Education, Higher Ed

UNCG faculty oppose potential changes to chancellor search process

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro Faculty Senate and the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors are opposing a change to how chancellors are selected for UNC System schools.

As Policy Watch reported in July, new UNC System President Peter Hans has proposed changes that would allow the system president to insert final candidates into search processes that traditionally happened at the Board of Trustees level.

Under the current system, an individual school’s board of trustees conducts an independent search and forwards at least two finalists to the UNC System President. The president chooses a final candidate to submit to a final vote by the UNC Board of Governors.

Hans’s proposed change would allow the UNC System president to add up to two candidates to search process. Those candidates would go through the same interviews as other candidates, but would automatically move forward as part of a slate of finalists for the position.

UNC System President-elect Peter Hans.

In effect, the president would have the power to insert finalists into the search process without approval from the board of trustees. The president would then choose a final candidate from a slate that, in part, he or she already had chosen.

The UNC Board of Governors is expected to vote on the change at its regular meeting Thursday.

“These proposed changes will undermine the integrity of these important searches,” the UNCG chapter of the AAUP wrote in a statement on the issue. “First, the changes will discourage high quality candidates of national and international standing from entering a search when the results can be easily overridden. Second, citizens of integrity will not serve the many hours required by these important searches if their efforts can be ignored.  Finally, the substantial costs paid by the taxpayers of North Carolina to hire executive recruiting firms will be for naught if the President of the UNC system can determine the result of any chancellor search.”

“The UNCG Faculty Senate has voted unanimously in opposition to this proposal, and the UNCG Chapter of AAUP joins our Senate in unanimous opposition to this proposal,” the chapter wrote in its statement.  “We call upon our campus leaders to fight this proposal:  Chancellor Frank Gilliam, Provost James Coleman, the deans of our respective schools, and our Board of Trustees.  We are dismayed by this proposal as we know you must be, and you have our support to publicly oppose this policy change.  UNCG faculty and students will fight for shared governance and stand with you when you stand with us in opposition to this  policy change.”

Faculty at East Carolina University has also condemned the proposed changes, as has Higher Ed Works, one of the state’s leading higher education non-profits.


Education, News

Senate leader Phil Berger attacks education leaders over their support for Black Lives Matter at School

Sen. Phil Berger

Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham), continued his attacks on state educators Monday, this time targeting the N.C. Association of Educators’ (NCAE) leadership for its support of Black Lives Matter at School, a national coalition of teachers that promotes racial justice in education.

Berger’s criticism of the “far-left” NCAE came days after its president, Tamika Kelly Walker, posted a tweet urging educators to sign a petition pledging to participate in the coalition’s “Black Lives Matter at School’s Year of Purpose” by initiating social justice and political activities in classrooms.

He contends that support for the coalition creates a “credibility crisis” for NCAE because the coalition’s motto is written by Assata Shakur, the former Black Liberation Army member convicted of being an accomplice in the 1973 murder of a New Jersey State Trooper.

Tamika Walker Kelly

Shakur escaped prison and now lives in Cuba where she was granted political asylum in the early 1980s.

“The organization’s motto, written by the cop-killer terrorist, comes from a larger work in which [Assata] Shakur also calls cops “pigs” and says murdered officers died “in the so-called line of duty,” Berger said on his website, Senator Berger Press Shop. “Those are the facts.”

Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Watauga County, jumped into the fray.

“It’s despicable that the far-left NCAE would encourage North Carolina teachers to pledge their support for a movement that openly embraces a cop-killing terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted list,” Ballard said. “Police officers in Los Angeles were just targeted for assassination, and this movement honors a cop-killer. The NCAE should withdraw its support, apologize to parents and teachers, and renounce violent attacks on police.”

Ballard is referring to the shooting of two deputies in Los Angeles over the weekend. An unknown gunman critically wounded the deputies in an ambush-style attack while they sat in a patrol car.

Like Ballard, Berger also called on the NCAE to withdraw its support from the coalition.

Here’s what he tweeted:

“The movement endorsed by @NCAE openly embraces cop-killing terrorist Assata Shakur. Her words are the movement’s MOTTO. Two cops were just targeted for assassination in LA. Will the @NCAE retract its support for a movement featuring a cop-killer on FBI’s Most Wanted List? #ncpol

The NCAE pushed back:

“@BLMASchool is a national coalition organizing for racial justice in education that has nothing to do with the garbage you’re spouting. Get your facts straight, Phil.”

And Walker Kelly shared this statement Monday:

“If Sen. Berger wants to spend his remaining days in power issuing rambling diatribes belying how truly terrified he is of any type of organized resistance to his conservative agenda, he is welcome to do so,” Walker Kelly said. “But we all know what desperation looks like, and he need look no further than the end of his own pen to find a ‘credibility crisis.’ We will continue to affirm that Black Lives Matter, prioritizing the safety of educators and students, and fighting for the public education that all students deserve.”

