NC superintendent denies that paying teachers based on their perceived merit is merit pay

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt continued to insult the intelligence of North Carolina’s teachers this week, repeating her absurd claim that paying teachers based on their perceived merit is not merit pay.

Appearing on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks, Truitt said there was “deliberate” misinformation out there on the subject and that “it is absolutely false to say [the Pathways to Excellence proposal] is merit pay.”

Mike Collins:  I want to talk about teacher pay, and so does Becca on Facebook, one of our listeners.  She says, "Given what Catherine has been saying just now about the inadequacy of student and teacher assessment, I'm surprised that she is still involved in pushing the antiquated idea of merit pay which is based on these assessment tools and has been proven to be ineffective time and time again."  Do you want to address that?

Catherine Truitt: Well, first of all, there's a lot of misinformation out there right now, some of it deliberate some of it not, about this proposed pay plan which is still in the development phases. And it is absolutely false to say that this is merit pay. Merit pay means that you are comparing a teacher against another teacher. That's not what this pay plan proposes. This pay plan does not compare teacher to teacher, it compares a teacher to her or himself. So, um, also what I would say is that this pay plan in its current form does not require test scores to be tied to licensure or to pay. It is but one, um, one measurement that a teacher could use to, um, uh, move up on an advancement ladder so to speak without having to leave the classroom.

Truitt’s definition of merit pay has evolved since April, when she said in a State Board of Education meeting that the licensure/compensation plan wasn’t merit pay because the definition she had apparently found on Google said it was “pay for performance based on a set of criteria established by the employer,” and somehow the proposal wasn’t that.

This is very simple.

Currently we pay teachers based on their years of commitment to public education. More years = more pay. The Pathways proposal is that we stop doing that and instead compensate teachers using various measurements of their performance. In other words, they’ll be paid based on their merit. Guess what that’s also called?

Even #1 Pathways to Excellence fan Dr. Tom Tomberlin, who works for Truitt at the Department of Public Instruction, has admitted that the proposal is merit pay:

Tom Tomberlin:  I can't get away from the fact that, arguably this is...I mean we’re saying we’re going to pay people based on their skills and their performance.  [laughs]

That kind of is the definition of merit pay.

Let’s be real. This is not about definitions. It’s about messaging. And Superintendent Truitt is receiving messaging advice from Eckel and Vaughan, the firm that recommends those who are pushing Pathways to Excellence “always speak about the plan in a positive manner”:

Since early April, when the Pathways to Excellence proposal was presented to the State Board of Education, DPI has been deluged by negative feedback from educators who absolutely hate the idea.

Here are just a few examples:

When teachers first began objecting to being paid this way, Human Capital Roundtable and PEPSC subcommittee member Brenda Berg (whose day job is running the pro-business lobbying organization Best NC) immediately suggested the phrase ‘merit pay’ was problematic and referred to “extensive test messaging” of terms that had been done to determine what teachers would be comfortable with.

You can read that whole email chain here.

We need to be clear that any efforts to claim that this proposal isn’t merit pay are coming from a place of needing teachers to get on board with the Pathways to Excellence plan. It’s spin and nothing else.

Paying teachers based on standardized test results or subjective measures such as principal evaluations and student surveys is a bad idea.

No amount of creepy test messaging or amateurish gaslighting can change that.

Who’s really behind North Carolina’s controversial merit pay push?  The answer is becoming clearer.

If you’ve been paying attention this summer, you’re probably aware of the controversial merit pay proposal that has gone over like a lead balloon with North Carolina’s long-suffering teachers.  But what you probably haven’t heard is how it started. 

Whose idea was the merit pay approach?  What was their motivation?  Incoming PEPSC Chair Dr. Van Dempsey observed recently that the plan would require “billions of dollars of state funding that many entities would like to have a stake in.”  Who are those entities, and how are they influencing policy development in our state?

