A Pitt County teacher received 100 iPads. All she had to do was ask State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson (left) holding an iPad.

Teach in a North Carolina public school?

Need iPads?

Email State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

It was that simple for a math teacher at Rose High School in Pitt County who recently received 100 iPads from Johnson just for asking.

Johnson explained the award during a tense State Board of Education (SBE) discussion about whether Johnson has the authority to unilaterally distribute hundreds of iPads to schools and districts without a formal policy or process.

“The teacher, who I knew from a previous visit, emailed me and said I can really use iPads for my Math I class and a program I do to help students with their opportunities after high school,” Johnson said. “She’s a fantastic teacher. I wish I could give every teacher a 100 iPads. These are iPads I had with that flexibility, so I gave them to her.”

Johnson also sent 200 iPads to Ocracoke School in Hyde County after the superintendent there requested them. Ocracoke students and teachers were displaced by Hurricane Dorian last month. The iPads are intended to help students stay on schedule with their classwork until they can return to school.

Some board members expressed concerned that teachers and school leaders would see Johnson’s awards as unfair.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis asked Johnson how board members should respond when asked “what criteria was used to make these awards” and how to get on the list to receive iPads.

Johnson responded: “They can email me.”

SBE member Alan Duncan said the board and superintendent should be in sync on such purchases.

“There ought to be some organized system about how they would be distributed such that we avoid the controversies that are inevitable as to how one got and another didn’t get,” Duncan said.

The iPads distributed to the teacher and Ocracoke School were purchased with money leftover in the superintendent’s budget, Johnson said.

“We are doing such a better job with the operations of this department than was done in year’s past under previous leadership,” Johnson said. “Things are operating more efficiently and more effectively, and when you do that, you end up finding that there’s money leftover at the year, What I decided to do with that money at the end of the year, was to purchase iPads because they are something that’s in high demand, regardless of whether you’re a high school math teacher or if you’re a K-3 reading teacher.”

Explaining further, Johnson said: “This is money that was in the state superintendent’s budget that I did not spend to sponsor a conference, I did not spend to buy lunch for conference attendees and at the end of the year, there was enough left over to where I could have an impact on classrooms and that’s what I did.”

Johnson’s remarks about his office running more “efficiently and more effectively” than under previous leadership appear to be directed at former state superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, who Johnson unseated in the 2016 General Election.

SBE member J.B. Buxton also questioned Johnson about $3.4 million in the Read to Achieve budget to purchase 11,000 additional iPads and Chromebooks.

Johnson said the money will be used to ensure every K-3 classroom in North Carolina has a minimum of four electronic devices. Each classroom will also get $400 to use for early literacy efforts.

He said the money for the electronic devices was leftover from last year’s Read to Achieve budget and the $400 for each classroom will come out of this year’s budget.

Johnson’s tenure has been marked by controversy over his purchase of iPads to support the state’s signature reading program, “Read to Achieve.”

Earlier this year, Johnson was criticized because 2,400 of 24,000 iPads bought to support early childhood literacy sat unused in a state warehouse for months. They have since been distributed.

The purchase of the 24,000 iPads were the source of much discussion by Johnson’s critics angry about the superintendent’s decision to buy them without first informing the SBE.

The purchase also raised concerns because Johnson spent $6.6 million in unspent Read to Achieve dollars to buy the iPads under a no-bid contract.

Around the time the iPads were purchased, NCDPI sent layoff notices to dozens of employees to help meet a $5.1 million state-ordered budget cut. That move angered critics who wanted the money used to save jobs.

Ethical questions were raised after Policy Watch reported that Johnson and three influential Republican budget writers in the North Carolina General Assembly were wined and dined by Apple reps at their Cupertino, Calif., headquarters prior to the purchase.

Apple spent more than $5,300 on transportation, lodging and meals on a total of six North Carolina leaders.

