Private religious school receives state voucher money despite teaching homosexuality is a sin

In the western part of the state, the “Citizen Times” reports that a conservative religious school that receives a third of Buncombe County’s opportunity scholarship money teaches students that homosexuality is a sin.

Temple Baptist School in West Asheville is also dismissive of the theory of evolution, the paper reports. It opts to evangelize about Young Earth creationism, which contends Earth is no more than 10,000 years old.

Here’s how Brian Washburn, the administrator at Temple Baptist, explained the school’s approach to those subjects.

“What we do is based on the Bible as our foundation,” Washburn told the “Citizen Times.” “So that’s going to influence our approach to teaching all of our subject areas.”

The “Citizen Times” reported that 95 of nearly 150 Temple Baptist students receive tuition assistance of up to $4,200 through the state’s voucher program during the 2018-19 school year.

Read the paper’s full report here.

Teaching children that homosexuality is a sin wouldn’t fly in a traditional public school, and neither would Young Earth creationism. But such lesson are OK at Temple Baptist and other private religious schools despite the fact that such schools benefit from thousands of dollars in public money.

Private schools accepted 9,651 scholarships last year totaling $37.7 million.

Critics complain that the voucher program drains money from traditional public schools. Meanwhile, supporters say vouchers give economically disadvantaged students educational opportunities they otherwise couldn’t afford.

Another chief complaint about North Carolina’s school voucher program is that the program provides money to private schools that may discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality and religious affiliation.

Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training and outreach at the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA), the agency that oversees the state’s voucher program, told Policy Watch in June that the program’s participation agreement forbids discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin.”

That agreement, however, does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Read the participation agreement here. Provision 5 forbids discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

The language in the agreement is similar to that in federal law:  “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program, or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”



State Board of Education welcomes student voices after three year absence

Student representation returned to the State Board of Education this month after missing for three years due to political infighting between the board and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

New high school advisers, Meredith Gaskill, a Carson High School senior from Rowan-Salisbury Public Schools and Nate Kolk-Tomberlin, a junior from Apex High School in Wake County, were introduced during the board’s Sept. 5 business meeting.

Meredith Gaskill

“I believe that I can bring a fair and balanced view of my peers to the board as well as offer the board a wide variety of student opinion,” Kolk-Tomberlin told the board.

Gaskill said she was excited to be a part of the board and the “opportunity to learn and contribute.”

North Carolina law authorized the governor to appointment two high school students to serve as advisers to the state board, but the Republican-led General Assembly handed the authority to the state superintendent in a power grab that led to a lengthy legal battle.

Nate Kolk-Tomberlin

The legal wrangling ended with the State Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to Johnson as well as the authority to appoint student advisers to the board.

Johnson said in April that he couldn’t appoint students to the board until after the legal questions around HB 17 were answered.

“That entire law was put on hold for a year and a half because of lawsuits, so nobody could appoint a student adviser,” Johnson said in April. “When the court proceedings were finally finished in summer of 2018, that is when it took the restraining order off of that law and I had the ability to appoint a student adviser.”

Two high students — Greear Webb and Myles Cyrus – nudged Johnson in April with compelling arguments for bringing student advisers back to the board.

“If we are in the room where the decisions are made, we can clearly and intentionally help you to structure our education in the most effective and successful way possible,” said Webb, a Sanderson High School graduate who now attends UNC-Chapel Hill.

Cyrus is a 2019 graduate of Fike High School in Wilson. He now attends Wake Forest University.

Education, News

State education leaders call sneak veto override a ‘deceitful’ tactic that disrespects public education

NCAE President Mark Jewell

State education leaders expressed shock and anger Wednesday at the House’s surprise override of Gov. Roy Cooper’s state budget veto.

“The unbelievably deceitful conduct of House Republicans in the General Assembly this morning is nothing short of reprehensible,” said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “By playing underhanded political games in an attempt to win at all costs, they are subverting the democratic process and destroying whatever shred of trust remained between Republicans and the people of North Carolina.”

House Democrats said they were told there would be no votes during the morning House session.

“At a time when many of us were taking a moment to remember the tragic events of 9/11, House Republicans called a surprise vote with nearly half of the lawmakers absent,” Jewell added. “This tactic smacks of the lack of integrity that has caused so many problems in our state over the past decade, from unconstitutionally gerrymandered maps to chronically underfunded public schools. But this should come as no surprise from a body that has refused to negotiate in good faith with the Governor, while disrespecting the needs of public education and educators time and time again.”

Jen Mangrum, who has announced plans to run for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, also weighed in on the veto override.

“I am appalled at the childish behavior of our General Assembly leadership. This budget is not about them and it’s not about winning or losing.  It’s about representing the people of North Carolina and letting the democratic process unfold,” Mangrum said in a statement.

She accused the Republican leadership of trying to avoid negotiating better pay for teachers.

“It’s shameful and shows a lack of support for our public schools,” Mangrum said.

Cooper and the state’s Republican leadership were far apart on teacher pay increases. Republicans were expected to take up teacher pay in a separate bill this week as part of a “piecemeal” approach to break the budget stalemate.

Under Cooper’s compromise spending plan, teacher pay would increase by an average of 8.5 percent over the biennium. The GOP’s conference committee plan calls for an average teacher pay raise of 3.8 percent and a one-time bonus.

Cooper told reporters at a noon press conference that he spoke with House Speaker Tim Moore over the weekend about damage caused by Hurricane Dorian and “potentially splitting the difference between their version of teacher pay and their version of teacher pay.

“Teachers lose in this vote with much less pay than they deserve,” Cooper said. “So do bus drivers and cafeteria workers and other educational staff.”


