Commentary, Education, News

Teacher: Amid IStation controversy, reading assessments “descended into confusion” across N.C.

A long, messy story keeps getting longer and messier.

Readers of this site and the Charlotte teacher/advocate Justin Parmenter — an occasional Policy Watch contributor — are well aware of the ongoing IStation controversy. The contracting process for a K-3 literacy assessment tool has been thrown into turmoil amid claims that it was mishandled by North Carolina officials like Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.

Parmenter’s been busy on this one, and so has Policy Watch’s Greg Childress, who reported two weeks ago that the company will be offering the tool to teachers for free until the legal questions surrounding the award of their $8.3 million contract are settled.

But Parmenter offered an up-close perspective in a commentary for The Charlotte Observer Monday, contending that, amid the fiasco, literacy testing in the early grades has “descended into confusion” in North Carolina.

Johnson fired shots at the N.C. Department of Information Technology (DIT) in recent weeks, arguing that the state agency’s stay on the contract was “improper,” but Parmenter says the mess is harming teachers across the state.

From Monday’s commentary:

Istation may be providing its product for free, but it’s free in the sense that a puppy is free. Use of a brand new assessment tool requires a significant investment of time and energy by school personnel. Those things aren’t free.

With the state superintendent indicating that schools should keep using an assessment that another agency put on hold, the vitally important work of assessing our youngest readers has descended into confusion all over the state. Some districts, including Wake and Cabarrus, have contracted directly with Amplify to use the mClass tool on their own dime, and some are using other tools to track student reading progress. But a considerable number of districts are following Johnson’s lead and proceeding as if Istation’s contract will be upheld, training teachers on how to use Istation and assessing students on the tool. The mClass application has been removed from the state’s electronic platform and replaced with Istation. With Johnson’s blessing, Istation assessments are now collecting data on North Carolina students, despite the fact that the company’s contract has been put on hold.

While Johnson can disagree with DIT’s decision, he should know better than to run roughshod over due process. After all, as Johnson reminded everyone last month, he’s not just superintendent, he’s also a lawyer. Personally endorsing and advocating for a product that hasn’t gone through proper procurement to operate in North Carolina — as the free offering of Istation has not — appears to be a deliberate attempt to subvert the decision of a governing authority. North Carolina’s public school families deserve better than this poor leadership and the chaos that surrounds the important work of evaluating our children’s reading abilities.

Commentary, immigration, Trump Administration

As Trump sets sights on the border wall, are North Carolinians willing to pay for it?

This is what happens when a preposterous campaign promise becomes an offensive reality.

No one outside of Donald Trump’s base particularly wanted the president’s expensive and ill-conceived border wall. It was, from the start, a promise made out of craven political opportunism, a bid to score points with rabid, red-meat, anti-immigrant neo-cons.

The question is: In 2019, with the news that it will cost North Carolina military bases about $80 million in new construction, does the wall still sell with Trump’s base, a population not likely to stomach military funding cuts? Indeed, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable wall?

The News & Observer explained Wednesday how the diverted funds could impact some high-profile plans for North Carolina bases:

The affected projects in North Carolina include $40 million for a new battalion complex and ambulatory care center at Camp Lejeune, a previously canceled $32.9 million elementary school at Fort Bragg, and a $6.4 million storage facility for the new KC-46 tanker at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Those projects join cuts at a Florida base nearly destroyed by last year’s hurricane season, a new middle school for Kentucky’s Fort Campbell and a new fire station for a Marine Corps base in South Carolina.

In all, 34 installations in the United States and eight bases in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands, will absorb $1.8 billion in domestic cuts to planned construction projects. Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, is losing more than $400 million in planned military construction projects.

That money will be shifted to help support 11 military construction projects to extend the border wall at locations in Texas, Arizona and California. Another $1.8 billion will be pulled from planned construction projects at bases overseas to also support the border wall construction.

The Pentagon said in a briefing Tuesday that it was justified in shifting the $3.6 billion total in military construction funds to pay for border wall construction because it had determined that the wall was necessary to support military operations along the border.

A senior defense official briefing reporters Wednesday said the only factors that were considered on whether to cut a project was whether it had an award date after fiscal year 2020, and that no barracks or family housing would be cut.

That meant that bases hit hardest by last year’s hurricane season, including Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida were not spared. Tyndall will lose $17 million for a fire station.

But those are often projects that local leaders have spent years lobbying for in order to secure funding in the annual defense bill, and getting that funding is often seen as an important victory for elected leaders.

Asked how the Pentagon has explained to those local communities and leaders how the wall was a more important priority, the official didn’t answer directly but said that the hurricane-hit bases were already being repaired through supplemental hurricane funding. “We are committed to the rebuild of Tyndall,” the official said.

