Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

Johnston County Board of Education votes to keep mask mandate in place

The Johnston County Board of Education voted 4-3 Monday to continue to require students and staff to wear face masks.

The vote follows last week’s board meeting where dozens of parents rallied outside of the Johnson County Public Schools’ administrative building in Smithfield to demand the board lift the mandate.

New state law requires school boards to vote on masking policies each month.

The Johnston County school board delayed voting on its policy last week due to the absence of vice chairwoman Terri Sessoms, whose husband recently died.

Sessoms seconded the motion made by Kay Carroll to keep the masking policy in place and to create a committee to review COVID-19 metrics to determine when it’s safe to end the masking requirement.

“I believe that it’s vitally important that in the spirit of transparency that we have a metrics established so that parents know what that looks like and give them some hope that this is not forever,” Sessoms said.

School board members Lyn Andrews, Al Byrd  joined Carroll and Sessoms in voting to keep the mask mandate in place. Board members Michael Wooten, Ronald Johnson and Board Chairman Todd Sutton voted against keeping the mandate.

Johnson suggested that the board establish mask-free schools for students and school employees who don’t want to wear face coverings.

“It would take a lot of logistical work,” Johnson said. “I’m sure there’s people in the district right now watching [who are] rolling their eyes, not because I’m talking, but because the idea would create a significant amount of work.”

Meanwhile, Carroll said data shared by Dr. Rodney McCaskill, the chief medical officer at Johnston Health, makes it necessary to keep the making policy in place.

McCaskill told the board last week that the number of patients in the county’s hospital who are on life support has grown tenfold.

Mask opponents were joined at last week’s rally by U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Republican from Hendersonville, who has traveled the state asking boards to ignore Gov. Roy Cooper’s request that districts require face masks.

“It’s time to be fearless,” Cawthorn said. “It’s time to stand up to Roy Cooper and say that the family and individual freedom always comes for the government.”

Congressman Madison Cawthorn urges Johnston County school board to end mask mandate

Madison Cawthorn

U.S. Representative Madison Cawthorn on Tuesday urged the Johnston County Board of Education to “defy” Gov. Roy Cooper by reversing its decision to mandate masks in schools.

The Hendersonville Republican attended the board’s regular business meeting at the request of local groups opposed to the board’s mask mandate, which was approved on a 4-3 vote last month.

“It’s time to be fearless,” Cawthorn said. “It’s time to stand up to Roy Cooper and say that the family and individual freedom always comes for the government.”

Cooper has left it to school districts to decide whether to require masks. Nearly all 115 districts are requiring masks.

The board took no action on the mask mandate, opting to postpone it due to the absence of vice chairwoman Terri Sessoms, whose husband died recently. A special virtual meeting has been scheduled for 2 p.m., Monday to address the mask mandate. A new law requires school boards to vote on masking policies monthly.

Doing the right thing is never easy, Cawthorn told the board.

“The eyes of our children are upon us,” he said. “They will remember your action when tyranny came knocking at the door.”

Cawthorn’s words were met with scattered applause by a small group of supporters who managed to secure seats inside the small board room. He’s attended several school board meetings across the state to denounce mask mandates and to drum up support for Republican candidates in upcoming elections.

The congressman spoke earlier at a rally held before the board meeting began. He was joined by Robby Starbuck, a Tennessee congressional candidate and Bo Hines, a candidate for North Carolina’s 13th congressional district as well as other candidates vying for seats in local and state races.

Cawthorn told the crowd that he’s determined to save his generation from “socialism.”

“That’s why I’m out here now,” Cawthorn said.

Although outnumbered, a handful of parents forcefully pushed back against mask opponents.

“This is a posturing, political event and it shouldn’t be,” said Erika Hall, a Johnston County parent. “This is supposed to be a regular school board meeting, but unfortunately it’s going to be about masks when it should be about supporting teachers.”

Cawthorn’s visit comes as the school district’s COVID dashboard shows 178 active COVID cases and 782 quarantines among students. Meanwhile, there are 15 cases and 50 quarantines among staff.

Policy Watch will have a more complete report on the rally later today.

U.S. Department of Education approves spending plan for emergency relief money

The U.S. Department of Education has approved the state’s spending plan for $1.2 billion in aid from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP-ESSER) Fund.

The money is the second installment of $3.6 billion awarded to North Carolina to help K-12 students recover from pandemic-related disruptions, and to improve academic outcomes.  The state received the first $2.4 billion in March.

The state will use the award to launch “evidence-based initiatives” to support schools statewide, including $30 million for high-impact tutoring, $19 million for a competency-based assessment and platform, and $35 million for a competitive grant program for summer-school and after-school extensions, according to an NC Department of Public Instruction news release.