With Human Capital Roundtable records still being withheld from the public by the Southern Regional Education Board, it’s difficult to answer all of these questions with certainty.  However, emails obtained from current PEPSC Chair Dr. Patrick Miller provide important insight about the outside forces that were involved in setting North Carolina on the path to becoming the first state in the country to stop paying teachers based on their years of commitment to public education.

What follows is a basic timeline with supporting evidence from the records.  Click hotlinked dates to view source documents:

October 11, 2017:  The General Assembly-created Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) convenes for the first time.  Dr. Patrick Miller is chair.  For its first several months, PEPSC’s work is largely limited to revising individual State Board of Education policies rather than considering a complete overhaul to the licensure and compensation system.

February 26, 2018 Then-Western Governors University Chancellor Catherine Truitt contacts Dr. Miller to pass along SAS Director of Community Relations Ann Goodnight’s request for an update on what PEPSC is doing.  (SAS produces EVAAS, the software at the center of the current merit pay proposal)

(Truitt was elected North Carolina’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2020.)

March 5, 2018 SAS Special Advisor on Education Susan Gates contacts North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association Executive Director Jack Hoke to seek a connection to Patrick Miller, telling Hoke she “would very much like to learn in more detail about the work of the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission, created by SB599, that he is chairing and give him more information about ideas being developed through our convenings to discuss strengthening early math and literacy instruction in NC.” Gates adds “One of those ideas relates directly to the B-K and K-6 licensure structure.”

March 28, 2018:  SAS’s Susan Gates meets with PEPSC Chair Patrick Miller and pushes him to think about changing North Carolina’s licensure system.  The next day she sends an email recapping their conversation in which she notes that individuals who have attended SAS events “believe the focus should include an exploration of NC’s B-K and K-6 licensure structure to determine if it should be modified.” 

Gates invites Miller to attend a June SAS event focused, in part, on “teacher and principal effectiveness.”  I’ll reiterate that SAS is the company that produces EVAAS, software which claims to measure educator effectiveness.

Attached to Gates’s email are notes from a SAS working group including the following:

First, we need to collect evidence that change is needed  
We should focus on what the licensure bands should be
Is there an appetite in the community for the licensure bands to change?

The SAS document also explores who would be resistant to changing the licensure system:

Who will give pushback? 
Licensure department at DPI  
Finance and HR leaders in school districts  

April 6, 2018:  John Denning, Senior Program Officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, inquires about a meeting with PEPSC Chair Miller.

August 27, 2018 Belk Foundation Executive Director Johanna Anderson contacts Miller to invite him to attend a Seattle Gates Foundation event on teacher preparation in October with a “hand-selected group of North Carolinians.” She says his presence is especially important because he chairs PEPSC.

September 10, 2018Susan Gates of SAS contacts Miller again, tells him about a work group which will focus on teacher prep and explore ideas about modifying licensure structure.  Gates name drops UNC’s Julie Kowal.  (Prior to her job at UNC, Kowal was Best NC’s Vice President of Policy and Research.)

September 19, 2018 Gates Foundation’s John Denning contacts Miller and DPI’s Tom Tomberlin and Andrew Sioberg.  This time Denning floats the idea of the Southern Regional Education Board creating a group which will “simply be a bridge and conduit between you and the important work that you are doing in this space – with other important stakeholders doing similar work.”  The idea is framed as an informal collaboration, not at all as the creation of a group which would draft a proposal to the State Board of Education on behalf of PEPSC.

Denning suggests specific people to be involved with this “small working group,” including Tomberlin, Sioberg, Kowal and others. 

Both Miller and Tomberlin give their blessing to Denning’s plan.