Commentary, Education

NC GOP leaders must disavow Franklin Graham’s attack on public education

Former Gov. Pat McCrory appearing with Graham during his tenure in office. Image: Franklin Graham’s Facebook page

It’s never particularly surprising when the Rev. Franklin Graham makes outrageous statements and/or takes extremist, right-wing stands on various matters. It’s even less surprising when Graham’s pals in the state Republican Party turn a blind eye to such statements and stances. Heck, one of Graham’s employees, Deanna Ballard, holds a seat in the state Senate.

But when Graham’s words serve to undermine one of the central missions of state government, it’s time for everyone — including his allies and those who usually turn a blind eye to his various stances out of fear of being seen to cross an iconic figure of the religious right — to muster up a measure of courage and push back.

Now is one of those times.

It seems that Graham, who is traversing the state this week and next as part of a “Tar Heel State Tour” made the following recent statement according to an email distributed by the American Renewal Project, which is another religious right group that is hosting an event in Charlotte this week featuring Lt. Gov. Dan Forest:

Speaking on Fox’s Todd Starnes Radio Show, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse chief Franklin Graham also urged parents to get their children out. In a conversation about New Jersey’s new law mandating LGBT lessons to school children, Graham said the time had come.

Starnes asked Graham what advice he would give Christian moms and dads: “I mean do they pull their kids out of public school or do they homeschool, private school?” the Fox host asked. “What should they do?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Graham replied without hesitation, breaking new ground. “I’d pull them out of public school and put them in private school.”

The information about Graham’s stance was packaged with the statements of three other far right figures: right-wing radio fire-breather Rush Limbaugh, Catholic talk show host “Mother Miriam,” and religious activist David Lane, who heads the American Renewal Project.

As Policy Watch reported last month, Lane has repeatedly stated that it is part of “God’s plan” to “free Christian children from public education.” In addition to Forest, the event he and his group will be hosting this week in Charlotte will feature:

  • A pastor who calls the notion of a separation between church and state “cowardice” and those in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality “militant homofascists” bent on turning the U.S. into Sodom.
  • An author who has railed against Muslims as would-be conquerors and rapists and LGBTQ rights as a first step to America living under Sharia law.
  • A pastor and Republican politician who has asserted anyone not committed to the U.S. as an explicitly Judeo-Christian nation should leave the country.

The bottom line: Forest, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, Senator Ballard and other leading conservatives should disavow Graham’s statement and those of other far right figures who would undermine our state’s public education system. To the extent they continue to embrace such extremists, they make it impossible to see their actions vis a vis our public schools as anything other than part of a plan to destroy them.


State Superintendent Mark Johnson launches ‘NC Kindness Campaign’ to reduce bullying and violence

State Superintendent Mark Johnson on Monday proclaimed October “School Safety and Kindness Month.”

Johnson also launched the “NC Kindness Campaign” to emphasize kindness in schools as an important part of school safety.

“These days we see too much violence in schools and too many problems like cyber-bullying,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, simple acts of kindness can prevent issues that may grow into tragedies.”

Johnson referenced the deadly October 2018 shooting incident at Butler High School in Matthews.

Johnson said the “NC Kindness Campaign” was inspired by the “strength and resiliency of the students” at Butler High in the aftermath of the tragic shooting, which was described as a case of alleged bullying turned deadly.

In July, Jatwan Cuffie pleaded guilty to the shooting death of Bobby McKeithen during a fight in a crowded hallway at Butler High.

Then-Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told area media that the shooting appeared to have stemmed from a case of bullying “that escalated out-of-control.”

McKeithen’s family has disputed that narrative, contending McKeithen was not a bully.

Here are the goals for students in the NC Kindness Campaign:

  • Show acts of kindness to those who may be hurting.
  • Avoid unkindness in any form.
  • If you see something concerning, say something.
  • Help support teachers in improving discipline in classrooms, which everyone knows can be a challenge.

Johnson’s proclamation coincides with the National Bullying Prevention Month, which starts Tuesday, Oct. 1.

As far as bullying goes, North Carolina falls in the middle of the pack in a 2018 WalletHub analysis of  47 states.

The state ranked 26th  in the analysis, which weighed the cost of truancy as a result of bullying, bullying prevalence, bullying impact and treatment and anti-bullying laws.

Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington were excluded from the analysis due to data limitations.