Educators in Seattle founded Black Lives Matter at School four years ago. One week each February educators who support the coalition teach students about structural racism, Black history and anti-racists movements.

In recent weeks, Berger and Ballard have been increasingly critical of public schools and North Carolina educators.

Last Month, they accused Durham Public Schools of levying an unconstitutional tax on parents by charging for children to attend the district’s “learning centers,” which are day-long versions of the district’s before-school and after-school programs. The two contend such fees are illegal.

Berger has also used his website to encourage parents to apply for grants through the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program to send their children to public schools.

He used Monday’s complaint against Black Lives Matter at School to promote school choice.

“Nobody disputes that all children deserve an equal education,” Berger said. “In fact, it’s that very principle which drives Republican support for school choice: All families, not just the wealthy elite, deserve the privilege of parental school choice.”


COVID-19, Higher Ed

State cautions viral spread of COVID remains ‘stubbornly high’

Dr. Deborah Birx (Getty Image:Credit: Alex Wong)

ECU announces multiple new clusters at fraternities, sororities

White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx traveled to North Carolina on Wednesday to learn more about what was and wasn’t working in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

State Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen told reporters Thursday that North Carolina is now listed in the ‘red zone’ by the federal task force of states experiencing a noticeable uptick in COVID cases in recent weeks.

“Some areas of our state have plateaued at a stubbornly high-rate of viral spread,” explained Sec. Cohen. “While Dr. Birx noted North Carolina has done a good job avoiding the surges that plagued the South and other parts of the country, she did emphasize that continued vigilance was paramount.”

Cohen said the state also used the one-on-one time with Dr. Birx to make several specific asks of the federal government, including the need for national leaders to model effective prevention strategies such as wearing face coverings and social distancing when visiting the North Carolina.

“When visitors come to our state on either side of the aisle, whether it’s the candidate or their surrogates, we need to make sure we continue to do our prevention efforts,” Dr. Cohen said.

Other requests from the Cooper administration included:

State Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen

  • Increased allocations for reagents for health system laboratories.
  • Details on the federal government’s inventory and distribution plans for rapid testing (Abbot Binax Now)
  • Timing on when detailed vaccine planning guidance would be issued as well as required reporting elements and a provider enrollment agreement.
  • Additional funds to continue supporting child care programs.
  • An extension of the Pandemic EBT program beyond September 30th and flexibility for students in hybrid (part remote and part in-person) learning environments.

North Carolina had seen a decline in COVID cases in early August, only to move in the wrong direction as college-age students returned to universities across the state.

North Carolina’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that 18-24 year-old make up 16% (more than 29,500 cases) of the coronavirus.

“We are seeing particularly out East more cases of COVID-19, so we are watching that more closely, particularly in these college towns,” cautioned Cohen. “We’re encouraging everyone in those settings to get tested. If you think you’ve had exposure to students or campus activities.”

East Carolina University announced Thursday new clusters of COVID-19 cases within 13 different ECU fraternities and sororities.

A “cluster” is defined by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as a minimum of five cases.

More than 1,000 ECU students have confirmed cases of COVID-19, with a positive test rate of 14 percent, according to the university’s public dashboard.


Gov. Cooper announces $40 million partnership to improve student access to remote learning

Two events this week highlight continuing efforts to ensure North Carolina students have access to high-speed internet service needed for remote learning during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the release of $40 million to fund NC Student Connect, a new partnership created to help eliminate remote learning barriers that exist for tens of thousands of students.

Most of the money — $30 million – will be spent to distribute 100,000 wireless high-speed hot spots to students who needed them to connect to virtual classrooms.

“Long before COVID-19, expanding access to high-speed internet has been a top priority for my administration, and this pandemic has made the need even more urgent,” said Cooper said in a statement. “NC Student Connect will make critical investments in high speed internet access and remote learning that will help students, health care and businesses in our state.”

When school reopened in August, superintendents estimated that at least 100,000 students still lacked a reliable internet connection at home, Cooper said.

Here’s how the remaining $10 million will be spent:

  • $8 million to create accessible sites in convenient locations across the state such as school parking lots, municipal areas, and state parks, museums and historic sites. The NC Student Connect sites will provide free high-speed internet for students to connect to the Internet to download lessons and complete assignments offline.
  • $2 million for educator professional development, parent training and student involvement in a spectrum of activities that go into effective remote learning. More than 1,300 educators from rural North Carolina already participated in a virtual conference focused on remote learning to help them be better prepared to teach throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

NC Student Connect is a partnership across state government including the Department of Information Technology, the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Cooper’s Hometown Strong initiative and the NC Business Committee for Education, an educational nonprofit in the governor’s office.

Most school districts are providing students with remote learning to start the school year.

The pandemic has forced districts to be creative to meet the needs of students having trouble connecting to class instruction.

Guilford County Schools announced this week that it will open 62 schools two Saturdays this month to use as internet hubs by students with limited broadband access. The hubs are in addition to 13 Learning Centers available to students during the week.

