Commentary, Education

Looking for sense in Mark Johnson’s IStation saga? Look elsewhere.

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Whatever you may think of North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson, the IStation saga makes zero sense.

Zip. Zilch. Nada.

My friends, this is “Waterworld” level bonkers, although Kevin Costner’s legendarily soggy sci-fi is making an unpleasant amount of sense in retrospect.  

Charlotte advocate Justin Parmenter authored a tortuous rundown of the IStation proceedings this morning, a head-spinning collection of allegations and denials and genuinely, supremely confusing events concerning Johnson’s awarding of a multi-million dollar contract for a K-3 reading test.

It’s impossible to make this “long story short,” so I’ll let Parmenter tell you the details.

From his post today:

Last week, the NC Department of Public Instruction finally released informationrelated to the procurement process which ended with Superintendent Mark Johnson unilaterally awarding a three-year, multi-million dollar contract for North Carolina’s K-3 diagnostic reading assessment to Istation.

Both Johnson and DPI Communications Director Graham Wilson had previously claimed that an advisory committee assembled in the fall of 2018 had failed to come to a consensus or make a recommendation on the contract. The records provided by DPI show those claims are absolutely false.

The documents also reveal some important details about the path Johnson took as he disregarded the input of the team of evaluators.  However, the release omits records which will be crucial in substantiating DPI’s version of events.

Here’s what we know based on the records DPI released:

On October 5, 2018, the Request for Proposal (RFP) evaluation team first met under the direction of co-business managers Pam Shue and Amy Jablonski to discuss background for the project, evaluation ground rules, and how the process would work. The team included both voting members and non-voting members and was made up of DPI employees and a broad collection of subject matter experts.

Notice the importance of selecting an effective dyslexia screener in the initial project scope as presented to the RFP evaluation committee.  Some of the strongest outcry that has followed Johnson’s selection of Istation has been about the tool’s inability to flag children who are at risk for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities. DPI representatives have responded by explaining that dyslexia screening is outside the purview of Read to Achieve and is not the state’s responsibility, as DPI Director of K-3 Literacy Tara Galloway told the State Board of Education last week.

Individual team members were given until mid-November to evaluate the four vendors (Amplify, Istation, NWEA, and Curriculum Associates), at which time they were expected to be prepared to meet, discuss their findings, and come to a consensus ranking which would later be presented to Superintendent Johnson.

The consensus meeting took place on November 19 and 20, 2018. Notes from the records release indicate that participants were reminded at the outset of the meeting that their goal was to arrive at a consensus on which product should be selected, and that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity.”

The team discussed their findings in painstaking detail before ranking the products. They agreed unanimously that Amplify was the best choice. Istation came in second.

On December 4, 2018, Amy Jablonski, Pam Shue, DPI Procurement Officer Tymica Dunn, and Project Manager Srirekha Viswanathan met with Superintendent Mark Johnson to present the committee’s findings in a PowerPoint, which is included in the released DPI records. They told Johnson that the team had selected Amplify’s mClass tool as its top choice to be used as the K-3 reading diagnostic assessment in all of North Carolina’s schools.

The next records DPI provided are from a meeting on January 8, 2019, between Johnson and the members of the evaluation team. According to state records, the gathering was characterized as a “consensus meeting to recommend finalist for negotiations,” which is odd since the team had already presented its unambiguous recommendation to Johnson the month before.

According to the notes, Mark Johnson began the meeting by thanking those present for their input on the K-3 screener selection. He gave a speech about the importance of freeing up more time for teachers to teach and the need to provide them with the right tools. As this was his first reaction to the team recommending that schools continue using the Amplify tool, Johnson’s comments could be interpreted as an attempt to influence the team toward changing their recommendation to Istation (a computer-based tool which Istation advertises as requiring minimal class time). Johnson then asked the 10 voting members present to vote for the second time and stepped out of the room “to maintain integrity of the process.”

On March 8, 2019, another meeting was held to discuss the procurement. This time only 8 of the 10 DPI voting members who had been at the previous meeting were present. Superintendent Johnson was not in attendance, but new General Counsel Jonathan Sink was.After the superintendent exited the room, team members wrote their choices on sticky notes, and the project manager tallied the results. Amplify again easily came out on top, with six people recommending negotiations proceed with Amplify only, three with Istation only, and one voting that negotiations continue with both companies. Pam Shue was tasked with informing Johnson of the committee’s recommendation the next day.