Johnson noted that NCDPI continues to put emphasis on School Resource Officers and mental health supports.

He also provided an update on the “Say Something App” the state will launch later this year.

“Students play a critical role in helping to keep schools safe,” Johnson said. “They may see and hear concerns that adults need to know about but may be reluctant to report them. With the Say Something program, middle and high school students will better understand what warning signs to look for and when and how to report important tips through an app. Making this app available statewide will be an important part of our efforts to make schools safer.”

Once implemented, there will be a 24/7 command center dedicated entirely to North Carolina to receive tips and report them to the appropriate school officials and agencies, Johnson said.


Education leaders, supporters remain vigilant in anticipation of vote to override governor’s budget veto

N.C. Association of Educators President Mark Jewell has asked the teacher advocacy group’s membership to pack the state Senate chamber Monday at 7 p.m., in anticipation of a vote to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget.

But Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, said senators have been told there will be no vote to override Cooper’s budget veto Monday.

“The Democrats will be there, though,” McKissick said, noting the senate leadership is required to give the minority party a 24-hour notice before an override vote is considered.

The NCAE is working in tandem with Progress NC Action, a Raleigh-based progressive advocacy group that has asked all state Democratic senators to pledge to vote to sustain Cooper’s budget veto.

As of late Friday afternoon, 19 of 21 Democratic senators had pledged or released public statements saying they would stand with Cooper on the budget veto, according to Progress NC Action.

Sen. Toby Fitch, (D-Wilson) and Sen. Valerie Foushee, (D-Orange), are not listed on Progress NC Action’s page containing the names of senators who plan to vote to uphold the governor’s veto.

Neither Fitch nor Foushee could be reached for comment late Friday.

McKissick said he’d be surprised if the two didn’t stand with Cooper.

“I can’t speak for them, but I have no reason to believe they will not sustain the governor’s veto,” McKissick said.

Fitch was among seven Democratic senators who voted in favor of the budget in June. The senators reportedly received millions of dollars for projects in their districts.

In his message to the NCAE membership, Jewell said it’s important for state educators to remain vigilant.

“We understand that the Senate Democratic caucus has privately committed to each other to sustain the veto, which is very encouraging news,” Jewell said. “However, NCAE and our coalition partners are asking for a public show of unity on the vote, similar to the letter that was issued by the House Democratic Caucus last month. We are asking that every Democratic Senator pledge their commitment to sustain the governor’s veto on the state budget.”

Cooper vetoed the budget because the state’s Republican leadership refused to expand Medicaid.

But the two sides also disagree about teacher pay.

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.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, Environment, News

This week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

This week’s top stories on NC Policy Watch

1. How a Trump attack on the federal “Waters of the United States” rule imperils the waters of North Carolina

This is the second of a three-part series  about a commonly used method of environmental protection for wetlands and streams called “compensatory mitigation.”

This a place where the Atlantic Ocean begins: A yawning storm pipe draped by kudzu about a half-mile south of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Little more than a murky ditch, the shallow stream winds south, beneath the American Tobacco Trail bridge, behind a strip mall, and past two gas stations, to Forest Hills Park.

To illustrate the connections between Durham’s lowly downtown ditch to the coast, if you floated a paper boat from the headwaters in Forest Hills, its 150-mile journey would run south through Third Fork Creek, which in turn merges with New Hope Creek, which flows into Jordan Lake, a drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of people. The boat would skim over the dam and into the Cape Fear River, which travels through southeastern North Carolina and spills into the Atlantic south of Wilmington.[Read more…]

2. Ruth Bader Ginsburg reviews her remarkable life, battles for gender equality in Raleigh appearance

Veteran justice laments politicization of Supreme Court confirmation process, expresses optimism about the future

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking to a crowd of mostly women Monday in Raleigh, recalled when so many opportunities were off limits for her gender.

“What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s Garment District, which my mother was, and a Supreme Court justice?” she asked. “And my answer is, one generation.”

The audience burst into applause. More than 1,600 people attended the conversation with Ginsburg as part of Meredith College’s Lillian Parker Wallace lecture series in Raleigh.

