My One-Sided Pen Pal Relationship With Sen. Jerry Tillman – Or Why I Am Sending An Old Letter With More Love

What follows is an open letter to Sen. Jerry Tillman most of which I plagiarized from a letter I wrote to him in the summer of 2015. Ironically, actually no, it still holds truth. Nothing has changed. So I am revising it with a little more info. And resending.

What I have done is edit it to include the new House Bill 539 and the new math revisions that the state is considering. Sen. Tillman’s brash style and rush to put in unproven charters are just two of the reasons that he should not be representing students in North Carolina.

Sen. Tillman,
Your crusade to create a lucrative charter school industry at the hands of public schools again has reached new heights of irrationality and hubris, and it is indicative of an exclusionary attitude when it comes to serving the people of North Carolina.

I am not surprised that you as a leader of the GOP caucus in the North Carolina General Assembly would spearhead a campaign to keep privatizing education in North Carolina, but the fact that you are a retired public school educator pushing this agenda makes me think that your commitment to provide a quality education to all of our state’s children simply vanished when you took an “oath” as a politician.

This latest version of House Bill 539 has your fingerprints all over it. What started as a bill that would regulate public access to school playgrounds has now transformed into a heated debate that is taking up lots of space in numerous media outlets concerning your unquenchable thirst to siphon funds away from public schools to charter schools.

Your unwillingness to listen to others was on display in another arena when you recently discussed whether the math standards should be changed for public schools. One simply needs to go to the site and review that report ( Your simple and absolute claims about the teaching profession do more than show your shortsightedness. They show your narrow-mindedness. The following was reported from Alex Granados about your explanation of how the old and new math could be taught together.

If you can teach math, your same certifications are required, same students, same allotment of teachers. Not gonna change,” he said.

Tillman said the practical aspect of teaching could be accomplished by having a teacher teach Algebra I alongside Math 1 in the same class.

“With a good teacher, you can do it,” he said.
So, teaching two subjects in the same classroom? In the same amount of time? With two different pedagogical approaches? Of course, you would think that. You believe there should be a charter school built next to every public school. Two schools for one student. Makes sense. Not.

And these are just two examples from this week alone. Let’s revisit the last year or so.
Remember House Bill 334 from the summer of 2015? As reported on July 23rd in Lindsay Wagner’s news story entitled “Tillman’s bill impacts charter school oversight”, you championed an amendment to that bill to place oversight of charter schools under the care of the State Board of Education and out of the Department of Public Instruction’s jurisdiction.

What House Bill 334 would have done was to spend more money on charters by creating a situation where you can protect them from checks and balances. It was a way for you to fashion a favorable situation for new charter schools to not only operate more freely, but be less transparent.

Ms. Wagner also detailed the abrupt manner in which you fielded questions from other legislators who were concerned with the surreptitious manner in which you operated. You made ludicrous statements such as:

  • · “DPI was never in love … with charter .”
  • · “I’m not going to give you the details. A good lawyer would never do that.”
  • · “We don’t air dirty laundry here.”

In truth your disdain for DPI actually arises from their ability to identify indiscretions with many charter schools that needed to be corrected. And the quip about details? That’s odd. You are a lawmaker. You should produce details. In fact, good lawyers very much pay attention to details. As for the dirty laundry, with the stuff you are dishing out, someone needs to do the laundry now!

Remember the June 4th report by Laura Leslie for WRAL entitled “Senate Education Leader blasts charter chief”? That detailed your outburst in a meeting concerning why DPI refused to grant charters for many new charter school applications. Reading your comments makes you sound like a playground bully who did not get his way. The first few sentences of the report used phrases like “angry outburst” and “public dressing-down” to describe your tirade. 
Remember SB 456 from April of 2015? I will refer to the April 28th edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, when education writer Arika Herron reported that you proposed a bill which “would send more money to charter schools” by taking more from traditional public schools in next year’s budget (“NC Senate bill would send more money to charter schools”).  

You publicly ignore and even champion the ignorance that charter schools can practice exclusion and in many cases divert public funds to unregulated entities. Charter schools are not required to offer transportation or provide free/reduced lunches. They can selectively limit enrollment and hire non-certified educators. Most charter schools simply lack transparency. And a further consequence is that your pro-charter legislation targets poorer people because you introduced bills that would exclude more poor people (who still pay taxes) from the benefits of a quality education that you perceive only charter schools can give.  

Sen. Tillman, you do not seem to care if your wish to expand charter schools actually widens the income gap that so much grips our state. Remember Feb. 23rd, 2011? You were shown on a video posted by Rob Schofield on the website. You fielded a question that expressed concern over whether lower-income kids could have equal chances to attend charter schools. Your response was indicative of the exclusionary attitude that your proposed bill embraces.

You said,

“It’s certainly okay if they don’t go there [the charter school]. They can go to their public schools. They can get their free and reduced price lunch. And they can do that. But the charter school itself and the commission must decide what they can do and when they can do it financially. And that’s where we are now and that’s where we’re gonna’ be and I’m certainly for that.”

With a response like that, how can you claim to represent all North Carolinians? The fact is that no matter the socioeconomic background of the students, traditional schools do succeed when proper resources are allotted (money, textbooks, time, respect, etc.). When teachers have the support of the public AND the legislature, any school can show student growth. However, your statement leads one to think that you are promoting exclusivity based on income levels.

And this is not the first time that you have alienated those who suffer from poverty.
You were a primary sponsor for the Voting Reform Act in the 2013-2014 sessions, leading the charge to fight non-existent voter fraud in our state by fast-tracking a voter ID law that was purposefully constructed to keep many people’s voices from being heard, especially minority and low-income citizens. Remember that? If these people are silenced, then how can they democratically affect outcomes in elections that may sanction positive change for their children and grandchildren including issues surrounding public education? You seem to be denying them the very right that you have sworn to protect and uphold as an elected official.

As a public school teacher, I am amazed that you continue to belittle the very public schools that you yourself once served as a teacher, coach, principal and assistant superintendent – for over 40 years! You are drawing a pension for being a public school retiree!

But now you are a seven-term state senator and a willing participant in transforming North Carolina from what was considered the most progressive state in the Southeast into what has regressed into a stagnated commonwealth ruled by reactionary policies.

And what seems most egregious is that you are the co-chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee. Your decisions impact ALL STUDENTS! You have a direct influence in how schools are funded, what they can teach, and how they are measured. Surely you remember the Jeb Bush inspired letter-grading system you helped implement that found most “failing” schools in North Carolina resided in areas where there were concentrated pockets of poverty.

As a public official you are under oath to uphold the state’s constitution which ensures all students a quality public education. Instead you are compromising all students in traditional schools while taking more of the valuable money and resources allocated for them to give to charter schools that do not have to abide by the same regulations.

If you truly want to positively impact public education, then invest more in pre-K programs and expand Medicaid so more kids come to school healthy and prepared. Reinstitute the Teaching Fellows program to keep our bright future teachers here in North Carolina. Then give decent raises to veteran teachers so they finish their careers here instead of in other states.

Real leaders take away obstacles that impede those who are served. You are creating more and becoming one yourself.

Stuart Egan, NBCT

West Forsyth High School

Clemmons, NC

2 thoughts on “My One-Sided Pen Pal Relationship With Sen. Jerry Tillman – Or Why I Am Sending An Old Letter With More Love

  1. Pingback: How John Oliver’s Segment On Charter Schools Speaks to North Carolina | caffeinated rage

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