“We understand that not all of our families have access to broadband connectivity, and not all parents are able to drive their children to the learning centers during the week due to work conflicts, said Superintendent Sharon Contreras. “We hope these hubs will help eliminate some of those barriers during the remote learning period.”

District leaders hope the hubs will prevent learning loss for students without reliable broadband access. The hubs will continue to operate after the first two weeks if participation rates indicate there’s a need.


Wall Street Journal sees North Carolina’s expansion of private school vouchers as ‘victory’ for school choice movement

The Wall Street Journal (WJS) and school choice advocates are hailing as a major “victory” Gov. Roy Cooper’s decision to sign off on a $1.1 billion COVID-19 relief package that also expands the state’s controversial school voucher program.

Cooper, a Democrat, signed the Republican-backed Coronavirus Relief Act 3.0 into law on Friday.

Here’s an excerpt from the WSJ editorial published Sept. 7 under the headline “A Carolina Victory for School Choice.“

“The victory is all the more significant because the state’s Democratic Governor, Roy Cooper, came into office vowing to eliminate the program. In late August he proposed taking $85 million from the Opportunity Scholarship program while spending $360 million for a $2,000 bonus for all public school teachers.”

The editorial also heralded private schools for returning to classrooms for in-person instruction. A majority of North Carolina’s public K-12 schools are providing remote learning until the coronavirus is controlled.

“North Carolina’s decision comes as Covid-19 has exposed the union-first, students-last priorities of traditional public schools. Many union schools refuse to return to in-person learning, while charters and private schools are doing so. Parents worried about their children falling behind are learning that the union schools’ take-it-or-leave-it approach leaves them without options.”

It’s worth noting that North Carolina prohibits collective bargaining by public employees. The NC Association of Educators [NCAE] is a professional development and advocacy organization.

Cooper didn’t specifically address the voucher program in a statement announcing that he would sign the bill. But the governor did note that he didn’t support “every provision” in the bill.

“This budget followed my recommendations on school enrollment funding and invested in important areas like high speed internet access and disaster relief, but legislators should have done more to expand Medicaid, support small businesses, pay our educators, assist with rent and utilities relief and further help unemployed North Carolinians,” Cooper said. “Obviously I don’t agree with every provision, but the funding for pandemic support in this budget is critical and must move forward.”

Under the law, families with 150% of the annual income needed to qualify for free-and reduced-price lunches would be eligible for scholarships. Currently, families at 133% qualify for the scholarships.

“There is nothing better or smarter than providing families with a choice in education so that they, too, can access the schools previously reserved for the wealthy and elite,” Sen. Deanna Ballard, a Republican from Watauga County, said earlier this month after Democrats argued that the state should put voucher money to better use. “How condescending it is to tell low- and middle-income parents, many of them at their wits’ end juggling work and virtual schooling, that their child’s chosen education path has been reallocated to ‘better, smarter’ uses. Parents, including Black soon-to-be-former Democrats, overwhelmingly support Opportunity Scholarships.”

Ballard has been quoted in media reports saying a family of four earning $72,000 a year would now be eligible for the scholarships. However, Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training and outreach at NC State Education Assistance Authority, the agency that oversees the voucher program, could not confirm that amount on Tuesday.

“We have not yet updated our income eligibility guidelines, so no, I can’t do [confirm] that just yet,” Marker said in an emailed response to questions about the guidelines.

For the 2020-21 school year, a family of four qualifies for free school lunches if its annual income is at or below 130% of the poverty rate. A family with an annual income as high as $34,060 qualifies for free school lunches.  So, a family with an annual income of as high as $51,090 would presumably qualify for scholarships at 150% of the amount required for a student to qualify for free lunches. Under the old guideline, it would have been $51,090 at 133%

The picture brightens somewhat for a family of four that qualifies for reduced-priced lunches. That family could, as Ballard pointed out, earn up to $72,705 and still qualify for opportunity scholarships. A family of four must have an annual income between 130% and 185% of the poverty rate to qualify for reduced-priced lunches. At the top end, a family of four can qualify for reduced-priced lunches earning as much as $48,470 a year; and 150% of that amount is $72,705. It would have been $64,465 for a family of four under the old guidelines.

The General Assembly created the school voucher program in 2013. It provides $4,200 per year to parents to pay for part of the tuition at a private school. The State Education Assistance Authority handed out 12,284 vouchers to private schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

The program has been the target of criticism by public school advocates who complain it allows private schools to siphon money from underfunded public schools.

The N.C. Association of Educators and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in July charging that the state’s Opportunity Scholarships operates with little state oversight and that some schools benefiting from the program discriminate on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.

The plaintiffs include parents from Durham, Cumberland, Randolph and Wake counties.

“Vouchers for private schools are an affront to a state that has a long and cherished history of public education,” NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said in July. “Using public money to pay for private schools is part of a broad assault on public schools and on our state constitution.”