RALEIGH — The past year presented more challenges for students and a marked increase in parental activism with regard to their children’s education. Amid that involvement, there was also a noticeable uptick in support for more school choice.
By the time 2021 hit, school choice was already seeing a groundswell of support with parents. Homeschooling was setting new records across the country and charter schools reported large waitlists.
Recognizing the demand for more education options, Republicans in both the General Assembly and in Congress crafted school-choice legislation. Expansion of school choice was timely, with 2021 also marking the 25th anniversary of North Carolina’s charter-school law.
During 2021, parents protesting at school board meetings and holding rallies at the legislature would become common sights. The top complaints included the continued mask mandates for K-12 students and indoctrination in the classroom, in particular, Critical Race Theory (CRT).
The jump in parental activism didn’t happen overnight; it had been building up throughout 2020. As 2021 rolled in, North Carolina K-12 students still weren’t being allowed back into the classroom full-time despite a state-specific study that found “within-school infections were extremely rare.”
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper did little to help the situation, instead of ordering schools reopened as he had ordered them closed the year prior, Cooper left the decision to the districts. At a Feb. 2 COVID-19 briefing, he announced schools were allowed to choose from Plan A, full-time in-person instruction; or Plan B, a hybrid of one week in-person and two weeks remote instruction. Districts overwhelmingly chose to continue with Plan B.
Frustrated parents and students turned to lawmakers for help, resulting in Senate Bill 37, titled, “In-Person Learning Choice for Families.” The bill, which followed CDC and state-level guidance, passed its first reading after testimony from parents was heard just an hour before Cooper’s Feb. 2 briefing.
Cooper, however, continued to block efforts to return all children to in-person instruction by vetoing the bill on Feb. 26. The governor claimed it violated N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ (NCDHHS) guidance and that it “hinders” protecting students.
It would not be until mid-March that Cooper would agree to a revised reopening bill, Senate Bill 220. The bill required K-5 students to return to in-person instruction but left it up to districts whether to offer Plan A or Plan B for grades six-12.
The negative impact of school closures had become obvious to the public, education officials and lawmakers alike heading into the new year. The impact on education was underscored by a December 2020 meeting of the legislative COVID-19 education committee, during which remote instruction was deemed a “disaster.”
Officials from the State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction told lawmakers 19% of students were not regularly attending virtual classes. Attendance data indicated the statewide average daily membership dropped by over 27,000 students. At the end of December 2020, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 public school students couldn’t be accounted for.
In March of 2021, state Superintendent Catherine Truitt presented a report to the Senate Education/Higher Education Committee that nearly 23% of public school students and just over 9% of public charter schools students are at-risk for academic failure for the 2020-21 school year. She told lawmakers the data represented a “lost year of learning.”
Mental health of children had also become a significant issue. Data from the state’s Say Something anonymous reporting app in March showed increases in self-harm, suicidal ideation and depression.
Truitt consistently pushed for students to return to the classroom full-time, both at the legislature and during State Board of Education meetings.
“We need to be very careful we are not suggesting that Plan B is adequate; it is not,” Truitt said at the March 4 Board of Education meeting. She added that for high schoolers, Plan B means “being in class 20% of the time.”
Masking became a hot topic for parents during 2021. Following emergency-use-authorization vaccine approvals for children ages 14 and up, mask mandates continued to persist in schools, further angering parents who, in response, began to mobilize to protest school boards on a level not seen before.
There was also increased push back related to NCDHHS’s K-12 guidance surrounding contact-tracing quarantining policies.
Union County Public Schools attempted to drop the policies, citing lack of authority to conduct them and limited resources. NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen threatened the district with legal action as a result. The district’s challenge exposed problems with the policies, and, at that time, Union County schools complied. In early December, Union County’s school board issued a joint resolution with the county’s commissioners calling on the state to end contact tracing and quarantine procedures for K-12 schools.
While the fight to get kids back into the classroom was going on, North Carolina’s first black lieutenant governor was battling other State Board of Education members over indoctrination in K-12 schools and, in particular, controversial revisions to the state’s Social Studies Standards.
Robinson vocally objected to the social studies revisions, calling them “politically charged” and divisive,” and stating that they “smack of a lot of leftist dogma.”
The revisions ultimately were passed by the State Board of Education, and the changes included social- and racial-justice themes, such as gender identity and “systemic racism.” The revisions also included elements of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which, along with mask mandates, has been a regular subject of school-board-meeting protests nationwide.
During the pandemic and continued remote instruction, parents had a front row seat to what their children were or were not learning. As a result, there was a marked uptick in parent objections to alleged political indoctrination, use of CRT and inappropriate lessons and materials.
Those parental objections would move to the forefront in the months following, in the form of school board protests, but would also spark legislative attempts to deal with CRT and concepts like it.