September 25, 2018:  Denning emails Miller, Tomberlin and Sioberg again, this time introducing them to SREB President Stephen Pruitt.  He outlines the purpose of the proposed group and for the first time refers to it as “NC Human Capital Roundtable.”  Denning explains SREB’s plans this way:

...SREB’s development of a Human Capital Roundtable intends to:

• Cultivate a basic landscape analysis of current work and assets regarding teacher preparation in North Carolina (including insights from other commissions, organizations or stakeholder groups)

• Encourage research and knowledge gathering on teacher preparation best practices to inform policy priorities and focused initiatives

• Work with you as members of the Roundtable to then develop shared insights and information about opportunities to identify and align priorities, recommendations and implementation supports.

The Human Capital Roundtable still isn’t sounding like a group which intends to co-opt PEPSC’s legislative mandate, but it’s important to remember that Denning is proposing all of this to the Chair of the PEPSC Commission, Dr. Patrick Miller.  

In this message, John Denning also offers a more fleshed-out list of Human Capital Roundtable members.  This time the list includes space for a designee of PEPSC Chair Miller’s.


First week of October, 2018:  Miller, Tomberlin, Kowal, Representative Hugh Blackwell and others travel to Seattle for the Gates Foundation “Reimagining Teacher Preparation Together” event.  Their participation is organized by Belk Foundation’s Johanna Anderson.  In recapping major takeaways, Anderson identifies licensure change as a priority in the coming year for North Carolina.

October 9, 2018:  SREB President Stephen Pruitt emails Human Capital Roundtable members, introduces SREB Project Manager Megan Boren and mentions “teacher effectiveness” as a focus of the group. 

October 19, 2018SREB Vice President Joan Lord contacts State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis to explain how Human Capital Roundtable funding will work.  She lays out parameters for how HCR meetings will run and who will be involved.

November 1, 2018SREB Project Manager Megan Boren contacts Human Capital Roundtable invitees to give date/location for the group’s first meeting.

December 3, 2018:   First meeting of the Human Capital Roundtable is held at the Department of Administration building at 116 W. Jones St.  Afterwards, meeting notes and pictures are posted to a Google site which is maintained by SREB for HCR members.

The above documents and timeline clarify some very important points for those of us who are interested in better understanding the evolution of the current merit pay proposal.

One is that multiple outside interests targeted PEPSC Chair Dr. Patrick Miller for the purpose of influencing the path the PEPSC commission’s work would take. 

Those parties include SAS, a company which would benefit financially from an expansion of the use of EVAAS in North Carolina and even more if an EVAAS-centric model could be expanded to other states.  They also include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Belk Foundation.  This is an important point to keep in mind as the proposal moves through the process on its way to becoming official state policy.

Another is that these parties were successful in steering PEPSC’s work from addressing individual licensure policy changes to a major, system-wide overhaul of teacher licensure which centered student outcomes rather than educator experience in determining compensation.  And the “vehicle” they used to accomplish that change, to borrow John Denning’s term from the 9/19/18 email where he first proposed the idea, was the Human Capital Roundtable. 

The Human Capital Roundtable would work on its own vision for licensure/compensation reform from that December 3, 2018 meeting until February 4, 2021, when it made an official presentation to the State Board of Education.  In that presentation, HCR officially called on the State Board to consider its recommendation of a redesigned licensure system built around effectiveness, not experience.  

The signature page of the group’s official letter to the State Board shows PEPSC Chair Miller as a member.

When PEPSC subcommittees began to meet in spring of 2021 to work on licensure/compensation reform, their work began with the Human Capital Roundtable’s model as the starting point. 

A year later, PEPSC gave the State Board of Education a progress update. 

The proposal looked awfully familiar.

The records obtained from Dr. Miller shed some light on the early genesis of the merit pay approach and the Human Capital Roundtable, but many questions still remain about the group’s work.  What involvement did SAS, the Belk Foundation, and the Gates Foundation have in shaping the specifics of the plan? 

Until the Southern Regional Education Board changes course and allows the public access to more than three years of Human Capital Roundtable meeting minutes and related documents, the development of the merit pay proposal from December 3, 2018 until it was officially presented to the State Board of Education in early 2021 will remain shrouded in mystery. 

