Next Stop on the “Listening Tour” – NC State Superintendent Mark Johnson vs. The NC State Board of Education

It appears that there may be more bickering in the backrooms of Raleigh than many have been hearing in the other parts of North Carolina.

At least that is what some people claim to be hearing on their own “listening tours.”

Lynn Bonner’s recent April 13th report in the Raleigh News & Observer entitled “NC Republicans fighting among themselves over education, court papers show” opened with the following:

The State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson are on opposite sides of a legal battle over who controls public education.

Lawyers for both sides filed court documents in the case this week, asking a three-judge panel to decide the case in their favor.

The state education board is suing the state over a law passed in December that transfers some of its powers to Johnson, who is serving his first term. Johnson has entered the suit on the state’s side. Republicans run both the legislature and the state education board, and Johnson is a Republican (http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article144469134.html#storylink=cpy).

This is actually humorously confusing and quite telling when it comes to the gridlock that power can create.

DPI

So, let me get this straight. Mark Johnson is a republican who was elected in a wave of republican sentiment to take over a job that was held for years by a democrat and then given a lot more power as a state superintendent by a republican super-majority in a special session of the NC General Assembly that was meeting to really address a republican-driven HB2 law that was responsible for a republican losing the governor’s mansion when another republican long shot won the presidency the same night and the first republican mentioned in this chain of thought is now being sued by the republican controlled State Board of Education who claim that the new republican heading DPI is overstepping his authority.

Yep. That’s right. A republican is being sued by republicans after republicans gave him powers in a special session that republicans called to “help repeal” a law passed by republicans that actually cost republicans the governor’s race.

The fact that the State Board of Education is suing to keep powers that it has always had is the right thing to do, but Bonner’s report does highlight a huge disconnect that Mark Johnson has with politics and education.

Bonner states,

Lawyers for the state board said the law is unconstitutional, while Johnson said he should be able to do the job voters elected him to do

Actually, Johnson is wrong there. The “law” was passed after Johnson was elected. Voters did nor elect him to do something that a special session supposedly gave him power to do after November’s election day.

More from Bonner:

Johnson said in an affidavit that the system the state board has for hiring people who report both to him and the board doesn’t work.

Actually, it has worked. It just doesn’t work well enough for those who are wanting to control Johnson as the state superintendent. That’s why there was a special session at the end of the calendar year under the auspices of repealing a damaging HB2 law to grant his office more power than it has ever known when the office is being held by a gentleman who has just as much experience running for office than he does in education itself.

The least experienced person to ever hold the job was to have the most power the job ever had.

Johnson’s quote toward the end of the article is rather telling as well.

“Having both the State Board and the Superintendent of Public Instruction – up to 14 individuals in total – involved in the day-to-day management of DPI slows decision making to a crawl and makes it difficult to implement any changes or be responsive to the needs of the education community.”

What decisions is Mr. Johnson referring to?

What changes are needed to be done for the education community?

And those are not rhetorical questions. Johnson came into the office with really no new ideas to present, just overarching “goals” about less testing and more local control which is ironic with the HB13 debacle going on in the very chamber that gave Johnson so much power in that special session last calendar year.

When Johnson took office in 2017, he announced he was going on a “listening tour” and then release his “legislative agenda” this summer – months after he took office. That means he did not really have any “changes” in mind when he got into office.

Is it not ironic that Johnson has held most of his listening tour behind closed doors and that most of the actions he has been most public in regards to his brief tenure is about how he is trying to establish a form of transparent leadership in the Department of Public Instruction?

Does it not sound like a teacher who walks into a class and wants to just observe the students for a few months while claiming to be gathering information to best instruct those students, but spends most of his time arguing with the administration about what supplies he thinks he should have in his desk?

Maybe, just maybe, the “listening tour” should be more public and also include stops within Raleigh inside DPI.

Mark Johnson did once say on January 5th in the State Board of Education meeting (and his first week in office),

“Every day that we don’t take bold actions for our students is a day that our students lose. Every day that we don’t take bold actions for our teachers is a day that our teachers lose.”

It’s been over three months and the school year is rapidly coming to an end.

Yet what is happening right now is not bold and it is certainly nor benefiting students or teachers.

Open Letter to Alan Hawkes of the Charter School Advisory Board in Response to His Comments About the “SOB’s” at the SBOE

Dear Mr. Hawkes,

An NC Policy Watch report from Billy Ball today (“Tempers flare among charter school supporters as state tightens vetting process“) showed that the new rift between the State Board of Education (SBOE) and the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) is still growing and seemingly fostering some ill will, at least on your part as a board member of the CSAB.