To get the projects back on track, however, the Pentagon will need Congress to backfill the funds, and Congress has not indicated it is willing to do that. “Conversations are ongoing with Congress,” the official said.

Only with Donald Trump do we hope campaign platitudes are just platitudes.

The Observer‘s editorial board followed through on Thursday, slamming U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis for the news, and not only for his most extraordinary flip-floppery on Trump’s border wall earlier this year.

But also for his handling of the president’s apparently politically-motivated Tweet this week, which seemed to indicate erroneously that it was Tillis, and not Gov. Roy Cooper, who asked the president for an emergency declaration in advance of Hurricane Dorian’s arrival in the Carolinas.

This story has about a 24-hour shelf life, which is to say it’s a grotesquely unimportant tidbit during Dorian, but it does capture — in one neat little shell — how strange Washington, D.C. is these days.

Stay safe during the storm.

Commentary, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

If Gov. Cooper won’t debate Berger on Medicaid, I know a few thousand who will

Prepare for the right to make hay about this. And prepare for Gov. Roy Cooper’s office to continue to pressure North Carolina legislative leaders behind the scenes to roll over on Medicaid expansion, an issue that may divide the Republican caucus, if virtually no one else.

The editorial boards of the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh’s News & Observer have called upon Cooper and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, North Carolina’s Medicaid miser-in-chief, to debate the issue. Berger’s office has indicated its willingness, but Cooper’s office says legislators should focus instead on responding to his budget proposal.

Cooper should debate Berger, no question, but in his absence, I can imagine hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, those blockaded by the GOP’s political stranglehold over Medicaid, would be happy to step in.

Berger and the governor have spoken quite a bit, but it’s those residents of this state continually dehumanized by the blockade who deserve a microphone.

For the better part of a decade, Republicans have insisted that the federally-funded expansion is a financial liability in waiting, even if the expansion’s healthcare and economic benefits are about as nebulous as simple arithmetic.

I know it may seem as if the federal government will not endure the smoking crater in the White House, but it will, and so will Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Holding out, as North Carolina Republicans have, is intractable buffoonery. It’s mindless and heartless.

Here’s a portion of the Observer’s editorial from this morning:

The governor and other advocates believe expanding Medicaid here would provide health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, increase jobs and help struggling rural hospitals. Cooper has intensified his public push for expansion by meeting affected parties in Raleigh and across the state. “I believe straight up Medicaid expansion is the best option,” he said earlier this month, “but I’m willing to discuss concerns of leaders in both chambers to ensure that more North Carolinians can get access to affordable health care.”

Berger, in an op-ed last month, said he thinks expanding Medicaid is an economic risk that would result increased health care costs and increased wait times at medical offices. He and House speaker Tim Moore have declined to give their blessing to compromise legislation that Democrats believe might get enough Republican votes to pass.

Yes, it’s possible that a debate won’t change the immediate political dynamic. It might even cause each side to dig in further on Medicaid rather than risk the impression of a debate loss. But there’s also the possibility that the debate could reveal to each side — and North Carolinians — at least a little common ground that could provide a foundation for compromise.

We’ve given the governor’s and Senate leader’s offices a heads up on our debate invitation. Berger spokesman Pat Ryan told the editorial board Monday that the senator is agreeable to debating the governor. Cooper spokeswoman Sadie Weiner told us the governor is not going to debate, and that Republicans should respond to Cooper’s compromise budget proposal. We agree. But we also think the the governor has a good case to make and defend on Medicaid expansion. We hope he decides it’s one that worth debating.

Commentary, News, Trump Administration

Donald Trump, a New York racist, communes with Southern racists

Donald Trump’s “fine people,” in their element, August 2017 in Charlottesville, Va. (Wikimedia Commons)

The question has not been — for some time — is Donald Trump a racist?

Donald Trump answered that question before he even announced his candidacy, in his putrescent championing of the “birther” movement, the nakedly prejudiced conspiracy theory concerning former President Obama.

As The Atlantic‘s David A. Graham noted this week, “bigotry has been a part of Trump’s public persona since he’s had a public persona.”

The better question is: How racist is the United States, and how racist is the political party that allows him to roam unchecked?

As you’ve likely noticed by now, the president brought his road show to Greenville Wednesday — “Have bigotry, will travel” — and made headlines, as he often does, for his supporters as much as his rambling message.

“Send her back,” the crowd chanted when the president remarked upon Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who’s spurred Trump’s ire this week. Omar’s election marked a whole host of firsts, but being the first naturalized citizen from Africa to win a seat in Congress seems to be the one that Trump supporters are latching onto.

