Education, News, Trump Administration, What's Race Got To Do With It?

WRAL: Records show racial tension, post-Trump feuds in North Carolina schools

Here’s a must-read: WRAL News has published a fascinating deep dive into campus racial tension and post-election feuds in a North Carolina school system.

The report, which draws on accounts collected by an Orange County Schools administrator, details ugly incidents in which students of color were harassed or threatened by their peers.

It captures student clashes over President Trump’s election, boasts by Trump supporters, threats of deportation leveled at Hispanic students, and it reports, in at least one instance, backlash against students perceived to be Trump supporters.

According to the report, school system leaders collected the stories as school board members considered a ban on clothing that displays the Confederate flag, as well as Nazi or KKK symbols.

From the WRAL report:

In May 2017, an assistant principal entered a boys’ bathroom at Cedar Ridge High School in Orange County. There, scrawled on the wall, was a threat: “Kill all (racial slur).” He soon found similar graffiti in other bathrooms. Swastikas and slurs littered the walls.

A few months earlier, a Cedar Ridge High teacher heard a student yell “white power!” as they walked to the bus, but she couldn’t make out who it was. Back in her classroom, she found a swastika scratched into a desk in her classroom.

“You going to get deported,” a student told a classmate. The conversations were so upsetting to one student, they went home early.

During the 2016-17 school year, Orange County school leaders recorded 70 incidents at their middle and high schools involving racist threats, political feuds about Trump, clashes over the Confederate flag and other similar fights. They documented the incidents in a report known internally as the “confidential student-specific incidents data,” which noted the date, what happened and the consequences.

Orange County Board of Education members reviewed the document in closed session in May 2017 but didn’t release it publicly.

WRAL News requested a copy of the document this past spring after discovering it existed. Several months later, the school district released the five-page document with numerous redactions, citing student privacy. Of the 70 incidents, 16 are completely redacted and 24 are partially concealed.

The document has never been shared publicly until now. Its existence has prompted several questions: Why did Orange County Schools collect this data when other local school systems did not? Why did they not share it publicly? What did they learn from it? And why have they stopped collecting it?

Orange County Schools Superintendent Todd Wirt said he and his staff collected the information during the 2016-17 school year at the request of the school board, and they discussed it privately in closed session later that school year.

“This wasn’t about the district hiding this information,” Wirt said. “It was about protecting the students that were on the particular document and providing our board with accurate information to help them make a really difficult decision.”

That difficult decision, Wirt said, was whether to ban the Confederate flag on school grounds.

Last August, the school board decided to ban all clothing depicting the Confederate flag, swastikas or any KKK related symbols or language. The decision came after months of pressure from parents and students who urged the school system to change its dress code.

Before making a decision, the board wanted an accurate count of issues stemming from the Confederate flag and racial and election-related incidents in schools, not just anecdotes from a handful of people, according to Wirt. The superintendent assigned the task of collecting the incidents to Jason Johnson, his executive director of schools.

“Basically, each [school] administrative team, they just kind of kept the incidents in a spreadsheet and then I just ran around and got it from them so I could collect it and put it all in one location,” Johnson said.

While the middle and high schools reported dozens of incidents, the elementary schools reported none, according to the superintendent.

“We reached out to our elementary principals and, at the time, honestly, we just weren’t seeing those same types of behaviors at the elementary level,” Wirt said.

After collecting the reports from middle and high schools, Johnson scanned the pages. The stories of students’ hateful language and actions saddened him but didn’t surprise him, he said. He was already aware of some of the stories through his work with the schools’ principals. But others were new.

“You know, I’m an African-American male, so I’m probably a little bit more hurt than anything,” Johnson said. “I think it’s just very painful that we have a few kids – and I do mean a few – that will say some of the things they said or do some of the things they’ve done. But I also know that’s an opportunity to teach.”

The stories didn’t surprise the superintendent, either.

“This is year 20 for me in public education. I was a high school principal for quite some time. I don’t know that surprise would be the right word,” Wirt said. “I honestly was probably most surprised by some of the responses and animation around the election, more than anything from the document.”

The records captured multiple feuds between students over the election of Trump and some displays of support for his victory.

One day after the election, four students walked the halls of Gravelly Hill Middle School chanting “build a wall” within earshot of Hispanic students. That same day at Orange High School, a white student pulled into the parking lot with a Trump flag flying on the back of his truck. He got out and ran around the parking lot with the flag and a Trump mask on his face.

A few days after the election, a parent emailed Orange High School leaders regarding “a negative comment that a teacher had made about the type of people who voted for Trump.” And on a bus ride from C.W. Stanford Middle, a student called others “white crackers and Trump voters.”

In Johnson’s time leading schools, it has “never been this way around election time.”

“I don’t remember anything that compares to it,” he said. “I was a principal when we had the first black president, and we didn’t have anything like this.”