That’s not the transparency that North Carolinians deserve.

Governor Jim Hunt withdraws from coalition touting merit pay for North Carolina teachers

Governor Jim Hunt has withdrawn as honorary co-chair of the UpliftEd Coalition, a group which will promote a controversial plan to do away with experience-based teacher compensation and replace it with a system of merit pay.

The Pathways to Excellence proposal, currently being worked on by the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC), has proven deeply unpopular with North Carolina educators since it became public earlier this year.

Many have expressed concerns about its emphasis on standardized testing and reliance on subjective measures such as peer evaluations and student surveys to make high-stakes determinations about teachers’ compensation and opportunities for career advancement. Others have questioned the wisdom of making such a drastic, experimental change in the middle of an ongoing pandemic and during one of the worst teacher staffing crises in recent memory.

In a July 5 letter to State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis, Governor Hunt called on those driving the licensure/compensation work to do more to involve educators in the policy design process, saying, “I want to encourage you and everyone involved in the coalition to ensure that teachers have a strong say in the development of major changes in their pay,” adding, “their involvement is critically important to the long-term success of any education reform.”

Governor Hunt’s decision to step down from UpliftEd comes after documents I obtained via public records request showed State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, State Board of Education member Jill Camnitz, and PEPSC Chair Dr. Patrick Miller discussing plans to prevent independent organizations from collecting educator feedback on the merit pay proposal.

The UpliftEd Coalition is the brainchild of marketing firm Eckel and Vaughan, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), and the NC Human Capital Roundtable. According to a memo from Eckel and Vaughan, the purpose of the coalition is to “advance the need for and widespread benefits of the new model.” Governor Hunt was recruited to be honorary co-chair because his name would “[add] credibility to the vision and coalition.”

The original plan was for the UpliftEd Coalition to launch once the merit pay proposal was officially presented to the State Board of Education for consideration. The launch timeline changed when I acquired North Carolina Department of Public Instruction emails detailing the group’s existence, marketing strategy, and recruitment efforts and published that information last month.

Many educators reacted to the news that Governor Hunt had agreed to support the Pathways to Excellence proposal with confusion and disappointment. Governor Hunt is widely embraced as one of North Carolina’s foremost champions for public education and a pioneer of many important education initiatives during his tenure as our longest-serving governor.

Among others, those initiatives include beginning the Smart Start Pre-K program, putting a full-time teaching assistant in every grade 1-3 classroom, establishing the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, and creating the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (as a personal aside I’d like to add that I am grateful and proud to have been a National Board Certified Teacher since 2006).

Under Hunt’s leadership, teacher pay in North Carolina rose to 19th nationwide, coming within about $2000 of the national average during the 2001-02 school year. The state currently ranks 39th.

Governor Hunt’s decision to step down leaves the UpliftEd Coalition with only former NC Governor Jim Martin as honorary chair. Governor Martin is cc’d on Hunt’s resignation letter, which you can see below.

I’d like to offer my heartfelt thanks to Governor Jim Hunt for his leadership and vision for public education in North Carolina and also for calling for educators to have a seat at the education reform table. Governor Hunt is absolutely right that our involvement is critical to any reform effort’s success.

North Carolina educators who want to share thoughts with Governor Hunt about this decision or his public education legacy in our state can do so by emailing his longtime teacher advisor Karen Garr at


July 5, 2022

Dear Eric:

I have decided to step down from my position as honorary co-chair of your UpliftEd Coalition, just as I am stepping away from almost all of my public activities.

As you may know, I have even stepped down from my active work with The Hunt Institute and the important work it is doing on education.

I appreciate the work that you and others in your coalition are doing on behalf of North Carolina’s public schools.  I have just come to the point in my life, at age 85 now, when I believe I should step aside and encourage new generations of leaders to step forward.

As I step down as co-chair, I want to encourage you and everyone involved in the coalition to ensure that teachers have a strong say in the development of major changes in their pay.