Thirteen days ago, the SBOE granted only eight approvals in a pool of 28 new charter school applications that the CSAB had presented for approval. The process is that the CSAB recommends acceptations of applications for charter schools and then the SBOE “signs off” on them.

In the past, it seems to have been a formality, especially when the cap on the number of charter schools was removed. But in a clear reversal of usual protocol, the SBOE practiced more scrutiny in giving approvals, and I along with many, many other public school advocates am grateful for that.

You made the following statement that really serves as a barometer for the magnitude of the SBOE’s actions. You stated as Mr. Ball reported,

“Don’t get me started about public charter school no-nothings (sic) on the NC State Board of Education,” Hawkes wrote in an email to Policy Watch this week. “The temerity and ignorance of those soulless SOB’s (sic) presuming to know better than the NC Charter School Advisory Board with its diversity of knowledge and experience in this area. If there is anyone who knows the good, the bad and the ugly about public school choice, it’s members of our NC CSAB.”

There’s some strong language there. In fact, you didn’t really state it. You spewed it. With some venom – venom that seems to be have been brewing for over twenty years.

A quick search on Google presented your LinkedIn account with enough publically allowed information about your background to verify that your crusade to promote charter schools seems more rooted in your resentment of “far-Lefties” having stolen twenty years of your life. It states,

“After Grand Island High, I began at Boston University(1968-1970). I got caught up w/Leftist protests, accepting every word from BU prof Howard Zinn as political gospel. I subsequently was required to leave BU. Fast-forward twenty years and with help from my kids & spouse, I picked books back up at Guilford College. With more maturity, perspective, & motivation, I found academic success second go around. Thank goodness to live in the USA where second chances abound for even former far-Lefties like myself. After being mugged by 20 years of reality, I found myself welcomed in as a political Neo-Con and finally a knowledgeable & responsible voter.”

Looking through the lens of your “background” at the quote in the NC Policy Watch report it seems that that resentment is still very much there. But when you state that the “SOB’s” presume to know better than the NC CSAB about public school choice, you actually verified that you are the one who lacks the insight of the ill effects of “choice.”

One of your charter school advocates, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, essentially helped people see the cracks in the armor of unregulated charter school growth when he received the report from DPI this past January that showed how charter schools were actually more segregated than public schools. He then demanded that the report be redone to show charter schools in a more favorable light. In fact, he was mad that the report didn’t have “a lot of positive things to say.”

Recently, Lindsay Wagner of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation wrote an expose on the charter school industry here in North Carolina that very much brought to light the inconsistencies of the “public school choice” movement that cloaks charter school growth which ultimately takes away tax payer money from allowing many public schools (that you seem to rail against) to be fully funded.

You may read that report here – http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2016/07/28/failing-charter-schools-inadequate-screening-and-oversight-causing-big-problems-for-many-nc-families/ . I would not be surprised if many members of the SBOE read that same report and found its contents disturbing, considering they are responsible with distributing tax payer money.

In an election year that has public education as one of the primary issues, I am not surprised that the State Board of Education took more precaution in justifying more charter schools which really are just “public” when asking for state money, but operate “privately” after that money is secured to avoid any transparency.

Take for example The Greensboro Academy, a charter school where you serve as the president of the Board of Directors. If people look at the reviews for the Greensboro Academy, they will find it rated on GreatSchools with an overall score of 9 out of ten. That’s impressive.

But the website for the school says, “Our school is designed to eliminate the achievement gap and provide a public school choice to your family so your child is prepared for success in high school, college, and beyond” (https://www.nhaschools.com/schools/greensboro/en/Pages/At-a-Glance.aspx). Interestingly enough, when someone hears “achievement gap”, he/she usually thinks of the academic achievement of white students as measured against minority students. Greensboro Academy is over 80% white.

Ironically, the scores for the nearby public elementary and middle schools are literally the same (8 and 9), except they are much more diverse.

Furthermore, could you insure that all schools the CSAB recommends for approval have that same ability that Greensboro Academy does? Your school was established in 1999, when charter schools were heavily scrutinized to assure success. That’s one of the reasons that there was a cap on charter schools – to make sure that tax payer money was being spent wisely. Seventeen years later, we have no cap and a highly visible movement toward privatization being billed to tax payers. Tax payer money has not been spent well when it comes to charter schools. The DPI report showed it and Mrs. Wagner’s article articulates it very well.

But what really seems to be the hardest part to digest here is your harsh language and attitude toward others who are trying to look at the situation a little more soberly.

Now, if you were trying to infer that “SOB’s” actually means something besides “Sons-of- bitches” such as “Schools of Business”,  “Sets of Books”, “Shrimps on the Barbie”, “Silly Old Bears”, or “Side Orders of Bacon”, then it might not be perceived as being so harsh.

