Category Archives: education

The UNC system needs to prove it still is the university of the people

Pam Kelley’s profile Sunday of John Fennebresque, the chairman of the system’s Board of Governors, gave me some insight into the system’s new leadership. Pam, also a longtime resident of North Carolina and the spouse of a professor, was the best person anywhere to write the profile. I’m glad she and The Charlotte Observer made the time to give N.C. residents a look at the system’s future.

In the profile, Fennebresque talks about replying to dozens of emails after the board’s decision to replace UNC system President Tom Ross. He also talks about receiving hate mail.

I wrote Fennebresque, and also every other member of the Board of Governors, in February about the closing of three centers at universities around the state. I received one perfunctory reply, not from Fennebresque.

If the UNC system plans to remain a university of the people, the board is going to need to work harder at proving it is not motivated by politics and that it can respond to the concerns of all the people of North Carolina. The current board members might not care one whit about my commitment to stay in North Carolina, nor my family’s future in this state. But to write off and ignore a large group of people like me will damage the university. The system needs to prove it still is the university of the people.

I encourage others who wrote Fennebresque and other board members to share their letters publicly and to say whether they received a response. Here’s my letter from February:

As a resident of North Carolina for almost 30 years, I’m registering my dismay at recommendations to close the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. I’d also like to register my dismay at plans to shut down the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University and calls for limiting the mission of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

Poverty center
In addition to being a longtime resident of North Carolina because I believed in its commitment to education, I’m also a veteran journalist who has watched the dwindling of information about North Carolina as a whole. Traditional for-profit news organizations in the state depend on declining advertising revenue. They now have limited resources and are structurally unable to cover stories that do not appeal to populations without money to spend. That flaw in the marketplace leaves a hole in the state’s information ecosystem that is partially filled by the poverty center. The center’s mission and funding should increase, not decrease, at a time when poverty and lack of opportunity remain stubborn problems that the state needs to address.
Criticisms of the center include ad hominem attacks on Gene Nichol, claiming he and the center are partisan. Please look directly at his actions and words, and the products of the poverty center at its website, rather than at the partisan attacks calling him partisan. If, at times, his words have felt too directly aimed at current legislative leadership, Perhaps that issue is separate from a wholesale dismantling of a valuable center that serves a useful educational and civic information function.
In addition, the center has been criticized for hosting a conference on poverty in which some groups apparently felt excluded. Please look yourselves at the invitation list for that conference here – http://bit.ly/1EnEEBi – and weigh whether this list was inappropriate for its purpose. The list included the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center as well as mostly academic representatives. It appears partly that the partisan attacks on the center are designed to shut out a nonprofit center whose mission includes economic justice from future discussions with academics. I’d like you to consider the impact on free speech and philanthropy for the state if the board acquiesces to such attacks.

N.C. Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement
Again, as commercial sources for information about civic engagement dwindle, a center whose mission seems to be encouraging people to vote and be involved in civic life of our state is crucial. Its role and funding should be increased, not decreased.

UNC Center for Civil Rights
Criticism of this center focuses on its advocacy role in certain lawsuits. It’s particularly hypocritical that the criticism comes from a private lawyer on your board as well as from a University of Tennessee law professor and prolific blogger (Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit). Reynolds, in particular, works at a law school in a competing state which has long offered its own legal clinics that give law students practical experience. His desire to limit the UNC Law School’s ability to do the same, via his claim that UNC was “whoring out,” (link: http://bit.ly/1Ao8rrZ ) is not only offensive but also deeply hypocritical – and transparent.
By law, the center represents people who could not afford lawyers of their own. The state of North Carolina has recently been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits that do not represent my will as a state taxpayer – against equal marriage, against voting access and even soon perhaps against municipal broadband. To begrudge poor people, often people of color, access to legal representation is criminal. It creates a society in which justice only goes to those who can afford it. I’m not a fan of state money being spent on lawyers instead of solutions to problems, but sometimes the only access to fair treatment is through the courts. The center for civil rights helps level the playing field.

Association with UNC
These centers get outside funding for much of their work, but their associations with the UNC system enable them to involve students in their activities, providing strong educational value. A direct look at the Center on Poverty’s website – through your own eyes, not filtered by partisan pundits – can show you how the center serves the state by contributing to the education of new leaders as well as plugging holes in civic information gaps. The Center for Civil Right’s role in training young lawyers through practical experience, while serving poor people who cannot afford private lawyers, is a double benefit to North Carolina. Clearly, at least one representative of a law school in a competing state (Glenn Reynolds) would be happy for UNC to dismantle practical learning opportunities for young lawyers. N.C. Central’s advocacy of voting is crucial to the future of our democracy, and an educational institution is an appropriate place to teach civic responsibility.

