Advocates demand investigation into awarding of controversial Istation contract

Public schools advocates and parents prepare to hold a press conference Friday to demand a one year delay in the implementation of the controversial Istation reading assessment tool.

Under a blazing mid-morning sun with the North Carolina legislative building as a backdrop, NC Families for School Testing Reform on Friday doubled-down on its demand that state education officials delay implementation of the controversial Istation K-3 reading assessment tool for one year.

The parent advocacy group has also asked Attorney General Josh Stein and State Auditor Beth Wood to investigate Superintendent Mark Johnson’s decision to award the $8.3 million contract to Istation after selection committees ranked a competing firm higher.

Selection committees chosen by Johnson ranked Amplify’s mCLASS assessment above Istation.

Johnson and the State Board of Education (SBE) have agreed to move forward with implementation of Istation. However, data collection for teacher performance evaluations will be delayed until January.

“We believe that the time frame for program implementation is insufficient and we’re concerned about possible irregularities in awarding the contract for testing services,” said Suzanne Miller, an organizer for the advocacy group.

Miller was joined by a dozen or more parent advocates, educators and N.C. Association of Education President Mark Jewell at a 10 a.m. press conference held on Bicentennial Mall.

Suzanne Miller

Several speakers took aim at Johnson’s limited teaching experience and questioned where he’s able to make decisions that are in the best interest of North Carolina’s school children.

“This current debacle is another example of administrative mismanagement and deception on the part of the State Superintendent,” Jewell said. “Had he simply followed the recommendation of the experts he himself assembled to advise on the subject, we would not be in this mess.”

Jewell joined Miller in calling on Johnson and state education officials to delay implementation of Istation until after an investigation has been conducted into the contract award.

“We see now reason why this hastily made decision cannot wait until a proper investigation is conducted before haphazardly implementing a system that does not appear to be the best for North Carolina,” Jewell said.

Michelle Burton, president of the Durham Association of Educators and an elementary school librarian, lamented what she contends is a movement by Johnson and like-minded education officials and lawmakers to supplant teachers with technology.

Burton said educators thought the technology revolution would increase tests scores and close the achievement gap.

“We are seeing all the unintended consequences that technology has had on our children,” Burton said. “It has decreased their attention spans. Our children can’t really decipher from what’s real information and fake news and it definitely didn’t [eliminate] the achievement gap.”

Paula Dinga, an elementary school teacher from Buncombe County, said educators are better at determining whether a child is learning to read than technology-based assessment tools.

“We are intimately aware of their reading behaviors and can apply our professional judgment to designing the best instructional environment,” Dinga said.

Susan Book, one of the co-founders of Save Our Schools, a parent led advocacy group, asked parents and advocates to ask Stein’s office to conduct an investigation into the Istation contract.

She also urged them to keep “pounding” away at Johnson, the State Board of Education (SBE) and state lawmakers until the truth about the contract is revealed.

“They have the power to look into this too,” Book said of state lawmakers. “It’s our legislature that gave the State Superintendent unprecedented powers and it’s our legislature that has the power to take it away.”

In 2016, the SBE and Johnson were locked in a bitter battle for control of the state Department of Public Instruction after Republican lawmakers transferred some of the board’s power to Johnson.

The SBE sued, but the N.C. Supreme Court upheld a three-judge’s panel ruling that the transfer of power was constitutional.

Miller has submitted a letter to Stein’s office asking for an investigation into the procurement process that led to Istation being awarded the reading assessment contract instead of Amplify.

She also asked for help in securing public records about the contract award the group requested from the NCDPI.

“We requested multiple times for the full records into this procurement process and finally received 166 pages, but they noted there are more documents that are not being released, and this is a huge concern we have,” Miller wrote to N.C. Department of Justice’s Open Government office.

The advocacy group’s press conference came a day after Amplify officials met with NCDPI to discuss the contract award.

