chose to disseminate his campaign message.  The superintendent sent a message which said “NC Superintendent Johnson wants to remove Common Core from NC schools. Do you?” with a link to a survey filled with anti-Common Core language to 800,000 email addresses and 540,000 cell phone numbers of educators and public school parents and guardians.  

Johnson had sent mass emails before, but it was the first time he’d sent a mass text message, and it led many to question how the superintendent had gotten their personal cell phone numbers without their consent.  There was really only one logical explanation of the source:  local school contact information databases which contain email addresses and telephone numbers collected from employees and families of enrolled students.

The State Ethics Act clearly forbids elected and appointed officials from using their public position for private gain, so in mid-February I filed an official complaint with the North Carolina State Ethics Commission regarding Superintendent Mark Johnson using the resources of the office of state superintendent for his personal political campaign purposes.

parmenter-ethics-complaint

In mid-March I received word from the Commission that the investigation would be proceeding.  Then there was a protracted period of silence.  During summer I spoke briefly with the Commission’s Investigations Counsel Jameson Marks, expressing my concern about the pace of the investigation given the limited time Superintendent Johnson had remaining in office.   Mr. Marks said he was unable to discuss a pending investigation and could only confirm that it was moving forward.

The next communication I received about the investigation into my complaint came on December 31, Mark Johnson’s last day in office as state superintendent.  The Commission provided me a summary of its work and let me know that it was suspending the investigation because, as a private citizen, Johnson no longer fell under its jurisdiction.

Initially I was inclined to blame the slow pace of work on the part of the Ethics Commission.  After all, the law requires the commission to “conduct an inquiry into all complaints…in a timely manner.”  But as I read the Commission’s report on the matter, it became clear that the Commission had done everything it could under the law to carry out the investigation.

The problem, according to the Commission’s report, is that it had been met with “significant resistance” to information requests, “incomplete responses requiring frequent follow-up” and refusal on the part of Superintendent Johnson to be interviewed by Commission staff.  

The Commission noted that willful failure to cooperate with an investigation as required by law is considered malfeasance and can be cause for impeachment.  However, it also concluded that because Johnson had “declined to fully cooperate in the Commission’s investigation, the Panel is unable to determine whether there is probably cause to conclude that Respondent’s actions violated the Ethics Act.”

The Commission did add that, although the investigation had to be suspended when Johnson left office for jurisdictional reasons, if he is elected to an office covered by the Ethics Act in the future the investigation will resume and failure to cooperate will be addressed at that time.

It’s understandable that the Ethics Act, which exists to “ensure that elected and appointed State agency officials exercise their authority honestly and fairly, free from impropriety, threats, favoritism, and undue influence” can not apply to private citizens, and the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission ends when the individual under investigation is no longer considered a “covered person.”  But what’s really troubling about how all this played out is how easy it was for Mark Johnson to simply run out the clock for nearly a year and avoid accountability for his possible misuse of state resources.

A law that requires the Ethics Commission to conduct inquiries in a timely manner needs to include some sort of enforcement mechanism to enable them to do that.  There is powerful disincentive for unethical elected officials to comply with an investigation that may end with their removal from office, and Johnson’s playbook sends a clear message to others that cooperation is optional.

Mark Johnson seems likely to run for office in the future.  He said in a December mass email to educators, “My time in office concludes, for now, at the end of this month.”  There is no statute of limitations on ethics complaints in North Carolina, and if Johnson takes office again there are plenty of people with long memories who will ensure that he is held accountable.  In the meantime, this toothless ethics law needs to be fixed to make it less likely that our current leaders abuse their power as they serve North Carolinians.

You can read the Ethics Commission’s report in its entirety below:

Mark-Johnson-Ethic-Commission-Notice-of-Investigation-Suspension

Education advocates face increasingly ugly attacks

I hesitated to make this public, for reasons which I think will be obvious. But as attacks on vocal educators veer into uglier territory, I think it’s important for that ugliness to be exposed and called out when it crosses lines.

This week I went to the school building to package up some books to mail to my students. This letter from someone I don’t know in Texas was waiting in my mailbox:

It’s not the first time I’ve faced harassment for speaking up about education issues (although it’s the first I recall anyone crossing the Mom Line).

During this pandemic I’ve been accused of being personally responsible for the eighteenth largest school district in the country being closed for in-person instruction–not COVID, me–and have had people publicly call for my stalking.

After I pointed to a connection between white privilege and advocacy strategy by those pushing for a return to in-person learning, my comments were spotlighted by a local board of education member, leading to a torrent of harassment via social media and email. From there those comments gained the attention of a right wing North Carolina blogger and later a fringe national publication, both of whom misrepresented what I had said and stirred up a giant nest of extremely ugly hornets. Presumably that’s how this creepy guy in Grand Prairie, TX, even knows I exist.

From frequent contact with colleagues around the state who are active in advocacy efforts, I know I am not the only one who is facing personal attacks at a time when speaking up about safety and social justice has never been more important.

Let me say this as clearly as I can:

The goal of this harassment is to intimidate educators into silence.

In the case of issues of social justice and white privilege–topics that seem to provoke the most abhorrent reaction–the aim is to preserve a harmful status quo. Attacks around COVID safety issues are intended to force school employees to accept unsafe working conditions in silence.

We can’t allow those strategies to succeed. There is too much at stake.

We have to recognize this behavior for what it is, call it out when needed, and continue with the work of shining lights where they need to be shined.