Education

Best-selling author is accused of homophobia, racism at school he co-founded in New Bern

The “Daily Beast” recently shared email messages that appear to show best-selling romance novelist Nicholas Sparks tried to ban a LGBT club and silence student protests at a Christian school he helped to found in New Bern.

Sparks is the author of such bestsellers as “The Notebook” and “A Walk to Remember.”

The email messages are at the center of an ongoing legal battle between Sparks and Saul Benjamin, the former headmaster and CEO of Epiphany School of Global Studies who sued Sparks and the school’s Board of Directors in 2014 over what he alleges was a “pattern of harassment, racism and homophobia.”

Sparks has denied the allegations.

Sparks explained the bad blood between he and Benjamin in a declaration to the court. He said Benjamin could be “aloof, even rude, elitist and dismissive of their beliefs or backgrounds” and that he was often dishonest when dealing with the board.

The “Daily Beast” reports the case is scheduled for a six-day trial in August.

The news and opinion website’s story highlights a chief complaint about the state’s Opportunity Scholarship (school voucher) program; that it  provides money to private schools that may discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality and religious affiliation.

Kathryn Marker, director of grants, training and outreach at the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority (NCSEAA), the agency that oversees the state’s voucher program, said the program’s participation agreement forbids discrimination on the basis of “race, color or national origin.”

The participation agreement does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

It mirrors federal law, which states: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program, or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

In a column for Policy Watch last month, Lindsay Wagner, a senior writer and researcher at the NC Public School Forum, wrote that the state’s voucher program “makes public dollars accessible to private schools that are free to discriminate by turning away students who are gay or transgender, have disabilities, or who don’t subscribe to a religious doctrine.”

Meanwhile, public schools must accept any and all students regardless of their religious, ethnic and socioeconomic background.

Schools that fail to comply with NCSEAA rules are not eligible to receive future scholarship grants.

Twenty-seven students who attend Spark’s school this year received state Opportunity Scholarships.  The students received $109,200 in voucher awards.

Here’s a copy of one of Spark’s email messages the Daily Beast alleges Sparks sent to Benjamin:

Education

Student advisers set to return to State Board of Education in August

Two high school students — Greear Webb (left) and Myles Cyrus (right) – urged Johnson to bring back student advisers during the State Board of Education’s board meeting in April.

After a three year absence due to political infighting, student advisers are returning to the State Board of Education (SBE).

Superintendent Mark Johnson has begun accepting applications for two student representatives to serve as nonvoting advisers.

Two students, a rising junior and a rising senior, will be selected to serve. The senior will serve a one-year term and the junior a two-year term beginning in August.

The SBE has been without student advisers since 2016.

The program was suspended amid the well-publicized, two-year long power struggle between the board and State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

North Carolina law authorized the governor to appointment two high school students to serve as advisers to the state board, but the Republican-led General Assembly handed the authority to the state superintendent as part of a power grab that led to a lengthy legal battle.

The legal wrangling ended with the State Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of House Bill 17, which rearranged the responsibilities of the superintendent and transferred certain powers of the state board to Johnson.

Johnson said in April that he couldn’t appoint students to the board until after the legal questions around HB 17 were answered.

“That entire law was put on hold for a year and a half because of lawsuits, so nobody could appoint a student adviser,” Johnson said in April. “When the court proceedings were finally finished in summer of 2018, that is when it took the restraining order off of that law and I had the ability to appoint a student adviser.”

Two high students — Greear Webb and Myles Cyrus – gave Johnson a nudge in April with compelling arguments for students advisers during the SBE’s board meeting in April.

“If we are in the room where the decisions are made, we can clearly and intentionally help you to structure our education in the most effective and successful way possible,” said Webb, who graduated Sanderson High School in Raleigh this week and is headed to UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall.

Cyrus, a 2019 graduate of Fike High School in Wilson who is headed to Wake Forest in the fall, urged the board to all create a representative student panel “from across the state that meets with the board periodically to discuss certain policies and how they’re implemented and what their impact is and how students are changed because of that policy.”

The deadline to apply for a seat on the SBE is June 30. Students may fill out the application posted at: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSc7xsCZlJjFQY_31cyWQUPS5khqNybCQRfA1mUSnlMWJApwQA/viewform.

