Editorial to state schools superintendent: Serve kids, not partisan politics

Catherine Truitt

Be sure to check out this morning’s Capitol Broadcasting Company editorial on WRAL.com — “Truitt’s job is to stand with school children, not political patrons.” The essay sends a powerful reminder to the state’s still-newish state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt, that she needs to rediscover the persona she projected early on in her tenure when she evinced a desire to avoid the destructive partisanship and rigid ideological nonsense that plagued her overmatched predecessor, Mark Johnson.

Sadly, as the editorial notes, Truitt’s recent endorsement of the desultory and pathetically inadequate state Senate budget proposal makes clear that will take some doing:

It is now quite clear that partisan politics is Catherine Truitt’s priority as North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. That is the only conclusion any reasonable observer can reach following her statement that the budget passed late last month by the state Senate “does so much to boost North Carolina’s public school system.”

Her priority, demonstrating fealty to Senate Leader Phil Berger and other legislative leaders, is misplaced.

As an independently elected statewide leader her focus should be, regardless of partisan leanings, on North Carolina’s public-school students, the concerns of their parents, the necessary instructional resources, welfare and working conditions of classroom teachers and support for educational staff and administrators.

As the editorial explains in great detail, the budget proposal for education is an outrage — especially at a moment in which the state continues to repeatedly violate court orders to provide all the state’s schoolchildren with access to a sound basic education. Again, here’s the editorial:

The courts used a professional, non-partisan process to come up with a workable and reasonable plan to remediate that problem. That program, however, is barely funded by the Senate – just 15% to 20% of the $1.6 billion required. Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget would fully-fund the remediation plan.

How can anyone suggest that a 1.5% annual raise is appropriate for teachers who haven’t seen a raise in the last two years, much less a “show of appreciation for their tireless work carried on throughout COVID.” It is an insult particularly given the extraordinary extra effort teachers displayed on a routine basis through the pandemic – too often the unsung among the front-line workers.

After listing other ways in which the budget proposal comes up woefully short, the editorial offers this on-the-mark conclusion:

Legislative leaders don’t need any more cheerleaders.

But the school children of North Carolina do.

Truitt must stand up for the public schools – the students, teachers, staff and administrators — she was elected to lead.

Public schools and the state’s school children are being sold short in the Senate budget. It is Truitt’s job to say so and make sure it gets fixed.

Amen.

Click here to read the full editorial.

House passes bill seeking to lift mask mandate in NC schools

The N.C. House passed a bill seeking to give school boards the exclusive authority to determine whether students must wear face masks in the upcoming school year on Wednesday. 

Senate Bill 173, called the “Free the Smiles Act,” would strip away Governor Roy Cooper’s authority to  issue state-wide mask mandates for schools, leaving him with the ability to do so only for individual schools during a state of emergency. 

The Governor’s current executive order requires all students in public and nonpublic schools to wear face masks while indoors. On June 11, Cooper announced he would be extending the State of Emergency, saying that although the state has made massive strides in combating COVID-19, the emergency classification allows for easier access to federal relief funds. 

Rep. David Willis, a Union County Republican, presented the bill to the House Rules Committee on Wednesday. Rep. Erin Paré, a Wake County Republican, added an amendment to the bill that would require all local school boards to take a vote on whether or not they will require face masks by August 1. If a school does require masks, they will have to revisit the issue every month and hold a vote on whether or not to keep them. 

“It’s supposed to increase transparency and communication with parents who are concerned about this issue,” Paré said. 

Two members of the public spoke in support of the bill, including Tracy Taylor, a physical therapist based in the triangle. 

“The most important thing that I want to explain to you all is that there have been so many studies and so much data that are in support of students not masking at all,” she said. 

Taylor was also a part of a “Free the Smiles” rally that was held outside the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services building on Wednesday.

“Bring your friends + signs to let Mandy Cohen know our kids don’t need to be masked at school,” she wrote on Twitter. 

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that over 4 million children in the U.S. had contracted COVID-19, but the mortality rate among infected children was between 0.00 percent – 0.03 percent. According to data from 23 states, between 0.1 percent – 1.9 percent of all child COVID-19 cases were severe enough to require hospitalization. 

In a press conference earlier this month, NCDHHS Director Mandy Cohen said that it’s important that children under 12, who are ineligible to get the vaccine, continue to wear masks in school.

“The CDC continues to recommend that those who are unvaccinated … wear a mask indoors. That includes the vast majority of our children who are in K-12 schools and that will continue until the guidance changes from the CDC,” she said.