Sink — a former attorney for House Speaker Tim Moore’s office and the newly-named executive director of the state Republican Party — informed those present that the procurement process was being cancelled. According to the notes, he gave two reasons for the cancellation. The first reason was that a voting member of the evaluation committee had breached confidentiality on the procurement process. The second reason provided was that there had been no unanimous consensus in selecting a vendor for the K-3 reading assessment.

There are a couple of important things to note here. First of all, Sink gave no additional detail on the alleged confidentiality breach at the meeting, and the records DPI released include no information about exactly what the breach was or the identity of the person responsible.

Given DPI’s pattern of dishonesty on the procurement and Mark Johnson’s apparent desire to award the contract to Istation, it’s fair to wonder whether a breach really occurred. If it did, records detailing the breach should have been provided to the public as information relevant to the procurement process. Nothing in North Carolina public records law prevents DPI from releasing that information and corroborating the claim.

Secondly, remember that the evaluation team had been informed from the beginning of the RFP process that “consensus means general agreement and not unanimity,” so the lack of unanimous agreement does not seem to be a valid reason for cancelling the procurement.  Indeed, it’s hard to imagine procurements in general being successful if the process required those involved to unanimously agree.

After the March 8 meeting, the RFP process was cancelled and restarted with a smaller evaluation committee which had very little expertise in literacy or teaching. The new committee selected Istation as the vendor, and Mark Johnson announced the contract award to the public on June 7.

If the superintendent indeed worried that he would stain the “integrity of the process” with his handling of the IStation fiasco, we can all see why. And the documents turned over by the state agency make for an uncomfortable narrative — in which it would appear the superintendent jettisoned his own processes once they became inconvenient for him.

It’s nice to give someone the benefit of the doubt, but the doubts are fast outpacing the benefits here. Either’s someone’s pants are on fire or they’ve badly mixed up their timeline.

A discussion of IStation vs. Amplify or any other tool is, truly, for another day. But a discussion about the power in Johnson’s office, and what he chooses to do with it, is for this day.

This is not the first time Johnson’s processes and motives have been questioned. A Policy Watch report last year detailed the criticisms of Johnson’s abrupt purchase of $6 million in Apple iPads, weeks after the tech Goliath wooed Johnson and state lawmakers in Silicon Valley.

As much as that story puts our ethics laws in a broader spotlight, it should invite closer scrutiny of the state’s murky contracting processes, and whether our state leaders require more oversight before they’re entrusted with dishing out millions in public dollars.

There may be more documents forthcoming, but in the meantime, everything about this story is offensively befuddling.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

With the Supreme Court ruling small, N.C. leaders must think big on gerrymandering

“I don’t agree with gerrymandering either,” Republican gerrymandering czar David Lewis uttered, moments after last week’s diminutive ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court — which we’ll refer to, punitively, as the lowercase supreme court for the remainder of this post.

We are out of time and we are out of patience for Lewis’ plaintive protestations. It’s not much of a mystery that Lewis and his cohorts atop the legislative food chain would gleefully take advantage of the court’s meandering sense of judicial power and decency.

But don’t expect the people of North Carolina to hold much respect for those who, recognizing the law offers no protection against such abuses of power, legislate themselves into a democracy-proof majority.

All this to say that the supreme court — which, in this ruling, comported itself like a lost and frightened child in the woods — was not our last hope in North Carolina.

All eyes turn now to a state court challenge of our gerrymandered districts, in which opposing parties are battling over the fate of a smorgasbord of computer files once held by the GOP’s late mapmaker, Thomas Hofeller. Policy Watch’s Melissa Boughton is covering this as we speak, and you’d do yourself a favor by following her live coverage on Twitter. 

It’s possible this case has a more optimistic outlook in state courts, which may provide some incentives to North Carolina legislators like Lewis to go along with a spate of reform bills — creating citizen commissions and constitutional amendments — in the batter’s box.