Superintendent Catherine Truitt

“North Carolina’s plan for this funding isn’t just about recovering from the pandemic – it’s about rebuilding and re-envisioning the education landscape in our state,” said State Superintendent Catherine Truitt.

Districts and schools are receiving 90 percent of the state’s total $3.6 billion allocation, based on the same proportions used for allocating federal Title I funds keyed to census poverty estimates.

The remaining 10 percent, or $360 million, will support statewide initiatives to help schools and students recover from pandemic-related disruptions and to also improve outcomes long term.

Here are the highlights of North Carolina’s spending plan:

Total ARP ESSER allocation for North Carolina: $3,601,780,364

Top Priorities within North Carolina’s plan:

• Academic recovery in reading and math.
• Addressing the social-emotional health and well-being of children throughout the state.

Highlights of North Carolina’s Plan:
• Returning to In-Person Learning in 2021: Public schools in North Carolina are required to offer in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year.
• Addressing the Academic Impact of Lost Instructional Time: The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) will consider specific evidence-based interventions, including $30,000,000 for high-impact tutoring statewide, $19,000,000 for a competency-based assessment and platform to be used across the state, and $35,000,000 for a competitive grant program for school extensions.
• Investing in Expanded Afterschool Programs: NCDPI has proposed allocating ARP ESSER funds to support extended learning recovery after school enrichment.
• Staffing to Support Students’ Needs: The Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration is working with health care professionals to improve health and educational outcomes for children in North Carolina. The team is currently working to expand an existing model that provides elementary schools with access to pediatricians via telehealth technologies. Early indications show this telehealth option reduces barriers to care for students resulting in improved health outcomes for children, reduced chronic absenteeism, and a decrease in the impact of health care-related costs on parents or caregivers.
• Community Engagement and Consultation: NCDPI held stakeholder engagement sessions in July and August 2021. NCDPI received formal approval from the State Board of Education to create an ARP ESSER Advisory Group. The ARP ESSER Advisory Group will convene regularly and provide suggestions to improve implementation and further development of the ARP ESSER State Plan.

Source: NC Department of Public Instruction

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoes bill that restricts certain racial concepts from being taught in North Carolina’s schools

Gov. Roy Cooper

As expected, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 324, the controversial legislation critics contend would restrict what students could be taught about the nation’s racial history.

In a statement, Cooper, a Democrat, said the Republican-backed bill has distracted lawmakers this legislative session from the serious work of supporting educators and students during a global pandemic that has challenged educators and set students back academically.

“The legislature should be focused on supporting teachers, helping students recover lost learning, and investing in our public schools,” Cooper said in a statement. “Instead, this bill pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.”

HB 324 includes 13 concepts teachers would be prohibited from “promoting” in North Carolina classrooms. They include the concept that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex and an “individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.”

The bill also requires educators to post reading lists, workshops, training and curriculum on school websites a month in advance and to notify the NC Department of Public Instruction. Educators would have also been required to post guest speakers and diversity trainers on school websites.

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham) said he is confused by the governor’s veto. He said the bill placed no restrictions on what educators could teach about America’s history.

“It’s perplexing that Gov. Cooper would veto a bill that affirms the public school system’s role to teach students the full truth about our state’s sometimes ugly past,” Berger said. “His invented excuse is so plainly refuted by the text of the bill that I question whether he even read it.”

Berger added: “More broadly, Democrats’ choice to oppose a bill saying schools can’t force kids to believe one race is superior to another really shows how far off the rails the mainstream Democratic Party has gone.”

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican from Greensboro, called Cooper’s remarks accompanying the veto “lazy.”

“This bill was the first step in combating Critical Race Theory [CRT] being forced upon our children in NC public schools,” the state’s first Black lieutenant governor said in a statement.

As Policy Watch has reported, CRT is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. It emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.

Educators and others opposed to HB 324 say the obscure academic discipline isn’t taught in K-12 classrooms.

Robinson said Friday that a report he recently released “irrefutably established” that teachers are indoctrinating students with CRT. He said Cooper’s remarks are a “disservice to the teachers, students, and parents across our state who have voiced their concerns.”

Robinson is referring to the findings of his “Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students” (F.A.C.T.S.) task force he created to give students, teachers and parents a tool to report perceived cases of bias or indoctrination in public schools.

It was formed after the State Board of Education adopted new social studies standards that Robinson opposed and believed are laced with concepts linked to CRT.

Policy Watch previously reported that critics of the task force, such as veteran Mecklenburg County schoolteacher Justin Parmenter, found that many of the submissions to the F.A.C.T.S. website were highly critical of its purpose. Supporters of the effort revealed troubling sentiments about race, civic life and religion, Parmenter reported. These include allegations that three years of public education turned one parents’ daughter into a “full-blown socialist.” Another wrote: “Their [sic] are to [sic] many ethnic groups in this country and to [sic] few months in a year to designate a month to only one group of people. By removing Black History Month from the curriculum and replace and allowing children to focus on their own ethnic background should solve this particular problem.”