Education

NCAE launches ‘Truth Tour” to expose lawmakers’ budget ‘misrepresentations’

NCAE President Mark Jewell launches ‘Truth Tour’ near Root Elementary School in Raleigh, June 10, 2019.

The NC Association of Educators on Monday used Root Elementary School in Raleigh as a back drop to kick off a “Truth Tour” to expose what it contends are GOP “distortions and misrepresentations about funding for public schools.

Similar events are planned for Asheville, Greenville and Wilmington.

NCAE President Mark Jewell said the “Truth Tour” is designed to reveal the truth about what’s happened to public education under the Republican-led General Assembly.

“The truth is ugly, unsettling and completely at odds with statements made by lawmakers who claim to care about our children,” Jewell said. “Talk is cheap but the majority of the North Carolina General Assembly is even cheaper, at least when it comes to funding our schools.”

Jewell said lawmakers have mostly ignored the five demands thousands of educators made during their May 1 walkout.

“We were clear, we were loud and we were ignored,” Jewell said.

Educators’ demands included additional money to provide enough school librarians, psychologists, social workers, counselors, nurses, and other health professionals to meet national professional-to-student standards.

They also asked for a $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, 5 percent raise for all non-certified staff, teachers, administrators, and a 5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for retirees; expansion of  Medicaid; reinstatement of state retiree health benefits and restoration of advanced degree compensation.

Jewell said the State Senate’s budget proposal only provides 1 percent of the funding needed to hire enough professional support staff to meet national standards.

Educators sought a 5 percent pay increase for non-certified staff such as bus drivers and cafeterias workers. The senate budget provides a 1 percent pay increase and the House a .5 percent increase.

And while the House budget does restore pay for advanced degrees, the Senate’s does not. And neither the House nor the Senate budgets restores retiree health benefits.

“The House and the Senate budgets gives hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts to big corporations and the wealthy,” Jewell said. “Meanwhile, funding for classroom materials is still less than half of what it was 10 years ago when adjusted for inflation.”

Jewell was joined by Kristin Beller, president of the Wake NCAE, who said lawmakers have failed to make public education a top priority.

“It’s a shame that every year, parents, students and educators hold fundraisers trying to raise money for textbooks, school supplies, field trips and even educator positions when the General Assembly has withheld nearly $4 billion in corporate tax cuts and tens of millions in public dollars that go to private school vouchers, which will eventually total$144 million that could have been invested into our public school system,” Beller said.

She said the state can properly fund public schools.

“This austerity budgeting that continues to be proposed by the privatizers in our General Assembly is a false notion,” Beller said. “It’s a choice.”

Beller said those choices have left local school districts scrambling to pay the bills.

“It means each year our school board and school staff are forced to beg and plead with the county to supplement the state’s lack of funding,” Beller said. “We shouldn’t have to beg, we shouldn’t have to plead and really, we shouldn’t even have to fund raise. The state should be raising enough revenue to fund the operating costs of our schools. The can easily do this but they’ve chosen not to.”

Education

Ten new charter schools win approval, two on hold as WCPSS raises concerns

Concerns raised by Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) has led the State Board of Education to table two of 12 charter schools that sought state approval Thursday.

The board’s approval of the other 10 applications paved the way for them to open in 2020.

But applications submitted for Wake Preparatory Academy and North Raleigh Charter Academy were referred back to the state Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), which had recommended approval of all 12 applications.

CSAB is expected to review the WCPSS concerns when it meets Monday.

SBE member Amy White said the board received “communication” from WCPSS that could be considered an “impact statement.”

“All of the communication, we received after the Charter School Advisory Board made its recommendation really should have been sent to the Charter School Advisory Board so it could review that material,” White said.

She said a policy provision allows SBE to send applications back to CSAB if there’s a chance it might be denied by SBE.

Normally, a school district would submit information detailing the negative impact charters might have on the district to CSAB before the advisory board makes its recommendation to SBE.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is a member of the SBE, said opponents of the two schools are engaging in “stall tactics.”

“Though they’ve been approved, we’re now punishing them because other people aren’t going through the proper procedures and processes,” Forest said. “I just want to make sure the charter community and everybody else that’s engaged in this feels like they’re being treated fairly through this process.”