When I chaired the National Board for Professional Teacher Standards from 1987-1997, I made sure teachers were at the table and had a voice.  Their involvement is critically important to the long-term success of any education reform.

I also hope that you will ensure that National Board Certification continues to be an important component in deciding teachers’ compensation.  North Carolina leads the nation in the number of National Board Certified Teachers, and the program provides great professional development opportunities for educators.

I wish you good luck as you work on this important matter.  My long-time teacher advisor, Karen Garr, can be available to help you as you go forward.  She can keep me updated on your progress.  You can reach her at or (9**)***-****.

Thank you very much for including me, and you have my best wishes as you go forward.

My warmest personal regards.


Governor Jim Hunt

Cc:  Governor Jim Martin

Incoming PEPSC chair says SREB, DPI’s Tom Tomberlin have “overstepped bounds” in attempting to influence commission’s work on merit pay plan

In a July 12 meeting with the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Committee, incoming PEPSC chair Dr. Van Dempsey shared his thoughts about who’s actually in charge of the controversial merit pay proposal–and who isn’t.

Dr. Dempsey is dean of UNC-Wilmington’s College of Education. He also serves on the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) and will take over as that group’s chair at the beginning of September.

During the meeting, DPI’s Julie Pittman asked Dempsey to talk about his experience working with marketing firms in his role at the university. This question was presumably related to recent revelations about Eckel and Vaughan, the firm hired by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) using Belk Foundation grant dollars to help sell the unpopular merit pay plan.

Dr. Dempsey discussed a UNC-W project before turning the conversation to Eckel and Vaughan. 2016 NC Teacher of the Year Bobbie Cavnar then pressed Dempsey on the influence of outside forces on the licensure/compensation reform process.

Dempsey revealed that SREB Project Manager Megan Boren had “overstepped her bounds” in an inappropriate manner in PEPSC subcommittee meetings and that Department of Public Instruction Director of Educator Recruitment and Support Dr. Tom Tomberlin had done the same. He also mentioned that many varied interests would be eager to get their fingers in a project worth billions of dollars.

For background, SREB convened and facilitated the Human Capital Roundtable, the group that created the merit pay proposal behind closed doors from 2019-2021, and the Atlanta-based nonprofit continues to be intimately involved with DPI’s work on the project as well as the Human Capital Roundtable’s current efforts to market the controversial plan. Dr. Tomberlin is a member of the Human Capital Roundtable and is extremely active in PEPSC subcommittee meetings, often steering conversations and setting parameters for subcommittee work.

Video of this portion of the meeting as well as a transcript of comments are below:

Van Dempsey:  I know there are a lot of questions about what their role is in this.  I have questions about what their role is in this because I’m not directly connected to them right now.  I just had that one interaction with them back in the spring.

Bobbie Cavnar:  But they were hired by the Southern Region Education Board to market this plan specifically in our state by the Belk Foundation.  So it’s a plan that’s not written and we keep being told “This isn’t a done deal” and yet there are large organizations that are selling a plan that’s not written and we claim isn’t a done deal.  So that again is concerning to teachers to say wait, the Belk Foundation, the Southern Region Education Board, and you saw probably Best NC and EdNC have all published articles promoting this plan that isn’t written and isn’t a done deal.  That’s concerning to us.

Van Dempsey:  Bobbie, all I can tell you is there is not, there is no document that they can have, that they would have, that has been through the process that PEPSC is charged by the General Assembly to do and in this particular case, in this particular initiative, at the charge of the State Board of Education, for us to take the information that came out of the Human Capital Roundtable and do the best job we can to make recommendations about what that model can look like.

Bobbie Cavnar:  Dr. Dempsey I think you and I agree on that point.  What I’m saying is not that PEPSC is doing anything.  I’m saying PEPSC is being used by very powerful, very rich organizations.  And they are going to promote this. They already have.  They’ve already hired marketing firms, they’ve already got people in line at SAS and places like that.  And so, this came out of SREB and the Human Capital Roundtable, but it seems to us that there are other organizations besides PEPSC that are pushing what they believe is the plan.

