Robinson: State Board of Education scheduled meeting knowing he couldn’t attend

Vote on controversial changes set for same time as Senate session

North Carolina Lieutenant Gov. Mark Robinson gavels in the opening session of the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

RALEIGH — A vote on controversial changes to North Carolina’s social studies standards by the State Board of Education has been scheduled for the same time that the state Senate is set to convene, creating a conflict for Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who presides over the Senate and is a voting member of the board.

“Our office tried to coordinate with the State Board to find a time that was agreeable, but were stonewalled,” Robinson told NSJ in a Jan. 25 email. “I am extremely disappointed that the board knowingly scheduled a meeting that prevents me from being able to carry out the duties that the people of North Carolina elected me to do.”

Robinson’s presence at the meeting, which will be held as a conference call, is especially important because the board will be voting on new social studies standards for the state’s public schools. Robinson ran in part on ending “indoctrination” in North Carolina schools and specifically promised he would take the fight to the curriculum and standards put together by the state’s Board of Education.

“One of the things I want to examine the most is the curriculum,” Robinson told NSJ in a Nov. 16 interview. “I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter from folks about a lot of the things that the Department of Public Instruction is trying to put inside the curriculum. And some of the stuff is not settling well with me, is not settling well with a lot of parents and, quite honestly, is not settling well with a lot of teachers. So, we want to take a good strong look at the curriculum and make sure that we’re teaching our students what they need to know in order to be successful, and we’re not promoting a bunch of social engineering.”

The changes in the standards include social and racial justice themes, such as gender identity and systemic racism. Critical Race Theory, a perspective that has caused controversy in schools across the country, is found in the eighth-grade standards on U.S. and North Carolina history and in other grade levels. The board’s principal adviser, Matt Bristow-Smith, calls the changes “the hard truths of our American narrative.” 

Board member Jill Camnitz, a Gov. Roy Cooper appointee, led the committee to change the standards. She said that in August 2019 that the board adopted a new strategic plan with “equity” and the “whole child” as its guiding principles, and that those principles were applied to the proposed social studies revisions.

Camnitz said “blame and guilt are not what these new standards are about, but rather we are seeking to draw on the richness of the American historical experience as a gift to our children.”

Robinson opposes some of the social studies standards changes and was vocal about them at the first board meeting since he was sworn in as lieutenant governor, a role that makes him a de facto member of the board. Despite being the state’s first black lieutenant governor, he believes the board is politicizing the standards with “divisive language” rather than showing “our common experiences.” He said there are already lessons on marginalized groups, like Native Americans and Africans brought over as slaves, that don’t take such a critical eye. 

“I want to go on record to say I am not in favor of these standards at all,” Robinson said during the Jan. 6 meeting. “We are Americans and that’s what we should be teaching our children. A lot of this is being done for political purposes, and I simply do not like it,” Robinson said. 

Board member James Ford, who was also appointed by Cooper, is a leading voice for the new standards and their deeper focus on race. Ford runs a nonprofit called the Center for Racial Equity in Education (CREED) which says its mission is to advance “institutional change” for minority students.

“I think we know there is no one universal American experience,” Ford said at the Jan. 6 meeting. Ford went on to say that “although we all share a national identity, our experience varies wildly according to our groups.”

Ford then made the argument that because the majority of the state’s students are minorities, the proposed changes “did justice” to those students and were “more inclusive and diverse.”

“It harkens back to an African proverb that I heard, that until the lion tells its side of the story, tales of the hunt will always be made to glorify the hunter,” said Ford.

But Ford himself is a controversial figure for some, with social media posts on racial issues that many have found divisive and offensive. Last year, former state Superintendent Mark Johnson took issue with one of Ford’s tweets that equated being a swing or moderate voter to “white supremacy.” 

Board member Olivia Oxendine also questioned how districts will design curriculum around the proposed new standards. Pointing to one of the standards for fourth grade, Oxendine said such a task would be “exhaustive.”