Republicans and Democrats — lawmakers like Robert Reives, John Hardister, Erica Smith, Chuck McGrady, Jeff Jackson, Sarah Stevens, Terry Van Duyn, Marcia Morey and Harry Warren, to name a few — deserve to be applauded for recognizing that this path will require bipartisan legislators willing to take the first step.

To that end, WRAL has a must-read roundup of the legislative efforts to address our partisan woes. Happy reforming…

Read more below:

The U.S. Supreme Court may have been unequivocal last week about the federal courts no longer playing a role in partisan gerrymandering cases.

But Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion also put a major emphasis on the responsibility of states to curb their own power to draw highly partisan district lines.

In the North Carolina General Assembly, there are no fewer than seven attempts to do just that – depending on how you count.

The competing measures feature a range of tactics aimed at reducing the influence of politics in the construction of voting district maps. Introduced by Republican and Democrats in both chambers, all of them seek to limit the role of partisan data in map-making and remove – at least to some extent – legislators from the process.

Some call for amendments to the North Carolina Constitution. Others seek those goals through changes in state law.

Yet, none has seen much movement since they were introduced in the early months of the 2019 legislative session.

But with the Supreme Court decision now in the books – and the uncertainty of 2020 looming – the reform bills’ time in legislative purgatory may be coming to an end.

“We are open to anything that is an improvement in the process,” Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the House’s lead mapmaker, said during a press conference shortly after the Supreme Court decision.

On that, advocates seem to agree.

“We’ve reached a point where almost any change is better than what we already have,” Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said.

 

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, News

Why Kamala Harris’ thrashing of Joe Biden matters to North Carolina’s racially segregated schools

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California)

When presidential hopeful Kamala Harris tore into Joe Biden last week, the California senator exposed the fundamental schisms, even among liberals, on school desegregation.

“[It] was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country,” Harris told Biden during last week’s rowdy primary debate.

“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”

For his part, the former vice president bristled at Harris’ characterization of his position on “busing,” although the tale of the tape is not so kind to Biden here either.

But, in the fallout from Harris’ timely take-down, pundits have missed the point, focusing instead on what the senator’s comments mean for her candidacy.

Perhaps, our time would be best spent analyzing the willingness of politicians and policymakers — from any political party — to truly consider the sickly decline of diversity in U.S. schools. Indeed, resegregation is a malady felt keenly in North Carolina, creating two different school systems and two offensively contrasting outcomes.

I’m not talking about the idea of school diversity. The most moderate to conservative politician — outside, perhaps, of a seemingly xenophobic Dan Forest — can espouse some appreciation for a multi-cultural student body while doing virtually nothing to make such a thing possible.

I’m talking about real steps, real reforms, the sort that made diversity initiatives a model in places like Berkeley, Wake County and — under a judge’s order — Charlotte in the 1970s.

I’m talking about understanding why those initiatives worked, and why leaders have allowed that progress to stall or founder.

History professor Matthew Delmont contributed his own sepia-toned analysis of the debate at The Atlantic Monday morning, explaining how our own eroding understanding of segregationist history — and the widely despised but efficacious “busing” programs — leaves us with a skewed perspective even among policymakers on the left.

From The Atlantic:

By invoking her own story, Harris highlighted a generational gap between people who lived through school desegregation as students and those, like Biden, for whom the feelings and opinions of white parents and constituents are paramount. As scholars such as Amy Stuart Wells and Rucker Johnson have shown, the generation of students who experienced school desegregation firsthand in the 1970s and 1980s benefited greatly. In public-policy debates and popular memory, though, the perspectives of students have been overshadowed by those of antibusing parents and politicians. As a result, the successes of school desegregation have been drowned out by a chorus of voices insisting busing was an inconvenient, unfair, and failed experiment.

When Harris boarded a school bus in the fall of 1969 to attend Thousand Oaks Elementary School in an affluent part of North Berkeley, busing was already a hot-button political issue. The controversy was driven by white opposition to school desegregation, not by the use of school buses. Students in the United States had long ridden buses to school. Buses made the modern public-school system possible, enabling multigrade elementary schools and comprehensive high schools to replace one-room schools. Buses had long been used in the South—as well as in New York, Boston, and many other northern cities—to maintain segregation. This form of transportation was not controversial for white parents. Put more starkly, school buses were fine for the majority of white families; busing was not.