Van Dempsey:  Yes.  Yes, Megan, I’m blanking on her last name, from SREB, has been in subcommittee meetings.  There have been times where I thought she overstepped her bounds on some of the things we were talking about and they have to be respectfully moved back out of that space.  It is inappropriate for them to do that.  We have seen a, the co-chairs have seen a presentation from a microcredential vendor.  The microcredential vendor stepped over the line in terms of some of the ways they were approaching that conversation and I believed it was appropriate to ask them to back back out of the space that they had tried to enter in that conversation. Tom has done that.  If you ask Tom, Tom will tell you yes, we had to back him out of that space.  Bobbie, I have no doubt that there are significant interests that want their fingers in this because we’re talking about billions of dollars of state funding that many entities would like to have a stake in.  That’s the nature of a profession that has become increasingly corporatized over the last forty years.  One of the things I’d like to see happen is the profession becomes less so in North Carolina, that those interests when they are operating with malevolent purposes or self, totally selfish interests that work against the profession that we identify that and we are able to neutralize that.  

Belk Foundation bankrolling disingenuous marketing of controversial NC teacher merit pay plan

WFAE education reporter Ann Doss Helms has solved the mystery of who’s paying for the ethically questionable marketing of the controversial North Carolina merit pay proposal.  

It’s the Charlotte-based Belk Foundation, via a grant to the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

Eckel and Vaughan is a Raleigh-based communications firm which has been working closely with the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), SREB, and the Human Capital Roundtable (HCR).  E & V arranges interviews, prepares materials such as slide decks, and advises on marketing strategy.

Since receiving a trove of DPI public records related to Eckel and Vaughan’s work, I’ve become very concerned about the behind-the-scenes advice this firm is giving to the people who are leading the merit pay work.

Over the past few weeks I received tips from multiple individuals that the Belk Foundation was paying Eckel and Vaughan.  Those tips were consistent with vague mentions in the public records.  Based on that information I contacted four members of the Belk Foundation’s board last week to express my concerns (I’m not sure if it’s by design, but it’s really hard to find contact information for them–especially the ones named Belk).

Of the four, only former Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools superintendent Ann Clark responded, saying she would welcome the chance to talk when she returns from a business trip.

These are some of the concerns I laid out for Belk Foundation board members about Eckel and Vaughan’s work:

1) In an email to DPI staff, SREB’s project manager and HCR members, Eckel and Vaughan advised those leading the merit pay work to avoid talking about the complexity of the plan or the burden it will place on districts.

Of course, the plan is extremely complex and would place tremendous burdens on the districts forced to implement it.  Those districts would be much better served by leaders who are committed to having honest conversations about exactly how this plan would work in practice.  But, as Eckel and Vaughan says, that’s not in “our best interest.”

2) In an April 4 email, E & V proposes dishonest messaging to help counter the educator pushback that began in early April when the merit pay plan went public, suggesting HCR’s members say the plan was created by PEPSC and “we are simply following PEPSC’s work.”


Here’s a slide deck of HCR’s work, which was done behind closed doors from 2019-2021 and then presented to the State Board in February 2021, before PEPSC subcommittees even began meeting.  

Note the 7-stage licensure progression graphic and the request that the State Board “consider a formal, inclusive review of our ideas.”

Here’s PEPSC’s work, which has slightly adjusted language and salary figures added but otherwise is unchanged from when the Human Capital Roundtable first revealed it:

PEPSC didn’t create this plan, and I’ve spoken with subcommittee members who are livid that it’s being framed as their idea because it’s so poorly conceived and their suggestions for changes have been ignored.  You can thank Belk-funded Eckel and Vaughan for that mischaracterization. 

