U.S. Senate panel grapples with fast-approaching state laws on rights of student athletes

Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian wins prestigious Green-Rossiter Award for higher ed coverage

Joe Killian

A growing number of readers across the country have become aware in recent weeks of NC Policy Watch investigative reporter Joe Killian and his outstanding coverage of higher education issues — this thanks primarily to his nonpareil reporting on the controversy surrounding the appointment of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to fill the UNC journalism school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

As a lot of other people were already aware, however, Killan’s reporting on higher education long predates recent events. From the debates over the ever-evolving political and personnel battles that have roiled the UNC Board of Governors in recent years, to the ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate statue controversy, to the debates over reopening campuses in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Killian has been the state’s most persistent, prolific and important reporter on the higher education beat — all while managing to generate a bevy of important stories in several other important fields.

Happily, Joe received some important and long overdue recognition for his work in this area in recent days when the North Carolina Press Association awarded him the prestigious Green-Rossiter Award, which is sponsored each year by Duke University for outstanding coverage of higher education issues in the state.

This is from Killian’s “First Place’ citation:

Joe Killian is to be commended for his thorough coverage of issues affecting the UNC system. And these were issues of consequence. For instance, would UNC students adhere to COVID rules announced by its chancellor? Killian foreshadowed the outcome well before UNC closed down its campus. He also zeroed in on the politics behind some higher-ed decisions. Killian’s reporting provided a great service to the people of North Carolina by shining a light on matters that required some digging.

Congratulations Joe!

Speaking of indoctrination, a State Board of Education member wants new social studies standards to teach students that America is great

[Editor’s note: This post appeared originally on Parmenter’s website, “Notes from the Chalkboard.”

Indoctrination has been a hot topic in North Carolina education policy discussions lately.

Last month the NC House of Representatives passed a bill entitled “An Act to Ensure Academic Transparency” which would require teachers to post their lesson plans and details about all instructional materials online for public review.

In defense of their support for the new legislation, which passed almost entirely along partisan lines, some Republican legislators cited the need to prevent indoctrination of North Carolina students.

Iredell County Representative Jeffrey McNeely said, “Hopefully we’re just gonna teach the kids. We’re not gonna try to indoctrinate ’em or teach ’em in a certain way to make ’em believe something other than the facts.”

At its meeting last Thursday, the North Carolina State Board of Education reviewed glossaries and unpacking documents related to new state social studies standards which will be implemented in school year 2021-22. (Unpacking documents are overarching documents intended to help teachers understand how the standards should be taught).

During the discussion, board member Amy White expressed her view that the standards unpacking documents needed to ensure North Carolina teachers are teaching their students that America is a great nation.

Audio is fairly poor quality, so I’ve included a transcript below it.

One final question. Several months ago in our discussion about standards, I made a comment from the table about the foundation of our social studies curriculum being anchored in the thought and the premise that America is a great nation. And is there any place for inclusion in that foundation as a preamble to all of these documents together that we are educating our students about our history both positive and negative but that through our challenges through sacrifices through our triumphs that America is a nation today that we should be proud of and blessed to live in?

In an effort to help our students better understand about their role as future leaders in this nation. And I really think that a document or a statement underlining that fact that our teachers teaching in the public schools should be making every effort to help our students understand our history as it impacts the socioeconomics, diversity, economic development and future development of this country. It’s important that we undergird that with the idea that we live in a tremendously prosperous land.

The board agreed to take Ms. White’s suggestion under consideration and bring it back for additional discussion at next month’s meeting.

Whether or not you see America as a great nation depends on how you and your ancestors have experienced life in the United States.

But the larger point here is that social studies classes should not be a place where students come to learn that their country is great. It should be a place where they can learn the truth about their own history and the history of others and then develop their own views based on the facts.

I trust that Representative McNeely will be reaching out to Ms. White in order to express his disapproval.

UNC Hussman faculty denounce continued inaction on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones

Faculty at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media spoke out in a written statement Friday as the deadline to avoid a federal discrimination lawsuit arrived with no action by school’s board of trustees.

“It seems apparent that the UNC Board of Trustees has again failed to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’s dossier for appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism with tenure, despite affirmation at all previous levels of rigorous review,” the faculty members wrote.