Details of what happened inside the meeting were not shared. But NCDPI spokesman Graham Wilson provided this statement late Thursday:

“DPI and the Superintendent have followed and continue to follow all applicable laws, policies, and rules related to the procurement process. Today, as part of that process, we met with the losing vendor as per their request.”

Wilson said Johnson has 10 days to respond to Amplify and will do so before July 28.

Miller, Book and Chelsea Bartel, a school psychologist tried to attend the meeting between Amplify and NCDPI staffers but were asked to leave by security guards who told them the meeting was not open to visitors or media.

Bartel is one of three people who received “cease and desist” letter from an Istation attorney demanding that they stop making “false and misleading” representations about the company.

The others went to Amy Jablonski, a former Department of Public Instruction employee who has announced she’s running for state superintendent and Justin Parmenter, a Charlotte teacher, who has written extensively about the controversial contract award on his blog, “Notes from the Chalkboard.”

“It’s a curious PR strategy for a company that you’d think would be focused on winning over North Carolina teachers right now,” Parmenter wrote this week. “It’s unfortunate to see attempts like this to silence educators who simply want the truth and what’s best for our children.”


House revisits ‘reading war’ but votes against requiring phonics instruction in bill to fix Read to Achieve

A debate in the state House about a bill designed to improve North Carolina’s signature education reform program – Read to Achieve – morphed into a lengthy discussion this week about the value of phonics in reading instruction.

State Rep. Larry Pittman, (R-Cabarrus), offered an amendment to Senate Bill 438, also known as the “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019” that would require students to receive instruction in phonics starting in kindergarten through first grade.

“Sometimes we discard the so-called old fashioned way of doing something because it’s old-fashioned, without stopping to think about the fact that it’s worked so well for so long,” said Pittman, who attributed his success as a reader to phonics instruction.

Pittman said not using phonics to teach reading is like teaching someone to “lay bricks when you don’t teach them the relationship between brick and mortar.”

“This bill will do a lot of good things to help with education but requiring, not just saying we encourage phonics, will help a lot kids, and they’ll be reading by third-grade a whole lot better,” Pittman said.

The use of phonics to teach reading was replaced by the whole language approach, which teaches students to read words as whole pieces of languages.

Meanwhile, phonetic-based reading is taught by having children use letter sounds and letter symbols.

Many older Americans swear by phonics instruction and the often attribute the nation’s much-discussed reading woes to the switch to a whole-language approach to teaching reading, which became popular nearly four-decades ago.

“This is a good amendment,” said State Rep. Charles Graham (D-Robeson), a retired educator. “When we’re talking about teaching to read, we know all children do not learn the same way. Phonics is a different way to work with some students who may not be able to understand whole language reading.”

State Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, (D-Guilford), an education consultant and former assistant school superintendent, said it would be harmful to require educators to focus solely on phonics.

Clemmons said phonics is only one of the five areas that are considered part of reading instruction, along with phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension.

“Proscribing an over-emphasis on one of those five ultimately would negatively affect, in my opinion, the reading of all of our children,” Clemmons said.

Clemmons noted that SB 438 includes a provision that requires educators to develop Individual Reading Plans (IRPs) for students struggling to learn to read.

“The intention of the Individual Reading Plans as written in this bill is for children to have the instruction on whichever the five areas they need, and proscribing all of them to have phonics does not help overall the reading of our state,” Clemmons said.

State Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham), who introduced the bill in the spring, has said the use of IRPs in Mississippi and Florida have resulted in substantial reading gains for struggling readers.

State Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union), said there isn’t anything in SB 438 that prohibits educators from using phonics to teach a child to read.

“As a matter of fact, the bill specifically moves us toward individual Reading Plans, and if that’s [phonics] is what’s best for a child, then that’s what we should apply for the child,” Horn said. “To thrust [phonics] upon a child, to thrust upon a teacher that this is the way you will do it because it worked for me last year or 50 years ago, that doesn’t make reasonable sense to me.”

Pittman’s was eventually defeated on an 86-23 vote.