White parents in New York City organized in the late1950s to oppose plans to bus black and Puerto Rican students from overcrowded schools to white schools with open seats. The parents used euphemisms such as busing and neighborhood schools to maintain segregated schools without explicitly saying they did not want their children to go to school with black or Latinx students. Similar antibusing protests occurred in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and other cities in the 1960s.

Northern congressmen responded to the anger expressed by many of their white constituents by writing antibusing provisions into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. These amendments were designed to keep federal civil-rights enforcement of school desegregation focused on the South and away from the North. While the Civil Rights Act finally pushed to the South to comply with Brown v. Board of Education by enabling the withholding of federal funds, cities in the North, Midwest, and West routinely flouted federal authority.

Antibusing rhetoric spiked in 1972, the year Joe Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate. White protesters such as Irene McCabe of Pontiac, Michigan, received massive amounts of media attention for their defiance of court-ordered school desegregation. President Richard Nixon called for Congress to pass a busing moratorium and used televised presidential addresses to signal that he would limit federal oversight to unconstitutional de jure segregation, most commonly associated with the South, to set the terms of the busing debate. Nixon also warned his appointees and the lawyers and officials who worked in the Justice Department and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that they could either support the administration’s evolving school-desegregation policies or lose their jobs. When Biden came to the Senate and began introducing his own antibusing amendments, he was building on more than 15 years of white parents and politicians using busing as a code word to oppose school desegregation.

Read more

Commentary, Education, Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature, News

After budget passes, Gov. Cooper goes on the offensive in promising a veto

Gov. Roy Cooper announced his plans to veto the budget bill Friday.

Facing, for the first time in his term, some hope of sustaining a veto of Republican lawmakers’ budget, Gov. Roy Cooper wasted little time Friday.

Cooper — flanked by teachers, health care officials, influential progressives and, perhaps, a few key swing votes in the Democratic caucus — slammed legislators’ $24 billion spending plan as a “failure of common sense and common decency” at the Executive Mansion in Raleigh.

A few blocks away, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger — perhaps the most powerful Republican in the state — held a press conference in the legislative building, chiding the governor for his decision. Berger argued that Cooper is holding up the state’s spending plan over Medicaid expansion.

“If (Cooper) says he’s willing to compromise, I’m more than happy to have our members engage with him,” Berger said. “I will tell you I’m not optimistic about his willingness to compromise based on his track record.”

It’s as if, eight months ago when Democrats broke Republicans’ veto-proof majority in both the state House and Senate, we could have written this contrived script out entirely then.

Cooper demands Medicaid expansion, a mostly federally-funded initiative expanding health care access for low-income North Carolinians.

And Republican lawmakers, who’ve rarely faced even a fleeting necessity for compromise in the last decade, scoff.

It’s only a matter of resolving whether the remaining negotiations last days, weeks or, gulp, months.

“Overall, this budget is bad, it prioritizes the wrong things,” Cooper told reporters Friday. The budget values tax breaks over public schools, he insisted, and “political ideology over people,” likely a reference to Medicaid.

Cooper was joined at the mansion Friday by Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Cohen has urged lawmakers to adopt Medicaid expansion since Cooper appointed her to the role in January 2017.

The governor’s budget also breaks sharply with Republicans on K-12 spending, teacher raises, and school construction. Facing an $8 billion tab for school infrastructure, Cooper, like House Speaker Moore, has supported a statewide bond committing billions. Berger and Senate legislators emphasized a “pay-as-you-go” approach, pledging to spend more than $4 billion on school buildings in the next decade.

Ask a teacher whether they’re willing to trust lawmakers’ promise of future action, particularly given the infrastructure bill owes to years, not months, of neglect from state leaders.

Overriding the governor’s veto will require a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. And while a handful of Democrats voted with Republicans on the budget bill this week, it’s unclear whether any would go so far as to join Republicans in the override.

Case in point: Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat awaiting confirmation for an appointment to the state Utilities Commission, stood directly behind Cooper Friday. McKissick voted with the GOP to approve the budget Thursday, but it seems most unlikely he’d support the override.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

Berger repeated his assertion Friday that lawmakers were open to a conversation about Medicaid expansion, provided it’s held in a special session, something of a ludicrous delaying tactic given the issue’s front-burner position for most of the decade.