Rowan County charter school placed on ‘allotment restrictions’ amid financial, leadership concerns

Essie Mae Kiser Foxx Charter School

In an odd twist, Essie Mae Kiser Fox Charter School in Rowan County was placed on “allotment restrictions” Monday by the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB).

The sanctions came after school leaders were unable to competently discuss the details of its more than $1 million budget with certainty or adequately explain why a convicted felon was added to the board of directors.

The restriction means Essie Mae can only draw 12 smaller, monthly payments from the state this year instead of the usual three, larger installments.

The financial restrictions seemed strange, coming a week after the SBE, with CSAB’s blessings, granted the school permission to sever ties with its management organization, Raleigh-based Torchlight Academy Schools.

After only one year, officials of the small school in East Spencer with fewer than 130 students asked to end its relationship with Torchlight. They cited poor fiscal and operational management on the part of Torchlight.

The addition of Kenneth Muhammad, formerly Kenneth Fox and reportedly the son of the woman for who the school is named, raised eyebrows among some CSAB members Monday because he is a convicted felon.

(It should be noted that the Foxx in the school’s name is spelled with two “Xs.” The former Kenneth Fox spelled his last name with one X.)

Muhammad, who was the mayor East Spencer at the time of his conviction in 2005, was indicted by a grand jury on 34 federal charges. He eventually pleaded guilty to mail/wire fraud and was sentenced to 41 months in federal prison.

Muhammad’s criminal record was also an issue in 2016 when he and a group of residents sought to open the Paul L. Dunbar charter school in East Spencer.

At that time, CSAB members expressed concern about Muhammad’s criminal record and the group’s relationship with Torchlight because the management firm’s Raleigh school, which bears its name, was considered a low-performing, failing school at the time.

Muhammad’s conviction had gone undetected in 2016 until it was discovered by CSAB member Steven Walker, who is now the board’s vice chairman.

On Monday, Walker said the board found out a couple of weeks ago that Muhammad had joined Essie Mae’s board of directors.

“I’m all for second chances,” Walker said in an interview. “I just didn’t like the fact that during the first go around (2016) that we got submitted a criminal background check that said [Muhammad] had no criminal history.”

When asked why Muhammad was added to the board, Tina Wallace, who chairs the school’s board of directors, said the school reached out to community leaders they thought could help the school stay afloat while it transitioned to self-management.

Wallace said Muhammad was added to the board at the suggestion of another board members. She said his decision to help the school was not contingent on being named a board member.

“The people in our community have been able to move forward from the person’s past and look at the resources that person offers now,” Wallace said. “That person has been able to gain the trust of parents, of community partners, of business organizations within that community and the reason we have been able to add to our enrollment, [increase] our business partners is because of the person [Muhammad] we’re discussing today.”

CSAB Chairman Alex Quigley said the addition of Muhammad to the board is a much smaller problem than the financial and management issues that threaten the school’s survival.

“It’s a death spiral, you don’t have enough kids, you’ve already drawn down a third of your money for the entire year, your [performance] data was not good last year, you’re overstaffed,” Quigley said. “I’m seeing all kinds of red flags here and no one on the board or even your school leader can talk to me confidently about what’s going on.”

Quigley asked the Office of Charter School (OCS) and the state’s legal team to follow up to ensure the school is compliance with State Board of Education (SBE) policy, state law and its charter.

“They’re going to ask you to provide some additional information, and you will provide that right away whether its budgets or contracts, etc.,” Quigley said after CSAB emerged from a closed-door meeting. “You need to work with OCS to make sure we have a full picture of what’s going on financially.”

Don McQueen, president of Torchlight, attended the CSAB meeting to support a new charter he plans to manage, but did not stay for the Essie Mae discussion.

Education, News

Students will take fewer tests under bill signed into law by Gov. Cooper

Students taking a test.

Hurricane Dorian gave many North Carolina school children a day off from school this week.

But Gov. Roy Cooper gave them something better when he signed  Senate Bill 621, into law. The new law reduces the number of state exams students must take.

“North Carolina needs to be able to assess how our schools are performing and how well students are learning,” Cooper said. “A reasonable assessment system that gives teachers and parents accurate information without sacrificing accountability should help children learn without over testing.”

SB 621, also known as the “Testing Reduction Act of 2019” eliminates more than 20 state exams, including the N.C. Final Exams. Those exams, taken mostly by high school students, were used to evaluate teacher performance.

The passage of SB 621 is a win for North Carolina advocates who have pushed for testing reform, but groups such as N.C. Families for Testing Reform contend it doesn’t go far enough

“This bill begins to reduce the burden on end-of-year testing for older children, but doesn’t do enough to support young children, who are tested more frequently, and are the most vulnerable to the emotional stress of testing,” the testing reform group said in a statement Friday.

Tow major criticism of over-testing is that it interrupts instruction time and that many of the scores are  used to rank schools and to evaluate teachers.

“The fact is that much of the testing that is being done is used for the purpose of grading schools and teachers (like the recent released School Performance letter grades (A-F) for schools) and NOT for giving children the tools they need for learning, which is something we hope will continue to be addressed by the Legislature and DPI.”

The elimination of the N.C. Final Exams raises new questions about how the state will gather data in the future to evaluate its teachers.

SB 621 calls for the State Board of Education (SBE) and the Department of Public Instruction to submit to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee a plan on how the state will collect data to evaluate teacher performance and professional growth moving forward.

SBE members J.B. Buxton told his colleagues at the board’s business meeting Thursday that North Carolina will have to figure out how to get “growth data for teachers without having growth data for students.”