He introduced a second amendment that would require a task force the Superintendent of Public Instruction would have to create if SB 438 becomes law, to study whether phonics is adequately integrated into the state’s standard course of study or whether a separate course of study is needed.

“This is exactly right on,” Horn said. “This is what we should be doing. Let’s study it, take a look at it and implement it where necessary.”

Pittman’s second amendment was approved on a 108-0 vote.

The House vote on SB 438 was much closer.

It narrowly passed on a 59-50 second-reading vote with all but one Republican voting in favor of the bill. Three Democrats cast votes in favor of SB 438.

Adopted in 2012, North Carolina’s Read to Achieve legislation’s goal is to ensure all children are reading at above grade level by the end of third-grade.

After spending more than $150 million on the effort, the results have been dismal. More than 43 percent of third-graders tested during the 2017-18 school year did not demonstrate reading proficiency.

“The overarching theme is Read to Achieve is working in some places and it’s not working as well as it should in other places,” Berger said Tuesday during a House committee meeting. “If something needs to be fixed, let’s fix it. If things are working well, then let’s try to replicate those things.”


U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announces state part of pilot program to assess achievement, pushes ‘Freedom Scholarships’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest host a roundtable discussion about DeVos’ “Education Freedom Scholarship” proposal.

Just ahead of her visit to Raleigh to promote her plan to establish a federal tax credit to expand school choice, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that North Carolina is one of two states chosen to take part in a pilot program to assess student achievement during the coming school year.

Georgia is the other state selected to participate in the assessment.

North Carolina and Georgia now join Louisiana and New Hampshire, which have already successfully applied to participate in the pilot.

According to a news release, North Carolina’s new innovative assessment will rely on the use of a customized, end-of-year assessment called a “route.”

The “route” will be developed in response to a student’s performance on two formative assessments taken during the school year. Each route represents a cluster of test questions designed to measure a student’s achievement accurately and efficiently.

North Carolina’s 235-page application to participate in The Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) program can be viewed here. 

Meanwhile, Georgia will pilot two different assessments. One will be based on the use of adaptive interim assessments and the other based on the use of on-demand assessments designed to provide real-time data on student performance.

Both will use technology to provide educators with data that can be used to target support during the school year.

“I’m pleased that Georgia and North Carolina are rethinking how to assess student achievement in ways that are more relevant and connected to the classroom,” DeVos said in a statement. “This pilot program gives states that are willing to try a new approach an opportunity to assess student achievement without sacrificing rigor or skirting accountability.  I look forward to seeing the impact this study will have on student outcomes.”

While in North Carolina on Wednesday, DeVos participated in a roundtable discussion co-hosted by Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

DeVos said her Education Freedom Scholarship proposal would help hundreds of thousands of children attend better schools.

And during a radio interview with former governor Pat McCrory, she said the federal tax credit would give states such as North Carolina the flexibility to enhance existing school choice programs or to create new ones.

“It would provide North Carolina the opportunity to enhance some of the choice programs and some of the opportunities North Carolina has already undertaken or it could help create new programs that may help students that want to have apprenticeship opportunities or dual-enrollment opportunities, career and technical opportunities.”

Under DeVos’ plan, individuals and companies could receive a federal tax credit for awarding scholarships to students to attend private schools.

The so-called program would provide a $5 billion annual federal tax credit for voluntary donations to state-based scholarship programs.

North Carolina’s “Opportunity Scholarship” program provides vouchers of up to $4,200 for students to attend private schools.

In May, the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, the agency which oversees the voucher program, reported that $37.7 million in vouchers had been issued this year to 9,640 recipients.

Critics of such programs contend they can lead to school segregation.

“It has the very strong possibility that by expanding the private school sector, you increase the separation between lower income students and upper income students, or it could be increase the separation between white, black and white, Hispanic students,” said Charles Clotfelter, a Duke University professor of public policy, economics and law who specializes in school desegregation, accountability, achievement, education finance and lotteries.