“As bleak as things may seem, I have seen so many changes in my lifetime, opportunities opened for people of whatever race, religion, and finally, gender,” said the 86-year-old.[Read more…]

3. Five simple truths about the Medicaid expansion debate

Prescription to apply for health insurance with personal computing tablet and stethoscope.

Medicaid expansion is back on the table at the North Carolina General Assembly.

Sort of.


The latest maddening and semi-hopeful development in this seemingly never ending saga arose in the aftermath of the September 11 budget veto override debacle when House Speaker Tim Moore announced that he would fulfill “a promise” to revive the GOP version of the proposal now that the House was “finished” with the budget.

Last week, the measure – House Bill 655 – was approved by the House Health Committee on a voice vote and forwarded on to the House Rules Committee. The same committee had already taken the same action on a very similar version of the proposal back in July in a 25-6 vote.[Read more…]

4. National civil rights group calls on Forest to withdraw from event featuring anti-Muslim speakers

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling on North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest to withdraw from headlining an event featuring several controversial anti-Islamic speakers.

Forest’s top-billing at such an event sends a dangerous message, said CAIR Government Affairs Director Robert McCaw.

“By sharing the stage with anti-Muslim speakers, the lieutenant governor would legitimize the bigoted views espoused by the speakers and delegitimize the Republican Party’s claim of supporting religious freedom for all,” McCaw said. “Lieutenant Governor Forest should immediately withdraw from this event and reaffirm his commitment to representing all North Carolinians regardless of faith or background.”

The group, which bills itself as the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, is responding to Forest’s planned speech to the The American Renewal Project’s “North Carolina Renewal Project” event. The event takes place next week, Oct. 3-4, at the Renaissance Charlotte Suites Hotel.

Forest has not responded to requests for comment from Policy Watch.[Read more…]

5. Burr, Tillis stick with Trump as Senate passes another resolution to block border emergency declaration

The U.S. Senate voted again on Wednesday to block President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency along the southern U.S. border.

The Senate voted 54-41 to end the declaration, delivering a rebuke that’s likely to be symbolic. Both chambers of Congress already voted to block the resolution, but the effort failed after the U.S. House failed to override Trump’s veto in March. The White House is expected to veto the resolution again.

Eleven Republicans joined Senate Democrats this week in voting to block Trump from circumventing Congress to obtain funding for a controversial border wall. The National Emergencies Act allows Democrats to seek a vote on repealing the emergency declaration every six months. The resolution disapproval requires a simple majority to pass the Senate.[Read more…]

6. In 2019, with student debt and tuition soaring, is UNC still the university of the people?

“I speak for all of us who could not afford to go to Duke,” Charles Kuralt once declared in 1993, in that inimitable oaken voice, during the UNC system’s bicentennial celebration.

Kuralt, speaking to an august assemblage that included former President Bill Clinton and then North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, was in the midst of one of the regal monologues the famous newsman was lauded for in his 22 years at CBS News.

“What is it that binds us to this place as to no other?” he boomed. “It is not the well or the bell or the stone walls, or the crisp October nights or the memory of dogwoods blooming. … No, our love for this place is based on the fact that it is, as it was meant to be, the university of the people.”

Kuralt, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus and Wilmington native, earned a place in a generation of UNC commercials for that dedication. You can also catch Kuralt’s folksy love letter to Chapel Hill at any UNC sporting event, although the kum-ba-yah has an oddly dissonant sound in 2019.

Today, it is difficult to imagine many institutions of higher education in North Carolina, much less in the United States, can reasonably claim to be the “university of the people” anymore, unless we are to change the definition of “the people.” [Read more…]

7. Does NC adequately prepare and test its teachers?

National education advocate says state is falling short but local experts tell a different story

Kate Walsh, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has a reputation for being provocative.

She lived up to that billing this month during a visit to North Carolina to discuss strategies for improving college and university teacher prep programs.

In North Carolina, there are 52 such programs approved by the State Board of Education (SBE). They include private and public universities and colleges as well as smaller programs created by school districts and nonprofits to feed the teacher pipeline. [Read more…]

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