3) Finally, Eckel and Vaughan sent a memo to HCR members in mid April when teacher opposition to the merit pay proposal continued to build. 

The firm proposed a three-phase strategy to “gain greater control of the narrative” due to “recent media attention that PEPSC’s work has been receiving.”

E & V suggests using a former Teacher of the Year to gain educators’ trust, identifying teachers across the state who will speak positively about the proposal, and persuading two former governors to write an op-ed in favor of it.  Next steps on the memo seem to indicate the plan is for E & V to draft the op-ed and pretend the two 80+ year old former elected officials wrote it.


This complex, experimental plan would completely change how NC teachers are licensed and paid.  Our public schools deserve honest conversations about how it would work and a process for collecting feedback and then actually using it to improve HCR’s proposal.  Instead we’re getting a disingenuous marketing campaign courtesy of the Belk Foundation.

The Belk Foundation’s mission statement says the group is committed to “interacting with our community responsibly,” adding that “We strive to be ever-focused on what’s best for students and prioritize transparency, accountability, continuous learning, and willingness to partner.”

The Belk Foundation’s response to controversy over its support for the licensure/compensation proposal offers this absurd defense: “The Human Capital Roundtable is an example of how thought leaders can come together to propose new concepts that are then being vetted through the state’s open democratic process.”

There is nothing open or democratic about convening a group to spend two years secretly crafting state policy or funding efforts to use dishonest spin to gain public support for the merit pay plan while working to silence the legitimate concerns of the teachers it will impact most directly.

The Belk Foundation should withdraw its support of Eckel and Vaughan immediately and look for ways to invest its donors’ money that are actually consistent with its mission statement.

NCDPI Chief of Staff: “If teachers come out against [merit pay plan] it’ll be dead on arrival”

This is the latest in a series of releases of documents related to the Pathways to Excellence merit pay proposal obtained through Department of Public Instruction (DPI) records requests.  The documents contain important information about the controversial proposal which has proven extremely unpopular with the state’s educators since details emerged earlier this spring.

You can find previous releases on my website, Facebook or Twitter.

Today’s release contains notes from a March 30 meeting which was held to discuss Education NC (EdNC) editor Mebane Rash’s offer to conduct a survey to gather feedback about the teacher licensure/compensation proposal.  Meeting notes were taken by communications firm Eckel and Vaughan and provided to members of the Human Capital Roundtable

EdNC is an organization whose stated goal is to “provide residents and policymakers with nonpartisan data, research, news, information, and analysis about the major trends, issues, and challenges bearing on education.” 

EdNC’s website includes this note on journalistic independence:  “EdNC… will never allow anyone – our board, our funders, or the people and organizations we cover – to control the content we publish. True independence requires clear accountability, and the accountable control over all EdNC content is vested in our editor-in-chief.”

Present at the meeting to discuss EdNC’s offer to collect feedback on the merit pay plan were the following: 

*Superintendent Catherine Truitt
*DPI Chief of Staff Shelby Armentrout
*DPI Communications Director Blair Rhoades
*State Board of Education and Human Capital Roundtable member Jill Camnitz
*PEPSC chair and Human Capital Roundtable member Dr. Patrick Miller
*Southern Regional Education Board Project Manager Megan Boren
*Eckel and Vaughan staff

According to the meeting notes, Rash had offered to partner with DPI on the survey but also said that if DPI wasn’t interested she was going to do it anyway.

It’s clear from the meeting that the Department of Public Instruction’s primary goal is controlling messaging about the deeply unpopular merit pay plan.  The notes reveal the team’s concern about having an outside entity conduct a survey because “who owns that data is important.”  Superintendent Truitt expressed displeasure with EdNC’s previous coverage of PEPSC’s work and noted “the messaging on this has gotten away from us” and “we need to figure out how to get it back.”

PEPSC chair Dr. Miller was scathing in his criticism of Rash, saying she was “out of her lane, they’re supposed to be reporting on ed not making the sausage” and calling Rash’s plan “a threat.”