Thirty-seven UNC Hussman faculty members signed the statement, which called the board’s inaction “a blatant disregard for time-honored tenure procedures and for the university and Board of Trustees’ endorsed values of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

As Policy Watch first reported, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees decided to take no action on recommendations of tenure for Hannah-Jones from the faculty tenure committee, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin. Board members maintain the unusual move came as a result of conservative opposition to Hannah-Jones’s work. Among the high profile voices lobbying against Hannah-Jones behind the scenes was Walter Hussman, the Arkansas-based media magnate whose $25 million gift to the school led to it being named for him. In an interview with Policy Watch Hussman questioned the quality of the Hannah-Jones’s work, which has been awarded Pulitzer, Polk, Peabody and National Magazine Awards. He also mischaracterized an essay she wrote about the issue of reparations to Black Americans for slavery.

Hannah-Jones was offered the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Knight Chair professors at the school are media professionals, not academics, who bring their working knowledge of the industry to classrooms across the country. Previous Knight Chair professors at the school have all been granted tenure upon their appointment.

The school’s handling of the tenure decision has generated international headline and condemnation from a broad range of student, faculty and alumni groups. The Knight Foundation has urged the board to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones, as have Knight Chair professors and journalism deans from across the country.

This week a prominent chemistry professor declined to come to UNC-Chapel Hill due to the controversy, as reported by Indy Week.

The president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has given the university more than $131 million, wrote to the chairman of the school’s board of trustees to ask for answers in the case and to call for the board to approve Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

Hannah-Jones herself has made few public statements on the controversy since her legal counsel put the university on notice that she would be filing a federal discrimination lawsuit if an unconditional offer of tenure wasn’t forthcoming by Friday.

On Friday morning she posted a photo on Twitter of the framed statement that arrived in the mail commemorating her induction into the North Carolina Media & Journalism Hall of Fame. The honor felt bittersweet under the current circumstances, she suggested.

State Board of Education cut ties with Innovative School District operator

South Side Ashpole Elementary School (Photo by Greg Childress)

The rocky relationship between the firm that manages the lone school in the state’s Innovative School District and the State Board of Education (SBE) has apparently ended.

SBE Chairman Eric Davis on Thursday announced a legal settlement in a contract dissolution between the board and Achievement for All Children (AAC). The board hired AAC to manage low-performing Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland in 2018.

Davis’ announcement came during a state board meeting.

Eric Davis

“As required, I’m announcing a negotiated settlement in the legal dispute over the termination of the Achievement for All Children’s management of Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in the amount of $3,761.24,” Davis said.

Davis provided no explanation for the settlement, and board members didn’t ask questions. The agenda item did not include supporting documents.

Policy Watch has requested a copy of the settlement.

A year ago, Policy Watch obtained a confidential letter that alleged AAC had failed to meet its contractual obligations in running Southside-Ashpole.

The letter cited numerous instances in which AAC allegedly failed to meet deadlines for contractually-mandated reports. The firm reportedly failed to submit a proposed budget due May 1 and an annual financial audit that was due Oct. 15, 2019. Nor, says the letter, did AAC submit a compliance report for the district’s Exceptional Children’s Program or make requested corrections to COVID-19 staff work logs.

Dated May 5, 2020, the unsigned letter was “Prepared at the Direction of Counsel for the Provision of Legal Advice.” It was addressed to Davis and the board and recommended that state education officials terminate the contract with AAC  three years early.

Former State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte, who served in the state legislature from March 2007 to January 2017, is president of AAC, a nonprofit corporation.

Cotham has not returned calls from Policy Watch, despite receiving tens of thousands of dollars in public money though the now-terminated state contract.

The state legislature created the ISD in 2016 to allow private operators to take control of consistently low-performing public schools. The education model has been controversial — both in North Carolina and in other states.

Critics contend such districts lack transparency and that it’s more difficult to monitor them because public money and decision-making authority are transferred to operators that are not directly accountable to taxpayers.

Davis raised questions about whether AAC was equipped to meet its obligations three years ago when he was the board’s vice chairman. He and several other board members were concerned that AAC did not have enough experience turning around low-performing schools and working with at-risk children.

“I think (students) deserve better,” Davis was reported saying at the time. “They deserve an operator with a demonstrated track record.”