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.”

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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.

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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.

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