Rhonda Dillingham, the executive director of North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools, watched intently and took notes as the SBE discussed the charter applications.

Afterward the meeting ended, Dillingham agreed with Forest that school districts ought to be required to follow procedures when making complaints against charter applications.

“Allowing comments from LEAs (Local Education Agencies or school districts) after the process has gone through, to me, appears to be a stall tactic,” Dillingham said. “In this case, it’s affected two schools. I think we need to take a second look at the process, and encourage the state board to not allow that to happen again.”

If all 12 schools do open, the number of charters in the state would climb to 196 including two online charters that are headquartered in Durham.

Nearly 110,000 students across the state attend charters, which is approximately 7.3 percent of the state’s 1.5 million school children.

The number of charters exploded after the Republican-led General Assembly lifted the state’s 100-school cap in 2011.

Critics contend charters siphon students and resources from traditional public schools and contribute to the re-segregation of North Carolina schools.

In March, State Sen. Dan Blue, (D-Wake County) called for a “recess” from granting charters until a joint legislative committee he wants to create can study their impacts on traditional public schools.

Blue is a primary sponsor of Senate Bill 247, which would establish the joint legislative study committee and place a moratorium on charter growth.

SB 247 was referred to the body’s Committee On Rules and Operations of Senate on March 14. Because it didn’t cross over to the House, the bill is essentially dead through 2020.

Public Schools First NC has also called for a cap on charters while the state exams student performance, fiscal management and how charter impact students, traditional public schools and taxpayers.

The 10 schools approved by the SBE are: CE Academy (Wake County); Wendell Falls Charter Academy (Wake County); Doral Academy (Wake County); Wilmington School of the Arts (New Hanover County); MINA Charter School of Lee County; Revolution Academy (Guilford County); Elaine Riddick (Perquimans County); Robert J. Brown Leadership Academy (Guilford County); Achievement Academy (Harnett County) and Alamance County School.

Education

A low-performing virtual charter school seeks permission to grow

Should a charter school that’s performed poorly be allowed to grow?

That’s the question State Board of Education (SBE) member James Ford asked Wednesday during a board discussion about N.C. Virtual Academy’s (NCVA) request to increase its enrollment by 20 percent next school year.

“My primary concern is, until something has proven to be successful, why do you want to expand it?” Ford said in an interview.

NCVA, one of the state’s two virtual charter schools, currently enrolls 2,425 students. It wants to increase enrollment by 20 percent – 485 students — despite receiving a “D” on the state’s school grading system the past three years.

Students attending NCVA have never met academic growth goals. The school is also on the state’s list of continually low-performing schools.

The SBE is expected to vote on the NCVA request when it meets this morning.

NCVA and N.C. Connections Academy opened their doors in 2015. Neither school has performed well.

Under the pilot legislation that created them, enrollment was capped at 1,500 students the first year.

After the initial year, both schools were allowed to grow by 20 percent a year up to a maximum student enrollment of 2,592 in the fourth year of the pilot.

Ford’s question about allowing low-performing charter to expand is similar to those asked by critics last year when state lawmakers extended the pilot four years. The pilot now run through the 2022-23 school year.

The pilot legislation that established the schools also gave the SBE the authority to waive the maximum student enrollment threshold, beginning in the fourth year of the school’s operation “if the State Board determines that doing so would be in the best interest of North Carolina students.”

State law also permits low-performing charter schools to grow annually up to 20 percent.

Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools, offered state law and the fact the schools are part of a pilot program as among the reasons the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board (NCCSAB) unanimously recommended NCVA be allowed to add students.

Machado said the NCCSAB and the Office of Charter School have attempted to treat the two virtual charters the same as traditional charters, which are allowed to grow even if they are deemed low-performing.

But Ford argued that the two virtual charters are not the same as traditional charters because of the experimental nature of the programs.

“They’re in an experimental phase without a proven record of success,” Ford said. “That’s just hard for me to compute.”

Machado acknowledged that charters sometimes struggle in the first five years.

“When they get to five [years] and above … schools that have been around a little longer, their data is much stronger. They understand what they’re doing. They do a better job at it. They make any adjustments they need to make.”