State Board Member Jill Camnitz added that if Rash “goes off on her own we have no control.”

DPI Chief of Staff Shelby Armentrout then got right to the heart of the matter, saying

 “if teachers come out against it then it’ll be dead on arrival.”

–DPI Chief of Staff Shelby Armentrout

That’s what this attempt to control public discourse on the merit pay plan is really all about.

The slimy marketing, the disingenuous spin, the work to assemble a coalition with enough star power to grab headlines.  It’s all about trying to ensure that the widespread discontent North Carolina’s teachers feel over this poorly conceived merit pay plan is kept under wraps until the proposal becomes official policy.  It’s much easier to accomplish that goal if you can control what is said.

“Control what is said”

That’s exactly what Southern Regional Education Board Project Manager Megan Boren advised DPI staff needed to do just three weeks later when another organization, the NC Public School Forum, offered to hold focus groups to collect feedback on the Pathways to Excellence proposal. 

The Public School Forum (PSF) is a nonprofit that advocates for policy change that will benefit North Carolina’s schools.  

In this April email chain, the Forum’s Executive Director Dr. Mary Ann Wolf had contacted PEPSC Chair Dr. Patrick Miller and State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis with an offer to conduct focus groups about the plan.  The State Board of Education oversees the work of PEPSC and will be the body that considers the merit pay plan for approval before it goes to the state legislature, probably in 2023.

Chair Davis indicated his approval–but not for the purpose of gathering input that could help to make the proposal better.  Rather, Davis saw PSF’s offer as an opportunity for “educating teachers and the public about this proposal and clarifying the current interpretations.”  Dr. Miller’s response was that PSF might be able to help “counter the misinformation/negativity that’s out there.”

SREB’s Megan Boren was less enthusiastic.  She noted that Superintendent Catherine Truitt wanted to “squash outside focus groups and surveys” and asked if Julie (Pittman, Special
Advisor to the Superintendent for Teacher Engagement) “will be working with them to control what is said.”  (red highlighting is mine):

As background, the Southern Regional Education Board convened the Human Capital Roundtable in either late 2018 or early 2019 (SREB and DPI offer conflicting timelines). This group, which includes North Carolina education officials and employees of DPI, worked behind closed doors for two years to craft the merit pay proposal before handing it to PEPSC. At least one journalist (from EdNC) has been denied access to HCR meetings, and SREB has refused to provide meeting minutes upon request. More later on whether these actions could constitute violations of state open meetings and public records laws.

But back to the efforts to prevent independent organizations from collecting feedback.

Eckel and Vaughan’s notes from the March 30 meeting with Superintendent Catherine Truitt list as a “key takeaway” that Truitt will contact EdNC editor Mebane Rash and “dissuade her from proceeding” with her plan to conduct a survey about the licensure proposal.

Let me emphasize, this is North Carolina’s elected State Superintendent for Public Instruction, who serves on the PEPSC Commission currently overseeing the merit pay work and who will also co-chair the UpliftEd Coalition that is being set up behind the scenes to market the plan when it goes to the State Board of Education.  And she is scheming with the chair of the PEPSC Commission and a member of the State Board of Education to use her power and influence to interfere with the operations of an independent media outlet in order to control public messaging about this policy. 
It’s hard to articulate how messed up that is.

What North Carolinians deserve is media that is free from government interference, transparency in policy-making processes, and meaningful ways to offer their feedback to help shape proposals like this merit pay plan which would completely change the face of public education in our state. 

That is not what we’re getting right now.

PEPSC subcommittees have one more round of meetings this month (two on July 15 and two on July 19).  After that the proposal will go to the PEPSC Commission and then on to the State Board of Education for approval.

If you have concerns to share, you can reach State Board of Education members by email:

An embed of the March 30 meeting notes is below:


The April discussion of Public School Forum focus groups is below. Highlighting is mine.