Republicans leaders are expected to woo Democrats to their side with “pork” spending on local projects in the budget, a point Berger seemed to hint at Friday.

“I believe every member should vote on this bill based on what they believe is best for their districts and their constituents,” he said. “And not what is best for their political party.”

Berger claimed that he has not asked for nor received any pledges from Democrats to vote with the GOP.

Still, the Senate leader acknowledged there may be lawmakers in his party willing to consider expansion, but not enough to pass it. Berger added that he would not support the expansion, repeating the claim that the increased Medicaid spending could “blow a hole in the budget” if the federal government reneges on its promise to pay the lion’s share of the tab.

Far-right Republicans have made that argument for years now — even if moderate conservatives saw the innate logic and humanity in expansion — and that provision of Obamacare seems no more likely to be scrapped today than it did when the GOP first rebuffed expansion in 2013.

The House is expected to consider an override vote first. The haggling, I assure you, is already underway behind closed doors.

What happens from here on out is decidedly less predictable.

Commentary, Education, News

Uh oh, the sausage biscuits didn’t work. Our budget is still a mess.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

To hear North Carolina’s legislative leaders put it Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper is nowhere to be found.

While these earnest lawmakers toiled on their $24 billion budget compromise in recent days, Cooper was in New York, they complained, as if we could presume that the Democrat couldn’t be pulled from his junket, sunbathing atop the Chrysler Building, pillowed by a pile of “big city liberal” cash.

As if Cooper and company have not been engaged with legislative leaders for days, weeks and months before Cooper’s New York soiree, a political story with all the depth of a Tweet and the nutritional content of a Twinkie.

“We held this off as long as we could, hoping we could get some input from the governor, but here we are today,” groaned Sen. Harry Brown, the Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget panel.

The putrescent hog farms of Duplin County smell better than this.

Whatever you may think of Cooper, it’s a safe assumption that North Carolina’s journalists, and its people, have a memory surpassing that of a fruit fly.

They may recall legislative leaders’ incessant “bad faith” negotiations, the humiliation of HB2, last year’s unprecedented backdoor budgeting in a conference report, the openly gerrymandered maps, the allegations that they deceived a federal court, cuts crafted in the early morning hours to eviscerate political rivals, and the summoning of legislators following a hurricane to revoke powers from the newly-elected Cooper in December 2016.

The Hamburglar has more credibility than these folks.

Even last week’s sausage biscuit bargaining at the Capitol yielded nothing, while staffers for Cooper and legislative Republicans fired potshots on Twitter.

Democrats said Republicans weren’t willing to come to the table; Republicans countered that the governor had made Medicaid expansion — a cacophony in the far-right Republican caucus and nowhere else on this tortured Earth — a central point of negotiations.

“I’d rather have a budget that reflects a portion of our priorities than no budget at all,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger told reporters Tuesday.

Education funding was the greatest amount ever spent in North Carolina history,  Speaker Tim Moore boasted. Good, now we’ll have to see if that raw number means a blessed thing when adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending, and the needs of a school system that’s been underfunded for the lion’s share of Republican reign.

The knowledge that Moore and House lawmakers cracked on school infrastructure makes for a bad start. At least Moore and company were willing to consider a bond referendum for the state’s $8 billion-plus in school infrastructure needs, but the compromise budget’s “pay-as-you-go” Senate spending plan reeks.

We spoke about “bad faith” earlier, and those who can recall the high-stakes, brouhaha over class-size funding in recent years can appreciate why K-12 advocates are not likely to trust that lawmakers will deliver on school construction needs over the next decade without a bond.

The minority party, which has the votes to sustain a veto, was not impressed.

“Democrats have been clear about our budget priorities: Medicaid expansion, a statewide school construction bond, and no more corporate tax cuts,” Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue said Tuesday. “The conference report fails to acknowledge any of these; and it makes clear that Republicans don’t understand the value of finding common ground.”

As of this writing, Cooper had no official statement, but his spokespeople didn’t hold back.


The veto seems a foregone conclusion. But compromise, and a fair one that recognizes the priorities of both parties, is not.