It’s racist. It doesn’t get any more racist. And there’s a closing of the loop, if you will, to see this New York-born racist courting Southern racists, demolishing at least those geographical barriers.

But, in one of the finest commentaries I’ve seen on the subject this morning, The Charlotte Observer‘s editorial board says we should all pause before making the statement that what we saw in Greenville last night “is not North Carolina.” There’s more to it than that.

Read the editorial below:

It happened in the first half of Wednesday’s speech. Donald Trump, our president, began to talk about Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democratic from Minnesota who was among the four women of color he had attacked Sunday in a racist tweet. Everyone knew Trump would speak about the women at some point to the Greenville, North Carolina crowd. Did we know what would come next?

“Send her back.”

The chant rose quickly from a handful of voices to a chorus of bigotry. It was a chilling moment. It was “lock her up” in a white hood. It was despicable.

“Send her back.”

It could have happened at any Donald Trump rally. It might have happened in any state, north or south. But it happened in Greenville, in our state, and it was one of North Carolina’s darkest moments.

“Send her back.”

Or perhaps not. Maybe the chant will be absorbed in the vortex that is Donald Trump. In a presidency of so many shameful moments, of so many new lows, the singularly awful ones tend to lose their significance. It’s possible that North Carolina might be forgotten when the chant inevitably spreads to the next rally. But North Carolina shouldn’t forget.

For a state that likes to boast membership in the new South, we have difficulties shedding the old stench of discrimination. We were the last U.S. state to ban gay marriage just seven years ago. We were the first state to pass a transgender bathroom bill with HB2 four years after that.

And yes, we had a bit of a progressive wave here last year. We sent more people to Raleigh who think bills like HB2 are a blight on our state. But we still struggle with segregation in our cities. We still are burdened by economic disparity. We also still have overt moments like Wednesday, and we can’t blame it all on Donald Trump.

“Send her back.”

There will be a temptation for some today to point to Wednesday’s rally and say that’s not who we are in this state. We hear that kind of thing a lot these days when our president, but not only our president, acts contrary to the values we think this country shares.

But there was some backlash this week when people pointed to the president’s Sunday tweet and declared that it wasn’t who we are. Because it is, of course, part of who we always have been in America. And in North Carolina. It’s who we were in Wilmington in 1898. It’s who we were when Dorothy Counts made that first walk to Harding High. It’s who we were when we redlined blacks out of white neighborhoods decades ago. It’s who we were on a July night in Greenville, and it could be what’s coming to Charlotte next summer.

“Send her back,” Donald Trump’s supporters chanted, without seeing the irony that it was they who were moving backward. “Send her back,” they cried, and it was both a reminder and a warning that here in North Carolina, in America, going back is not that far of a journey.

Commentary, Education

Looking for sense in Mark Johnson’s IStation saga? Look elsewhere.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Whatever you may think of North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson, the IStation saga makes zero sense.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

My friends, this is “Waterworld” level bonkers, although Kevin Costner’s legendarily soggy sci-fi is making an unpleasant amount of sense in retrospect.  

Charlotte advocate Justin Parmenter authored a tortuous rundown of the IStation proceedings this morning, a head-spinning collection of allegations and denials and genuinely, supremely confusing events concerning Johnson’s awarding of a multi-million dollar contract for a K-3 reading test.

It’s impossible to make this “long story short,” so I’ll let Parmenter tell you the details.

From his post today:

Last week, the NC Department of Public Instruction finally released informationrelated to the procurement process which ended with Superintendent Mark Johnson unilaterally awarding a three-year, multi-million dollar contract for North Carolina’s K-3 diagnostic reading assessment to Istation.

Both Johnson and DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson had previously claimed that an advisory committee assembled in the fall of 2018 had failed to come to a consensus or make a recommendation on the contract. The records provided by DPI show those claims are absolutely false.

The documents also reveal some important details about the path Johnson took as he disregarded the input of the team of evaluators.  However, the release omits records which will be crucial in substantiating DPI’s version of events.

Here’s what we know based on the records DPI released:

On October 5, 2018, the Request for Proposal (RFP) evaluation team first met under the direction of co-business managers Pam Shue and Amy Jablonski to discuss background for the project, evaluation ground rules, and how the process would work. The team included both voting members and non-voting members and was made up of DPI employees and a broad collection of subject matter experts.

Notice the importance of selecting an effective dyslexia screener in the initial project scope as presented to the RFP evaluation committee.  Some of the strongest outcry that has followed Johnson’s selection of Istation has been about the tool’s inability to flag children who are at risk for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. DPI representatives have responded by explaining that dyslexia screening is outside the purview of Read to Achieve and is not the state’s responsibility, as DPI Director of K-3 Literacy Tara Galloway told the State Board of Education last week.