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Education, News

State Board of Education’s Greg Alcorn to become fourth board resignation this year

From L-R: Bill Cobey, Becky Taylor, and Greg Alcorn will all step down from the State Board of Education next month.

Greg Alcorn, a Rowan County resident serving on the State Board of Education, will become the fourth member of North Carolina’s top school board to step down this year, Policy Watch has learned.

Policy Watch received a copy Friday of Alcorn’s resignation, dated Aug. 7, from the state board. In the letter, Alcorn says he intends to leave following next month’s board meeting. Alcorn added that he wants to focus on ApSeed, the early childhood nonprofit he started.

But it’s worth noting that Alcorn, like departing members Bill Cobey and Becky Taylor before him, was set to watch his term expire in March. A fourth board member, former Vice Chair A.L. “Buddy” Collins, also stepped down this spring in order to run for a county commission seat in Forsyth County.

Republican state lawmakers have voted on partisan lines to deny replacements for board members appointed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, but Cooper’s appointments will not require legislative confirmation to serve out the rest of Cobey, Taylor and Alcorn’s terms.

“With the legislature not approving the governor’s appointments, really the only way that a board member’s seat gets filled appears to be the way that Bill and Becky are going,” the board’s vice chairman, Eric Davis, said in a Policy Watch report this week. “That’s the only way a new member gets appointed.”

As this week’s report noted, board members Tricia Willoughby and Wayne McDevitt watched their terms expire in March 2017, but both have remained on as lawmakers first delayed and then voted down Cooper’s replacements.

From Alcorn’s resignation letter:

This letter is to inform you that I am resigning from the North Carolina State Board of Education at the conclusion of the Thursday, September 6 board meeting. I have shared my decision of resignation with my fellow board members and I would like to serve through the September board meeting.

The primary reason for resigning is to spend more time with my ApSeed early childhood education non-profit. ApSeed is designed to provide “Kindergarten-ready” children to our fine public schools in North Carolina. I firmly believe that ApSeed can have a generational, positive impact to help eliminate achievement gaps. My belief in ApSeed and its impact compels me to devote my community service time to this non-profit.

It has been my pleasure and honor to serve on the NC State Board of Education, during the past 5+ years. My service on the Board has informed me of the many challenges in education and has been invaluable. I firmly believe in the constitutional responsibilities of the State Board of Education and am sure your new appointee will continue to deliver on those responsibilities.

It has been an honor to serve with such an outstanding group of board members who have faithfully made their first priority the interest of our public school children. I will miss serving with them.

Education, News, Trump Administration

Trump administration, Betsy DeVos, slash for-profit college regulations

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have made no secret of their support of for-profit colleges.

Today, they’re taking the next step to cut regulations for such controversial programs, Politico reports.

According to the report, DeVos will do away with an Obama administration rule.

From Politico:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos moved Thursday to eliminate Obama-era regulations that were meant to cut off federal funding to low-performing programs at for-profit schools and other career colleges.

The Education Department unveiled a proposal to rescind the “gainful employment” regulation, which was a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s crackdown on for-profit education companies.

The goal of the rule, which took effect in 2015, was to make sure that students who graduate from for-profit schools or other career-oriented programs make enough money to repay their student loans. But the schools, and congressional Republicans, have long criticized the regulation as unfair and overly burdensome.

DeVos’ proposal to kill the regulation goes further than other draft plans circulated by the Trump administration. Previous proposals would have gutted the penalties associated with the rule, but they would have kept mandatory consumer disclosures by colleges to prospective students.

The Trump administration said it plans to update the Education Department’s College Scorecard website with expanded data about the outcomes of students who attend all colleges and universities receiving federal aid. The department plans to calculate and publish the earnings and debt levels of graduates broken down by individual academic programs.

The Scorecard website is not required by any law or regulation, so the Trump administration’s promise to expand the data published on it isn’t binding on the department.

Consumer groups and Democrats have already sharply criticized the Trump administration’s plan to repeal the rule as a giveaway to the for-profit college industry. They say they’re worried DeVos’ plan will open up billions of taxpayer dollars to low-performing colleges.

Democratic attorneys general from 17 states and the District of Columbia are suingDeVos over her previous delays in enforcing the “gainful employment” rule.

The Education Department said it would accept public comments on the proposed elimination of the regulation for 30 days.

The department must publish a final regulation by Nov. 1 for it to take effect in July 2019.

Commentary, Education, News

Editorial: Bill Cobey stands up for state board and public schools

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

In case you missed it this this morning, Capitol Broadcasting Company published an editorial over at WRAL that takes aim at state legislative leaders following the news that State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey is stepping down from the board next month.

Cobey, a longtime North Carolina Republican who once chaired the statewide GOP and served in Congress, has often been at odds with the Republican-controlled legislature in recent years.

