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Charlotte teacher says public records raise questions about NC vision for teachers

A Charlotte teacher's public records request shows North Carolina education and business leaders gearing up to promote dramatic changes in teacher licensure and pay.
A Charlotte teacher's public records request shows North Carolina education and business leaders gearing up to promote dramatic changes in teacher licensure and pay.

Tension is building over a plan to dramatically restructure the way North Carolina’s teachers are licensed and paid. Proponents are mobilizing big names and a PR campaign to promote the need for change. Meanwhile, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school teacher says public records show those leaders are shutting down concerns from educators.

A draft proposal presented this spring would base teacher pay on ratings of their effectiveness, rather than experience and credentials. Planners say they’re still listening to feedback and revising the approach.

CMS teacher Justin Parmenter, a board member for the North Carolina Association of Educators, has posted public documents on his blog that detail efforts to create a public relations strategy and line up high-profile supporters. That includes a memo from the Raleigh-based Eckel & Vaughn public relations firm touting “a more proactive media strategy that will help us gain greater control of the narrative” and notes on a discussion about heading off an independent survey.

“I don’t think that’s how an honest and transparent policy process should look,” Parmenter said recently.

Mixed reviews from teachers

A draft of the “Pathways to Excellence” plan calls for creating an apprentice teacher position for people with an associate’s degree, with a path for them to advance while working with experienced teachers. And it introduced a new proposed pay scale, with advancement based on performance and willingness to take on extra duties coaching newer teachers.

Julie Pittman, a former English teacher from Rutherford County, works as an adviser to state Superintendent Catherine Truitt. Part of her job has been talking to teachers around the state about the proposal.

“I’m seeing a lot of mixed emotions and likes and dislikes,” she said.

The North Carolina Association of Educators has come out against the draft plan. Pittman says she’s hearing concerns about how teachers would be rated and whether the General Assembly would agree to fund higher pay scales.

But she says she’s also hearing enthusiasm about aspects of the proposal. For instance, teachers with top ratings who coach other educators would start at $74,000 a year, compared with a current pay scale that tops out at just over $64,000.

“So I think this opportunity to have different types of leadership roles and to really help effect and support beginning teachers is appealing to teachers,” Pittman said. “I think the opportunity for greater pay is appealing to teachers.”

Looking behind the scenes

Parmenter is one of the critics. While he agrees it’s important to identify and reward the best educators, he’s skeptical of plans to do it using state test scores or subjective ratings from colleagues, principals and students.

In 2020 the N.C. Open Government Coalition honored teacher Justin Parmenter (center) for his public records requests.

“There are so many intangibles,” he said. “There are so many things that make teachers good at what they do that are hard to put on a spreadsheet.”

Parmenter has been following the public discussions and filing public record requests for information about discussions that were not open.

“I wanted to see what is really going on behind the scenes that people don’t know about,” he said.

Complex history behind the push

To understand the reports he got, it helps to understand the complex cast of organizations that have been working behind the scenes.

At the end of 2018, an Atlanta-based group called the Southern Regional Education Board helped North Carolina convene a Human Capital Roundtable to look for ways to recruit better-prepared and more diverse teacher candidates, assess and develop their effectiveness and keep them in the field.

SREB, which is funded by states and grants, does research and advocacy on education policy in 16 states. North Carolina’s Human Capital Roundtable includes representatives of K-12 and higher education, various state education officials, and the chief executive officer of Best NC, a coalition of business executives concerned with education policy.

Ideas from the roundtable group were eventually handed off to the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission, known as PEPSC. PEPSC was created by the General Assembly in 2017 to advise the State Board of Education on matters related to teacher preparation and licensure. That’s the group that presented a draft proposal to the state board in April.

What the documents show

Parmenter’s public record requests turned up a memo from August 2021 about the efforts of SREB, the Human Capital Roundtable and Eckel & Vaughn to create a coalition called UpliftEd to “build widespread awareness and support for” the new licensure strategy. It says former governors Jim Martin and Jim Hunt have agreed to be honorary co-chairs. Proposed co-chairs are state Superintendent Truitt, Edgecombe County Superintendent Valerie Bridges and John Belk, who chairs the Charlotte-based Belk Foundation.