Willis said that the bill is flexible enough to mitigate infection in schools while also loosening restrictions. 

“This still allows the governor to act on a school by school basis if necessary,” he said. “If there were something to come up where a different strain were to come through, or something were to happen, I’m sure we’d be happy to bring that back in front of this body for a larger discussion. But we’re comfortable with where it’s at today.”

The bill now goes back to the Senate.

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.

NC’s governor lifts most statewide pandemic restrictions

Governor Roy Cooper

After months of reminding the public to mask-up and keep their distance, Governor Roy Cooper announced Friday that North Carolina would be lifting its gathering limits, social distancing requirements, and indoor mask mandate in most circumstances.

The news comes one day after the Centers for Disease Control announced Thursday a shift in federal guidelines, allowing fully-vaccinated Americans to shed their masks both indoors and outdoors.

“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic,” Gov. Cooper said.

There will continue to be an indoor mask requirement on public transportation, in childcare settings, schools, camps and in certain public health settings.

Just over 51% of the state is now partially vaccinated  and 45.5% are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Click below to listen to the governor explain why they are making this change now:

The governor acknowledged that there are those who are unvaccinated who may use this as an excuse to stop taking safety precautions.

“Get vaccinated now. And if you won’t listen to me, ask your doctor. Do what your doctor tells you,” the governor urged.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said her department remains committed to its expansion strategy — making the vaccines readily available statewide.

State officials had hoped to lift the restrictions when 66% of North Carolinians had been partially vaccinated.

And while that milestone is still a long ways off, Cohen believes the state can reach its goal with the help of the business community.

HHS Sec, Mandy Cohen

“Some are offering incentives to their own employees to get vaccinated – time off, some are offering bonus pay,” said Dr. Cohen. “We’ve already heard about free donuts, free beer. I really appreciate businesses stepping forward and helping us raise awareness and incentivize folks getting a vaccine.”

Even with today’s shift, NCDHHS is recommending businesses post signage reminding guests to socially distance and wear a face covering if they are not fully vaccinated, and remind employees to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

It’s worth noting that businesses may choose to continue to require that their customers wear masks.

Masks will still be strongly recommended by the state for everyone at large crowded indoor gatherings such as sporting events and live performances.

And for the time being masks will be mandatory in schools.

“Just starting yesterday (Thursday) our 12-15 years are now eligible. They are starting to get vaccinated, but we know it is going to take some time. That still leaves a large population of our student body unvaccinated.”

Cohen said the state will follow the CDC’s guidance while working to get as many shots in arms as possible.

“This is a virus that has been with us for over a year now. It is going to continue to be with us,” she cautioned.

Click here to read Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 215 lifting many of the COVID mandates.

Bill requiring phonics-based approach to teaching reading becomes law

Photo: Adobe Stock

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law a controversial bill requiring a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.

Despite his veto of similar legislation in 2019, Cooper said in a statement that Senate Bill 387 will help students and teachers.

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading,” the governor said. “But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham County) sponsored SB 387. It is supposed to fix deficiencies in the state’s “Read to Achieve” law he championed in 2012 to ensure all students read on grade level by the end of third grade.

But after spending more than $150 million on the initiative, reading scores have not improved.

“I’m skeptical of any approach from Phil Berger after his first Read to Achieve bill resulted in third grade reading being the only EOG [end-of-grade] subject where test scores have actually fallen,” said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with NC Justice Center’s Education Law Project. “We know that depriving schools of resources and just threatening 8 and 9-year-old children with retention is a failed strategy. Yet this bill retains those core, failed strategies.”

Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.

The new law requires teachers to receive training in the “science of reading,” which is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

Teaching reading requires phonics, associating sounds with letters, in addition to  phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension, some experts agree.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said last month that the data show that North Carolina must change its approach to reading instruction.

“Before COVID, our data show that two-thirds of eighth graders in North Carolina do not read proficiently when they start high school,” Truitt said. “We know already that the slide will have occurred post-COVID. We’ve seen it already with our third-grade data.”

Other experts are critical of relying heavily on phonics to teach reading.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Raleigh News & Observer’s Editorial Board.

Cooper also signed House Bill 82 into law. The Summer Learning Choice for NC Families law requires school districts to create summer learning recovery and enrichment programs to address learning loss students experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic has challenged students and teachers like never before,” Cooper said. “Providing a summer opportunity for academic growth plus mental and physical health will help schools begin to address those challenges.”