House Bill 324, titled Ensuring Dignity/Nondiscrimination in Schools, would have prohibited public schools in the state from promoting certain concepts that are contrary to the equality and rights of all persons. Cooper vetoed the bill on Sept. 10.
While legislative attempts to stop CRT may have stalled, parents have seen results of their activism efforts, such as flipping seats on school boards both in North Carolina and nationwide. CRT had become the biggest hot-button education issue of the year, even playing a role in Democratic losses in the Virginia statehouse and gubernatorial race.
In North Carolina, evidence backing up parent complaints, collected through a task force formed by Robinson, further propelled the issue. In mid-March, Robinson announced the Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students (FACTS) task force with the specific mission of combatting lessons and materials that are inappropriate or politically biased.
“There are parents and teachers who are literally afraid to speak up against school boards, against principals, against administrators, and folks — that has got to stop,” Robinson said at the time. “School is supposed to be a safe place for people to go for the purpose of instruction.”
In late August, FACTS produced a 41-page summary report of tips and submissions sent to Robinson’s office. Six main themes were identified: fear of retaliation, the sexualization of kids, Critical Race Theory components, white shaming, biased news media and/or lesson plans, and shaming certain political beliefs.
NSJ found that the state’s largest district, Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS), had hired The Equity Collaborative to teach an “Intro to Critical Race Theory” professional-development course for teachers in the district. The course was quickly removed following NSJ’s inquiries.
The Equity Collaborative is a “diversity, equity and inclusion” training group that often utilizes CRT. The organization is co-founded and run by sitting N.C. House legislator, Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange).
A second article covered CRT talking points given to WCPSS school board by the now-former assistant superintendent of the Office of Equity Affairs, Rodney Trice. Similar CRT talking points and teacher training were also found in Orange County Schools.
North State Journal’s multi-part series in June also focused on WCPSS, in particular training leaked to NSJ by a whistleblower that included sessions on culturally sustaining pedagogy, antiracist education and antibias education.
Complaints about CRT would also surface at the secondary education level in North Carolina, including “diversity and inclusion” training for undergraduates at N.C. State University and UNC Chapel Hill.
Heading into the 2021-22 school year, parents flooded school boards with public-records requests and emails, and showed up in large numbers at school board meetings. Those meetings often became heated, with parents voicing their opposition to continued mask policies and CRT.
In late August, the heads of the National School Board Association (NSBA) sent a letter to President Biden, calling for the administration to act against parents. The letter urged Biden to essentially categorize parents as domestic terrorists through measures like the Patriot Act.
Following the NSBA’s letter, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memorandum directing the FBI to intervene in local school board affairs nationwide. Neither Garland’s memorandum nor the related Department of Justice press statement gave any details of the alleged threats.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland wrote in the memorandum. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
The memorandum immediately drew fire from both state and federal elected officials in North Carolina.
Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop (NC-09) said the memorandum was “of grave concern, and people should and will be outraged.” In a written statement to NSJ, Truitt called Garland’s memo “disturbing” and an “overreach.” Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) called the attack on parents “astonishing and frightening.”
Garland would be called to testify in front of Congress about the memorandum, including hearings held by the House Judiciary Committee. During those hearings, Garland admitted the NSBA letter was the basis for his memorandum. Ranking member of the committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), would later issue a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray in the wake of documents showing the apparent use of “threat tags” being used to potentially target and categorize parents as threats.
On Oct. 22, the NSBA issued an apology to its members for the letter; however, Garland has not yet retracted his directives to the FBI.
The fallout from NSBA’s letter has been steep, with dozens of state school board associations distancing themselves from the organization and over a dozen states terminating their membership, including North Carolina.
Another major N.C. education story in 2021 was the ongoing Leandro court case, a case ostensibly about ensuring each child in the state has good education.
On June 7, Judge David Lee signed an order for the WestEd-produced Leandro comprehensive remedial plan to move forward. WestEd had submitted the 300-page comprehensive remedial plan and appendix of implementation costs in March. The plan contains $8.29 billion in new state-level education spending recommendations.
In mid-November, Lee ordered three state agencies to go around the legislature by transferring $1.7 billion in funds from the state’s coffers to fulfill the remedial plan produced by WestEd.
A joint statement by Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain) said Lee “does not have the legal or constitutional authority to order a withdrawal from the state’s General Fund.”
Berger and Moore pointed to Article V, Section 7 of the state Constitution, which says, “No money shall be drawn from the State treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law.”
The N.C. Court of Appeals panel blocked Lee’s $1.7 billion transfer order, with the majority of the panel finding that the trial court had “erred for multiple reasons.” Both plaintiffs and lawmakers have filed various motions following the Court of Appeals ruling and the case remains pending.