HB 324 was approved last month on a 61-41 party-line vote. Republicans voted in favor of the bill. Democrats voted against it.

The ACLU of North Carolina called Cooper’s veto a victory for the state’s 1.5 million students.

“This was the only acceptable outcome for legislation that was a threat to our students and their ability to learn and become informed, conscientious community members,” said Chantal Stevens, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

Stevens said HB 324 is part of a national effort by conservatives to “silence Critical Race Theory, diversity curricula, and discussions about racism, sexism, and inequity.”

“We urge lawmakers to uphold the Governor’s veto and protect students’ rights to inclusive education and teachers’ rights to do their jobs thoughtfully,” she said.

Rodney D. Pierce, who teaches social studies at Red Oak Middle School in Battleboro, has been an outspoken critic of HB 324.

Pierce said teachers are grateful for the governor’s veto.

“We tire of the efforts of the General Assembly’s leadership to legislate the classroom when they should be upholding the state constitutional obligation to lead with Leandro,” Pierce said, who wonders if elements of the bill will turn up in the compromise budget negotiated by the House and Senate.

The state’s Leandro school funding case mentioned by Pierce began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

This week, Superior Court Judge David Lee gave state lawmakers until Oct. 15 to fully fund a school improvement plan that calls for $5.6 billion in new K-12 funding by 2028. An Oct. 18 hearing has been set to discuss the next steps if an agreement has not been reached to pay for the plan.

Durham activist Paul Scott said HB 324 is tantamount to a “rebel yell” to mobilize the state’s conservative base.

“Although it was packaged as an attack against Socialist indoctrination, conservative leaders tried to appeal to those who, as the late historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke might say, don’t know Karl Marx from Groucho Marx,” Scott said.

Judge gives state lawmakers ‘one more last chance’ to fully fund the Leandro plan

Lawyers gather Wednesday, Sept. 8, to discuss the state’s long-running school funding case.

Superior Court Judge David Lee has given state lawmakers “one more last chance” to meet their constitutional obligation to provide students in North Carolina with a sound basic education before he takes action to force their hand.

Lee, the judge overseeing the state’s long-running Leandro school funding case, made his remarks Wednesday during a court hearing with lawyers for the defendants and plaintiffs.

He gave lawmakers until Oct. 15 to fully fund a school improvement plan that calls for $5.6 billion in new K-12 funding by 2028. An Oct. 18 hearing has been set to discuss the next steps if an agreement has not been reached to fully fund the plan.

“I am going to be prepared on Oct. 18 to hear any proposal that anyone might have in terms of how the court might exercise its remedial powers to remedy this constitutional deficiency,” Lee said.

The judge said it’s “disheartening” that the House and Senate budgets are “woefully short” of the money needed to meet the Leandro mandate.

The House’s budget is the more generous of the two, calling for $370 million in new money this year and $382 million next year. Meanwhile, the Senate’s budget calls for $192 million this year and $214 million next year.

Both are hundreds of millions of dollars short of the $691 million called for this year in the Leandro plan and the $1.06 billion needed next year.

“I’m giving the legislative and executive branches one more last chance before they say we’re through,” said Lee, partially rephrasing the words of a song by one of his favorite country singers, Vince Gill. “That’s not to threaten anybody. It’s to send a clear signal, clear as I know how; that come Oct. 18, if this hasn’t already been addressed as it should be addressed, as the court finds it needs to be addressed, [the court] will certainly be prepared to address it.”

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

“We’re not just throwing money at something,” Lee said. “We’re asking that this state comply with the [state] constitution by adequately funding a very reasoned and intense effort to come up with what’s necessary to comply with our constitution.”

As Policy Watch reported in July, there are numerous examples in other states of examples in which courts have forced reluctant lawmakers to adequately fund K-12 education.

In 2015, for example, the Washington State Supreme Court held the state in contempt of court and fined it $100,000 a day after it failed to come up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 education, as required by a 2012 court order in McCleary v. Washington.

The fine came after threats of sanctions if lawmakers did not live up to what that state’s constitution calls a “paramount” duty to amply fund schools.

Lee said he’s aware of the actions taken in other states.

“I’ve read some of the things that have happened in Kansas, Washington state and some of the other states that have similar constitutional provisions, but I’m not prepared to shine a light on that this morning,” Lee said. “I will be prepared to shine a light on that on Oct. 18.”

Republican lawmakers have said that Lee doesn’t have the authority to force the state to fund the Leandro plan. They also contend the House and Senate budgets include elements of the plan.