But that’s not the case. We all know what you meant. And it really seems incongruent with the very values you claim that the Greensboro Academy tries to instill through its “Moral Focus”.

Every month, Greensboro Academy has a “virtue” that it emphasizes. Here they are as listed on your school’s website – https://www.nhaschools.com/schools/greensboro/en/Our-Program/Pages/Moral-Focus.aspx.

  • August/September: Wisdom
  • October: Respect
  • November: Gratitude
  • December: Self-control
  • January: Perseverance
  • February: Courage
  • March: Encouragement
  • April: Compassion
  • May: Integrity

I can honestly say that your comment made in response to the decision of the SBOE pretty much nullified October, November, December, maybe April, and definitely May. August is up for review.

And if I had to make a prediction of what the SBOE might be doing with the next round of applications if you do not at least acknowledge their input and power along with a public apology, then I would say that the very people in the SBOE whom you call SOB’s will make sure that the CSAB will be SOL.

 

Sincerely,
Stuart Egan
Public School Teacher

Censorship and the Fear of Free Thought – The Nomination of Todd Chasteen for SBOE

When Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, he was living in a time of the rising Cold War and the end of Nazism.

The novel is a futuristic look (in 1950) into what society might be like if reading books were banned by the government. Firemen, who were the governmental workers who burned rogue books, would use a fire that reached 451 degrees Fahrenheit to incinerate written works of imagination and free thought. It was a way to control the people. It was a way to keep their minds from being curious and imaginative. It kept them from being “free”.

Today, around 50,000 copies are still sold a year for the classic dystopian novel and it is a staple in many junior classes in North Carolina as well as middle school gifted classes. Its message is still very relevant today.

The main character in the novel Guy Montag, a conflicted fireman, befriends a man named Faber (an old English professor) who explains why great books are so important. Faber lists three reasons:

  1. Books have “quality” of information.
  2. Books provide “leisure to digest it” (information).
  3. Books give us the “right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two” (information and time to digest).

Simplified in a crude and dirty manner – books promote free thought and interaction with ideas.

As an English teacher, I tend to cringe at the thought of books that have that very quality and ability to engage thought in young people being banned or challenged by people who believe that they know what is best for others without proper investigation.

That does not mean that I want to all of a sudden make Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint a staple in high schools or make all freshmen read Lolita by Nabokov. But I do want them to read works of literature that have value and insight into the human condition.

That’s why the nomination of Todd Chasteen to the North Carolina State Board of Education is disturbing and a seemingly reactionary move by Gov. McCrory to appease the very conservative coalition in power in Raleigh.

For this English teacher, this nomination spells censorship and more governmental control over what is read by students in North Carolina. His track record screams that free thought, interaction with unknown ideas, and expressions of differing viewpoints should not be allowed in high schools.

That would hurt our students.

Mr. Chasteen was vetted in a report by Lindsay Wagner when she worked as the education correspondent for NC Policy Watch. Her April 24, 2015 report entitled “Censorship controversy, thin record spark concerns over McCrory’s State Board of Ed nominee” speaks loudly when considering that he will in all probability be appointed to the empty Northwest NC vacancy (http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2015/04/24/censorship-controversy-thin-record-spark-concerns-over-mccrorys-state-board-of-ed-nominee/).

Chasteen’s efforts in banning a book called The House of the Spirits from a Watauga County classroom garnered a lot of media, especially when it was revealed that his boss at the time, Franklin Graham, was also actively trying to have it banned as well. According to Chasteen the book was simply a vehicle for promiscuity. He said,

“If the Bible contained the 59 sexual references and the graphic, descriptive detail of The House, my kids would not read the Bible, nor would I. Mr. Mckay stretched to find a few violent, non-descript stories in the Bible of 1500 pages. The House, 59 depictions in 430 pages, a pattern, pervasive vulgarity, and very descriptive. The Bible, as non-graphic, does not say that King David enjoyed “the dark, hot, juicy cavern of her _____.” This is not a mere nuance. The reading of the Bible does not produce sensual arousal.”

But the Bible does talk about David having multiple wives and when he met Bathsheba, he actually had her first husband placed in the front lines of war to ensure he would be killed. Maybe there was not anything graphic since it is biblical diction, but it doesn’t sound wholesome. Then, of course, David begat Solomon (he of 700+ wives) from Bathsheba, and Solomon was the “wisest man who ever lived.” That is unless you talk to Jim, the slave from Huckleberry Finn.

There is that wonderful exchange on the river between the truant, irreverent Huck and the runaway slave.

“Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why would a wise man want to live in de mids’ er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No—’deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ’ud take en buil’ a biler-factry; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factry when he want to res’.”

“Well, but he WAS the wisest man, anyway; because the widow she told me so, her own self.”

“I doan k’yer what de widder say, he WARN’T no wise man nuther. He had some er de dad-fetchedes’ ways I ever see. Does you know ’bout dat chile dat he ’uz gwyne to chop in two?”

“Yes, the widow told me all about it.”

“WELL, den! Warn’ dat de beatenes’ notion in de worl’? You jes’ take en look at it a minute. Dah’s de stump, dah—dat’s one er de women; heah’s you—dat’s de yuther one; I’s Sollermun; en dish yer dollar bill’s de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin aroun’ mongs’ de neighbors en fine out which un you de bill DO b’long to, en han’ it over to de right one, all safe en soun’, de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No; I take en whack de bill in TWO, en give half un it to you, en de yuther half to de yuther woman. Dat’s de way Sollermun was gwyne to do wid de chile. Now I want to ast you: what’s de use er dat half a bill?—can’t buy noth’n wid it. En what use is a half a chile? I wouldn’ give a dern for a million un um.”

Will Todd Chasteen want to now ban Huck Finn? It goes against the Bible, which leads me to my major concern about the potential appointment of Chasteen – he is not one who is familiar with public education.

Wagner wrote in her article,

“Todd Chasteen appears to have strong connections in private, religious education.

His wife, Kim, runs a private Christian school in Boone called Grace Academy. And Chasteen is a proponent of home schooling, having served as a government instructor for High Country Christian Home Schoolers.

Chasteen’s bio for HCCHS says he “has a passion to help ground and prepare our students against an onslaught of liberal views that they may face in higher education, and to be able to convey the subject matter with academic freedom.”

Wow. That’s sounds like someone who does not need to be on the state board of education for public schools.

First, if his wife still runs that private Christian school in Boone, would it not be a conflict of interest that Grace Academy has actually received monies from Opportunity Grants for students who enroll. Below is a screen shot from the NCSEAA website of schools participating in Opportunity Grants (https://www3.ncseaa.edu/cgi-bin/SCHOOLROSTER/NPS500.pgm)? Would Chasteen actively help public schools or would he allow his puritanical views start dictating the very types of books NC student would read?

grace academy

With a bias toward biblical adherence and being anti-liberal arts, Chasteen is the very person that Bradbury warns us against. I can just imagine his challenging the very list of books used often in my junior English classes.

  • Scarlet Letter for the out-of-wedlock child of a clergyman with a married woman.
  • Huck Finn for the language and that Solomon bit.
  • The Great Gatsby because it promotes adultery and drinking and a worship of money.
  • The Crucible because of, well, witches.
  • Of Mice and Men because of the language and violent scenes.

He would also have to consider banning Shakespeare – all of it. The Bard is well-known for his use of bawdry and vulgar language.

And considering that the new budget doesn’t offer much in new resource monies, I may not be able to procure multiple titles of books that would be allowed in schools. Why won’t public schools have that money? Because Grace Academy and other religious affiliated schools that may teach the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans and that the earth is literally only a few thousand years old will be getting that money through an expanding voucher system.

The free thought and investigation of other viewpoints will not be fostered. That would be catastrophic.

Plus it’s an infringement on the First Amendment and freedom of speech. If you have never seen the movie Field of Dreams, then you should just for the PTA meeting scene where a parent is trying to have a book banned from the school based on its use of language.

The woman says,

“Mr. Harris, the so-called novels of Terence Mann endorse promiscuity , godlessness, the mongrelization of the races, and disrespect to high-ranking officers of the United States Army . And that’s why right-thinking school boards all across the country having been banning this man’s S-H-l- since 1969 . Terence Mann? You know why he stopped writing books. Because he masturbates.”

In the movie, Terrance Mann had won the Pulitzer Prize. High praise if you ask me. The House of the Spirits won The Best Novel of the Year in Chile in 1982, and Allende, the author, received the country’s Panorama Literario award. That’s high praise as well.

Annie Kinsella, wife of the protagonist Ray responds beautifully,

“Who wants to burn books? Who wants to spit on the Constitution of the United States of America? Anybody? All right. Now, who’s for the Bill of Rights? Who thinks freedom is a pretty darn good thing? Come on ! Come on ! Let’s see those hands ! Who thinks we have to stand up to the kind of censorship they had under Stalin? All right. There you go.”

Ray Bradbury would have known of Stalin. Maybe that’s what he was thinking about when he wrote F451.

Because he saw what censorship could do to a people.

Maybe Chasteen should put it on his own reading list.