Bill to lift virtual charter schools’ enrollment cap sent to Gov. Cooper

A controversial bill that eliminates the cap on enrollment growth for the state’s two virtual charter schools is on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

The state Senate on Tuesday sent Senate Bill 392 to Cooper on a 27-15 vote despite complaints from critics who argue the school’s poor performance record should disqualify them from adding more students.

The state House previously approved the bill.

SB 392 eliminates the 2,592 cap on virtual charter schools and authorizes the SBE to allow them to increase enrollment by more than 20 percent if it “determines that doing so would be in the best interest of North Carolina students.”

Enabling legislation allowed each school to enroll a maximum of 1,500 students the first year of operation. The schools are allowed to increase enrollment by 20 percent each year up to a maximum of 2,592 students in the fourth year of the pilot program.

Alan Duncan

SBE Vice Chairman Alan Duncan expressed concern about granting the schools permission to add students during a June board meeting.

“I’d hope they’d focus on getting to a place first of meeting expectation with the students they have without the added burden of having to take on a number of additional students while still having that burden before them,” Duncan said.

Duncan is referring to the schools’ less than stellar performance records.

Each has earned state performance grades of “D” every year since opening in 2015. Neither school has met student academic growth goals during that span. Both are on the state’s list of continually low-performing schools.

The SBE approved NC Virtual Academy’s (NCVA) request to increase enrollment up to 20 percent for the 2019-20 school year.

It did not approve the request by N.C. Cyber Academy (NCCA) — formerly N.C. Connections Academy — citing a major transition the school will undergo as it begins to operate without its Education Management Organization (EMO).

NCVA, one of the state’s two virtual charter schools, enrolled 2,425 students this past school year. If it increases its enrollment by 20 percent, NCVA would add 485 students to push total enrollment to 2,910.

Meanwhile, NCCA enrolled 2,512 students last school year. As of June 6, nearly 2,200 students have enrolled for the 2019-20 school year. It has a waiting list of 398 students, officials said.

There’s more in SB 392 than enrollment growth for virtual charters.

There’s more to SB 392

It’s packed with a mishmash of charter school-related items, some taken from other bills.

If signed into law by Cooper, SB 392 would give the State Superintendent the authority to approve charter school facility bonds.

Deanna Ballard

Charters seeking approval to issue private activity bonds would be able to bypass local governments, which must sign off on the financing option.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga) who said allowing the State Superintendent to approve such requests would give charters an alternative to local governments that may not want to approve them for political reasons.

That scenario played out in Durham about a year ago when the Durham City Council voted 5-2 to not approve a bond request for Excelsior Classical Academy, which sought financing to pay off a bridge load it used to buy the building it had been leasing.

Council members who voted against the bond request did so in a show of support for Durham Public Schools, which they contend has been harmed by an expansion of charters in the county.

Another provision changes one of the three conditions under which a charter school could be denied a 10 year renewal.

Under the bill, a charter renewal could be denied if the percentage of students proficient on end-of-grade and end-of-course tests is at least five percentage points lower than the schools in the county in which the charter is located.

It would replace the provision in law that gives the SBE the authority to deny a charter renewal if a charters academic outcomes for the “immediately preceding three years have not been comparable to the academic outcomes of students” in the local school district in the county in which the charter is located.

Finally, if signed into law, the bill would require a “nationwide criminal background check” for each member of a charter school’s board of directors.

The background checks is to ensure members have not been convicted of any of several dozen felonies and misdemeanors, such as drug possession or embezzlement.


House Democrats think private schools should play by same rules as public schools if students receive vouchers

If a private school receives state money, is that school obligated to abide by state laws?

That’s the question State Rep. Shelly Willingham, (D-Edgecombe) posed Monday during a discussion about a school safety omnibus bill that would, among other things, require public schools to create threat assessment teams.

Senate Bill 5 was previously a school construction bill, but was no longer needed after lawmakers added school construction and renovation money into the proposed conference budget.

