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.

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

  1. This sounds so much like “carpetbagging” in the sense of outside entities moving in to influence change and let NC teachers (and students) become Guinea pigs. This is a time when our classrooms are suffering for lack of teachers and students, because of a public lack of faith in the school system.
    What is not clear from this, is at what point did the focus turn from revamping the licensure system to assigning numeric value to each step and a push to overhaul compensation. Was it tied together from the beginning? If it was, it seems to be very subtle until we see charts near the end of the process so far. As an educator I have no problem with mentoring, leveled certifications, and paying teachers for taking on EXTRA work. I just believe the only way to make this work is to keep the current structure for compensation and add levels to it for the EXTRA work. Not only would this be easier to implement, but I think it would be motivating for teachers to receive more pay (on top of the current base pay) to improve outcomes, and/or taking on more work towards improving the profession. Any raises in the future could continue to be for everyone on the current “base” scale. Right now, most teachers aren’t even being compensated fairly for the level of work, and responsibility that is expected. The EVAAS system is not effective or accurate for measuring teacher performance since it is so dependent on standardized test scores, and there is no level playing field to start. Yet, here we are battling this ridiculous tool again!

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