The editorial notes the reaction from Republican lawmakers, or rather lack of reaction, to Cobey’s departure is telling.

From the editorial:

Last week Chairman Bill Cobey, announced his resignation from the State Board of Education six months before the end of his term. “I want to move on so that others can lead,” he said.

We hope he’d serve his entire term, but we are not surprised that he is leaving.

Who could blame Cobey, at 79, for taking a break from the daily attacks on our public education system by Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. They have been unrelenting in their efforts to dismantle the State Board of Education. Cobey fought the good fight on behalf of the board and is still fighting.

There are few North Carolinians who can claim Cobey’s conservative Republican pedigree. In 1982 (when Speaker Moore was 12 years old) he was Jesse Helms’ Congressional Club choice to unseat a four-term Democrat in the Fourth Congressional District. He fell short that year, but won the seat two years later.

Cobey was Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources under Gov. Jim Martin. He served as chairman of the state Republican Party. He was on the board of a private school and vice chairman of the Jesse Helms Center in 2013 when Gov. Pat McCrory named him to the State Board and he was elected its chairman.

It is certainly curious that, upon his resignation, Cobey received public words of appreciation for his service from Gov. Roy Cooper and former Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson while Republicans, including Berger, Moore and former Gov. McCrory who appointed him, were uncharacteristically muted.

It is the fact that Cobey isn’t a pushover; that he stands up for his principles and also works with Democrats to find common ground to strengthen public education; that he stands up for the constitutional role of the State Board of Education in the face of legislative efforts to weaken it. That infuriates Berger and Moore.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson has been acquiescent to the legislative leadership and with newly-enacted powers from the legislature, worked to subvert the state board’s authority.

The current leaders of the General Assembly see every exchange as an opportunity for a confrontation, every issue is reason for ideological combat. Anyone who might have the moxie to suggest an alternative solution or competing idea is the enemy. Cobey has been under attack for several years. He fought hard.

Make no mistake about it, Bill Cobey believes in the strength of his ideas and positions. But he also has the confidence to let others challenge them and discuss them.

Most significantly, he has the patience to listen and work with those with different perspectives to seek common solutions. That’s not being a push over or liberal. That’s leadership.

It’s about putting the interests of the state, public schools and children first.

Cobey has the right priorities. They are sorely lacking among many members of the General Assembly.

We extend our admiration for, and thanks to, Bill Cobey and his service to North Carolina.

Courts & the Law, Education, News

North Carolina legislators say school boards should not have sued over state’s $730 million debt

State Rep. Nelson Dollar says local school boards should not have sued state agencies over a $730 million debt to schools.

Top lawmakers in the General Assembly say the N.C. School Boards Association (NCSBA) and 20 local boards of education should not have sued in their latest attempt to collect on a $730 million debt to schools, WRAL reported.

The response from legislators came shortly after school board leaders announced this week that they would sue to extend a 2008 Superior Court judgement that ordered state agencies to repay civil penalty funds that should have been diverted to K-12 technology.

The judge said agencies like the Department of Transportation, Department of Revenue and UNC kept that money for other purposes from 1996 to 2005, in violation of their constitutional obligation.

Officials with the NCSBA say they unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate repayment appropriated by lawmakers over the last decade.

From WRAL:

Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the House’s senior budget writer, said he expects lawmakers will look for a way to begin paying back the judgment in next year’s legislative session. But he said filing another lawsuit wasn’t the best way to resolve the issue.

“I don’t believe that that was a very good use of their time and energy or a good use of the time and energy of the General Assembly,” Dollar said.

“We had no choice,” Bruce Mildwurf, a spokesman for the School Boards Association, said in an email, citing the expiration of the 2008 judgment next week.

Mildwurf said the association has worked with lawmakers for several years to address the debt, but legislation never passed.

Leanne Winner, the group’s director of governmental relations, sent a letter to House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger in March, advising that the association would go back to court and asking for a settlement discussion. There was no response to the letter.

“As they well know, just sending one letter is not the way you really go about it,” Dollar said. “That’s usually an opening, and then you start coming to the members who work on education appropriations and these issues and sit down and have the dialogue on that, you know, as opposed to rushing off to court.”

Dollar said the School Boards Association didn’t approach him about money owed, and House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said the group didn’t mention it to him, either.

“I will say that, in 10 years, I’ve never spoken to the School Boards Association about this issue. So, it is not something that’s been on the front burner,” said Jackson, D-Wake.

Still, he said, the constitution is clear that money from fines and forfeitures goes to public schools, and the state owes the districts the money.

“It’s certainly a large enough number. It’s something that we should take seriously and talk about, and it would be, I think, a good idea to do that in the interim so that we can come back in January with a plan,” Jackson said.

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