So, lawmakers paced SB 5 with language from House Bill 76, which contained new safety requirements for North Carolina’s public schools.

Willingham took issue with the fact that the bill only “encourages” private church schools and religious charter schools to create school safety plans. Traditional charter schools, which are public schools, would be required to follow the law.

“If we provide funding to private schools and [religious] charters, could that be tied to required them to do this?” Willingham asked during a meeting of the Rules, Calendar and Operations of the House Committee.

Willingham’s question centers on the millions of dollars in school vouchers the state gives family each year under the Opportunity Scholarship Program so their children can attend private schools.

In May, the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, the agency which oversees the voucher program, reported that $37.7 million in vouchers had been issued this year to 9,640 recipients.

“Since we give money, no matter for what reason, if it’s a scholarship or a donation, can we put the same stipulation for safety to them as we do the other schools?” Willingham asked.

State Rep. Donna McDowell White, (R-Johnston), said an expert from fiscal management told the House K-12 Committee that private schools do not have to adhere to such laws or policies because vouchers are attached to students, not schools.

“We tried to put an amendment in that would do exactly what you’re asking, but we were advised in committee meeting that we could not do that because the money is attached to the child who has chosen to use that private school,” White said. “The private did not choose to use that child’s money, so they still have that autonomy.”

White said the current reality does not mean the state can’t continue to pursue options that would require private schools who receive state money to abide by the law in the future.

White’s answer didn’t satisfy Willingham.

“They’re still our students, even though they’re going to a private school, and should have the same protection as students going to a public school,” Willingham said. “I don’t see where that would make any difference whether it’s going to the student of to the child.”

Committee chairman State Rep. David Lewis, (R-Harnett), said he’s also concerned about the safety of children attending private schools, but prefers to not use a “carrot and stick approach” to force private schools to adhere to the provisions in the bill if they become law.

“If was up to almost anybody in this room, anything we could do to ensure the safety of our children, no matter what type of school they attend, we would do,” Lewis said. “We just have to walk a little bit differently with our private institutions.”

State Rep. Yvonne Holley, (D-Wake), wanted to know who would assume liability for harm to voucher students in the event of a safety breach.

“Is the public school system liable because they gave funding to the private school or is the private school responsible if something happened to the child at the school and a lawsuit occurred, who would be responsible?” Holley asked.

A staff member responded that liability would rest with the private school.

Holley said in an interview that the state should “make all schools” adhere to provisions in SB 5.

In addition to requiring public schools adhere to proposed safety requirements and encouraging private schools to do so, the bill also:

  • Clarifies the powers and duties of the Center for Safer Schools.
  • Requires reporting on the operational status of all public schools during states of emergency.
  • Requires annual vulnerability assessments for each public school building.
  • Defines the term “school resource officer” (SRO) and requires training for SROs.

The bill received a favorable report.

State Rep. Amos Quick, (D-Guilford), asked Robert “Bo” Trumbo, the new director of the Center for Safer Schools, to ensure “youth development” is part of the training for school resources officers.

“Adolescents and pre-adolescents go through changes and sometimes they are charged with crimes that are direct result of the fact that they are going through changes, this is boys and girls,” Quick said. It’s very important that SROs understand children are going through things and sometimes their behavior is not a federal case or even a misdemeanor, it’s just simply the result of a child being a child.”

Trumbo attended Monday’s committee meeting to answer questions about the bill and to introduce himself to lawmakers.

He said it’s “good to be a parent” who’s seen the various changes children go through before reaching adulthood.

A former special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, Trumbo said his professional experiences around mental health issues should also prove valuable.

“Not all of them need to be committed, not all of them need to be arrested,” Trumbo said. “Some of them need an arm around them and somebody to talk to and that’s where these threat assessment teams [come into play]. The goal of that is to establish those as well so [students] can be reached at the ground level before they start manifesting ideas to do something we don’t want them to do.”