The least of these
As you weigh your decisions, please think of Bill Friday and Dean Smith. In particular, please remember Kristen Smith’s speech about her father where she said he was inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, and the admonition to serve “the least of these.” Know that many longtime taxpayers like me are glad to fund such centers – even in small amounts by simply providing access to university facilities for meetings and providing students access to special projects. I am proud to have these centers associated with UNC campuses, and my pride in North Carolina’s commitment to education has kept me as a longtime resident and taxpayer. That pride extends throughout my family.

Thank you for your time.

Andria Krewson

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Todd Chasteen is the wrong nominee for the N.C. Board of Education

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende, from a video she made specifically for the fight in Watauga County to preserve access to her book.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s latest nominee for the N.C. Board of Education, J. Todd Chasteen of Samaritan’s Purse, fought to ban a book from honors English classes at Watauga High School in 2014.

Nominees for the board go through the N.C. General Assembly, and given its track record, it’s likely Chasteen’s nomination could go through. But it’s another example of the many troubling moves that hand leadership in North Carolina to extremists that don’t represent the values of many of the people in the state. The General Assembly should think twice before letting this nomination sail through.

Chasteen’s background is in nonprofit logistics and law, and his wife, Kim, runs a private, Christian K-8 school, Grace Academy. There’s some evidence that Todd Chasteen’s effort to ban Isabel Allende’s “The House of the Spirits” was part of a larger effort to fight the book encouraged by Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse.

Allende wrote a letter to the local school board defending the book and made a strong video explaining its context and the dangers of censorship (screenshot above). The local board eventually voted 3-2 to deny the challenge. But before the resolution, the controversy hit Fox News and Media Matters and drew in the ACLU.

None of this likely matters enough to keep the N.C. General Assembly from approving Chasteen’s nomination to the N.C. Board of Education, which approves textbooks, approves or denies charter school applications, and administers the “free public school system” as spelled out in North Carolina’s Constitution.  The General Assembly sat on nominations for the board from former Gov. Bev Perdue for two years, giving McCrory more appointments instead. This latest nomination for a voice representing Samaritan’s Purse probably feels like just another routine step to increase far-right, extremist voices on a board often overlooked by most people in the state.

But here are other factors that should concern N.C. residents about Chasteen’s nomination and McCrory’s history with the state school board:

  • McCrory’s nominations fail to reflect the background of many of the consumers of public schools in North Carolina. He’s made seven nominations: four white men, two white women, one Native American woman. Chasteen’s nomination is the fifth white male.
  • McCrory’s nominations shortchange one of the two largest systems in the state, Charlotte-Mecklenburg. One member out of 13 voting members*, Eric Davis, is from Charlotte and is a recent at-large appointee. Chasteen’s nomination is for the northwest district, recently represented by Greg Alcorn, a native of Rowan County. Alcorn has somehow been moved to the southwest district representing Charlotte, through some kind of redrawing of districts effective April 1, 2015.
  • Of McCrory’s recent nominations, some don’t have strong public education backgrounds, just like Chasteen, who again comes from a private, religious, nonprofit logistics and law background. Alcorn has a marketing/logistics/business background, skills valuable on the board in balance. But those kinds of backgrounds are squeezing out members who can represent the consumers of our state’s free public classrooms.

McCrory and the General Assembly should take another crack at representing the biggest consumers of the state’s schools. The Charlotte area has educators and voices who could be a better balance on the board. Here are three names I found just digging around through media reports and social media. I don’t know them personally, and I have no idea they’d be interested, but their backgrounds are stronger than Chasteen’s for representing public school consumers. If I can find three easily, surely McCrory and the General Assembly can do a better job finding a voice that would provide better balance to the N.C. Board of Education.

  • Beatrice Thompson, a TV and radio personality in the Charlotte area. She has covered education as a reporter and is in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Women’s Hall of Fame.
  • Cheryl Turner, director of Sugar Creek Charter School and a member of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board until June 2015. She said in 2014 that she planned to step down from that role, but she’s still listed on the board’s website. Her school got written up by the Carolina Journal in 2010 as an example of a strong charter school.
  • James E. Ford, now serving in an advisory capacity to the Board of Education because of his selection as North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year in 2014.

Chasteen, McCrory’s latest nominee, may be a shoe-in, and the redrawing of board of education district lines effective April 1 may be a signal that his appointment has been in the works for awhile. His involvement in trying to keep a book away from other students should be enough to disqualify him from the N.C. Board of Education. Taken in the context of McCrory’s nominees over time, it’s clear that his nomination is just another step stifling the voices of many consumers of public schools.

* I don’t know if Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson is a voting member; I didn’t include her in the 13 voting members.

Further reading:
The Progressive Pulse has a series of profiles of state school board members.