Individual team members were given until mid-November to evaluate the four vendors (Amplify, Istation, NWEA, and Curriculum Associates), at which time they were expected to be prepared to meet, discuss their findings, and come to a consensus ranking which would later be presented to Superintendent Johnson.

The consensus meeting took place on November 19 and 20, 2018. Notes from the records release indicate that participants were reminded at the outset of the meeting that their goal was to arrive at a consensus on which product should be selected, and that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity.”

The team discussed their findings in painstaking detail before ranking the products. They agreed unanimously that Amplify was the best choice. Istation came in second.

On December 4, 2018, Amy Jablonski, Pam Shue, DPI Procurement Officer Tymica Dunn, and Project Manager Srirekha Viswanathan met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to present the committee’s findings in a PowerPoint, which is included in the released DPI records. They told Johnson that the team had selected Amplify’s mClass tool as its top choice to be used as the K-3 reading diagnostic assessment in all of North Carolina’s schools.

The next records DPI provided are from a meeting on January 8, 2019, between Johnson and the members of the evaluation team. According to state records, the gathering was characterized as a “consensus meeting to recommend finalist for negotiations,” which is odd since the team had already presented its unambiguous recommendation to Johnson the month before.

According to the notes, Mark Johnson began the meeting by thanking those present for their input on the K-3 screener selection. He gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. As this was his first reaction to the team recommending that schools continue using the Amplify tool, Johnson’s comments could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the team toward changing their recommendation to Istation (a computer-based tool which Istation advertises as requiring minimal class time). Johnson then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for the second time and stepped out of the room “to maintain integrity of the process.”

On March 8, 2019, another meeting was held to discuss the procurement. This time only 8 of the 10 DPI voting members who had been at the previous meeting were present. Superintendent Johnson was not in attendance, but new General Counsel Jonathan Sink was.After the superintendent exited the room, team members wrote their choices on sticky notes, and the project manager tallied the results. Amplify again easily came out on top, with six people recommending negotiations proceed with Amplify only, three with Istation only, and one voting that negotiations continue with both companies. Pam Shue was tasked with informing Johnson of the committee’s recommendation the next day.

Sink — a former attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore’s office and the newly-named executive director of the state Republican Party — informed those present that the procurement process was being cancelled. According to the notes, he gave two reasons for the cancellation. The first reason was that a voting member of the evaluation committee had breached confidentiality on the procurement process. The second reason provided was that there had been no unanimous consensus in selecting a vendor for the K-3 reading assessment.

There are a couple of important things to note here. First of all, Sink gave no additional detail on the alleged confidentiality breach at the meeting, and the records DPI released include no information about exactly what the breach was or the identity of the person responsible.

Given DPI’s pattern of dishonesty on the procurement and Mark Johnson’s apparent desire to award the contract to Istation, it’s fair to wonder whether a breach really occurred. If it did, records detailing the breach should have been provided to the public as information relevant to the procurement process. Nothing in North Carolina public records law prevents DPI from releasing that information and corroborating the claim.

Secondly, remember that the evaluation team had been informed from the beginning of the RFP process that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity,” so the lack of unanimous agreement does not seem to be a valid reason for cancelling the procurement.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine procurements in general being successful if the process required those involved to unanimously agree.

After the March 8 meeting, the RFP process was cancelled and restarted with a smaller evaluation committee which had very little expertise in literacy or teaching. The new committee selected Istation as the vendor, and Mark Johnson announced the contract award to the public on June 7.

If the superintendent indeed worried that he would stain the “integrity of the process” with his handling of the IStation fiasco, we can all see why. And the documents turned over by the state agency make for an uncomfortable narrative — in which it would appear the superintendent jettisoned his own processes once they became inconvenient for him.

It’s nice to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but the doubts are fast outpacing the benefits here. Either’s someone’s pants are on fire or they’ve badly mixed up their timeline.

A discussion of IStation vs. Amplify or any other tool is, truly, for another day. But a discussion about the power in Johnson’s office, and what he chooses to do with it, is for this day.

This is not the first time Johnson’s processes and motives have been questioned. A Policy Watch report last year detailed the criticisms of Johnson’s abrupt purchase of $6 million in Apple iPads, weeks after the tech Goliath wooed Johnson and state lawmakers in Silicon Valley.

As much as that story puts our ethics laws in a broader spotlight, it should invite closer scrutiny of the state’s murky contracting processes, and whether our state leaders require more oversight before they’re entrusted with dishing out millions in public dollars.

There may be more documents forthcoming, but in the meantime, everything about this story is offensively befuddling.