Proposed logos for UpliftEd were provided in response to Justin Parmenter's requests.
Proposed logos for UpliftEd were provided in response to Justin Parmenter's requests.

Parmenter also inquired about who is paying Eckel & Vaughn, but was told only that it’s not the Department of Public Instruction.

This week a representative of the SREB told WFAE that SREB hired the firm, using money from a Belk Foundation grant.

Parmenter also got an April 13 memo from Eckel & Vaughn, sent shortly after the draft proposal went to the state Board of Education. It details a “proactive media strategy” described as “imperative to ensuring that the proposal gains enough support to become legislation.” That includes pitching interviews with former state Teacher of the Year Maureen Stover to media outlets across the state and having Belk write an opinion piece for The Charlotte Observer. Stover is described as someone who can gain “the trust of educators around the state who are still skeptical about how they fit into the new plan,” while Belk is described as someone who “will speak to the larger business community.”

There are also notes from a March 30 call that included Truitt; state Board of Education member Jill Camnitz and Greene County Schools Superintendent Patrick Miller, who chairs the PEPSC commission. The notes describe efforts to stop the editor of EdNC, an electronic news site, from doing a survey about the proposal.

The notes say EdNC editor Mebane Rash had offered to conduct a survey about the licensure proposal and indicated she would do so even if members of the Human Capital Roundtable disagreed. According to the notes, Miller described Rash as “out of her lane” and her plan to move forward as “a threat.” Truitt said she’d follow up to “dissuade (Rash) from proceeding” and talked about “noise from members of NCAE pushing back on the incomplete model,” the notes say.

Rash could not be reached for comment; an automated email response says the entire EdNC staff is taking July as “a collective sabbatical.” She has written about how EdNC takes a different approach from traditional journalism, focusing on “servant leadership” and advocating for expanded educational opportunities and higher-performing public schools.” EdNC staff sometimes work with education officials, but the site states that it “will never allow anyone — our board, our funders, or the people and organizations we cover — to control the content we publish.”

In his blog, Parmenter described the efforts to control the message as “slimy marketing (and) disingenuous spin.”

“It’s all about trying to ensure that the widespread discontent North Carolina’s teachers feel over this poorly conceived merit pay plan is kept under wraps until the proposal becomes official policy,” he wrote.

The next day, Parmenter says he received notice from the Department of Public Instruction telling him that to continue getting public records he would be billed for “several thousands of dollars.”

DPI Communications Director Blair Rhodes says Parmenter’s ongoing record requests are extensive and time-consuming for staff, and the state is exercising its legal right to bill for the time required to produce the records.

What’s the message?

Van Dempsey, dean of the Watson School of Education at UNC Wilmington, is a member of PEPSC who takes over as chair this fall. He says North Carolina currently has a patchwork of policies and programs for preparing, licensing and compensating teachers.

Van Dempsey
Van Dempsey

“What it all lacked,” he said, “was a design, an architecture for what the profession is in North Carolina.”

But that design remains a work in progress, Dempsey says. State officials say it could be more than a year before PEPSC has a final plan, which would then face debate and votes by the state Board of Education and the General Assembly.

Dempsey says staff from Eckel & Vaughn have spoken with him and “I did not get a sense that they secretly have a plan that’s going to be announced one day and we’ve all been duped and they’re getting ready to go out and market this plan for changing the profession.”

Dempsey says in higher education, it’s not uncommon to start blocking out a marketing plan for an unfinished product. He says the marketing folks told him they’re starting to “storyboard” the marketing process.

“But they’re not storyboarding the proposal because they don’t know what it is yet,” Dempsey said. “No one knows what it is yet.”

Parmenter’s blog posts have sparked queries from a number of media outlets. In response, the Belk Foundation issued a statement Tuesday. It says the state needs to clear the way for more educators of color to enter the teaching profession, create advancement opportunities for all teachers, simplify the licensure process and pay teachers for extra work.

“The Human Capital Roundtable is an example of how thought leaders can come together to propose new concepts that are then being vetted through the state’s open democratic process,” the Belk statement says. “North Carolina has an opportunity to design a system that invites diverse and capable educators into the profession, provides the support they deserve, and then offers options for them to grow in their career.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.