Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mecklenburg commissioner defends CMS

It seems much of Charlotte is suffering from whiplash this week, courtesy of the CMS budget. All the months of talk of layoffs and budget cuts turned on Tuesday into a final 2011-12 spending plan that includes enough money to add nearly 500 new school-based positions.

Mecklenburg commissioner Jim Pendergraph, who voted against giving CMS the additional $26 million it eventually got from the county, said in today's paper that the county was "snookered." This morning, his fellow commissioner, Democrat Dumont Clarke, e-mailed me to take issue with that assessment.

"I, for one, don't feel snookered at all, and I don't think I'm alone in that belief," he wrote. "I recognize how difficult it was for CMS to predict what a new (Republican) majority in the State House and Senate bent on making significant cuts to the State budget would do."

He suggested an alternative headline: "Republican County Commissioners Seize Opportunity to Take a 'Cheap Shot' at CMS"

And in other news from the week, the budget news and other developments from Tuesday's meeting overshadowed the fact that Kaye McGarry took one more swing at trying to stop House Bill 546, the performance-pay legislation that has riled teachers this year. Motions to ask the legislature to drop the bill have already been voted down several times, other board members noted. Several were visibly annoyed by McGarry's move to put it on the agenda again. They voted to remove it from the meeting agenda. The vote was 6-3, with McGarry, Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell in the minority.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Gates Foundation launching new CMS PR blitz

To those of you concerned about big-money foundations and their influence on local schools, hold onto your hats: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today is announcing a new public relations campaign on behalf of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Given all the uproar over expanded testing, performance-pay and other initiatives critics see as being driven by foundations like Gates and Broad, this one is sure to attract a lot of attention. You can read some of what we've written about the influence of foundations on school reform here.

The news release that landed in my in-box says the effort's called "Educating Change," and aims to teach the general public about the broad palette of reforms CMS has launched within Strategic Plan 2014, the school system's overall school reform blueprint. There will be TV, radio and internet ads, printed and digital materials, and a web site at You can get a sense of what the TV stuff will look like here:

It's all funded by a grant from the Gates Foundation, and will be overseen by the Charlotte Chamber and a local committee of parents, business owners, clergy and civic leaders, the news release says. A local PR firm, Carolina PR, is on the case, and the campaign is to be completed this fall. The timing raises some obvious questions: Will the campaign impact the school board elections and the hunt for a new superintendent? Is it aimed at countering the groundswell of opposition that cropped up this spring in reaction against the reform-related expansion of testing?

I'll be seeking answers to those and other questions during a conference call with the organizers this afternoon. I'll update you with what I find out.

UPDATE: The Chamber folks say the PR campaign costs $200,000, but no money will go toward the school board election campaigns. They say it's not specifically aimed at countering the groundswell against expanded testing, but rather is aimed at getting people educated about school reform generally in Charlotte. Natalie English, an official with the chamber, said she wrote the grant for it after Gates folks called her asking how the chamber's managed to be so successful at helping get bond campaigns passed. She said the PR campaign will teach people the various components of Strategic Plan 2014.

School board chair Eric Davis told me the school system's PR staff has been decimated by cuts, and CMS needs the kind of help Gates is offering: "This is nothing more than trying to get factual information out to the community about our efforts to try to improve student learning."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More join crowded school board race

After a tumultous year filled with budget cuts, school closings, teacher layoffs and the superintendent's resignation, you might think one of the hardest political jobs in Charlotte right now would be serving as a school board member.

If that's the case, it's certainly not scaring people away from the race for three at-large seats up for grabs on this November's ballot. Today, Ericka Ellis-Stewart, a Harding University High parent leader and a leader in the MeckFUTURE parents' group, is filing to run. That makes her the second MeckFUTURE member to file, joining group co-founder Elyse Dashew. Ellis-Stewart said in a press release that she plans to bring "thoughtful and practical leadership" to the board, with an emphasis on greater openness in decision-making, effective use of resources, and rigorous coursework.

Lloyd Scher, the outspoken former Mecklenburg commissioner, told me yesterday that he's about to jump into the race, too. He said he plans to file on Friday morning at about 10:30 a.m., which would put him at the board of elections right before incumbent Kaye McGarry plans to appear and announce her plans.

Scher, who served on the commission from 1992 to 2000, didn't have kind words for former Superintendent Peter Gorman. He said Gorman misled the public and the school board this year when he said schools were struggling with a $100 million budget gap. CMS officials have said that gap only disappeared after the state and the county came in with better-than-expected budget support for local schools, but Scher doesn't buy it. Gorman, he said, was too far out in front of the school board on the budget and on pay-for-performance plans for teachers.

Darrin Rankin, a Huntersville insurance agent who ran at-large for city council in 2009, told me he's also announcing at 11 a.m. Friday. Rankin, who ran for city council as a Democratic candidate, said at the time that he hadn't tried for office previously and was running as a concerned citizen and businessman.

Ellis-Stewart brings the number of officially filed candidates to nine. With McGarry, Scher, Rankin and former teacher's union leader Mary McCray voicing plans to join them, it appears there will be at least 13 candidates vying for three seats.

A crowded field, indeed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

CMS testing violations update

This weekend I reported on the Atlanta testing scandal and how some folks fear the advent of hundreds of new high-stakes tests in CMS might leave local schools vulnerable to similar improprieties. CMS testing chief Chris Cobitz told me then that the school system investigated 11 alleged violations of its testing code of ethics this spring, and substantiated six cases. When I asked for the names of the schools involved, he cited employee confidentiality rules and said he didn't want to give out too many specifics for fear of identifying particular staff members.

But it turns out at least one case (and the name of the school) has already been in the paper. An irate father from James Martin Middle school called me back during end-of-grade testing season to tell me his son had passed his EOG, only to be told he'd have to take it over because the school didn't have enough proctors present. Hundreds of other children had to retake as well. Now, WBTV is reporting that a second of the 11 cases involves Vance High. CMS spokeswoman Kasia Thompson says it stemmed from a problem with the administration of Vance's 10th grade writing test. All Vance 10th graders had to re-take the test. She said Vance and James Martin accounted for the vast majority of the 1,000 or so CMS kids who had to re-take tests this spring because of irregularities.

The Observer and other news outlets have asked for more details on the other alleged testing improprieties from this spring. Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh has made clear the rollout of the new summative tests will continue, with an aim toward providing a better gauge of teacher effectiveness. With teacher pay at issue as well, the stakes couldn't be higher. Needless to say, it's a subject we'll be keeping a close eye on.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Broad and the media

The influence of the Broad Foundation on public education is a hot topic in Charlotte,  and may draw even more debate as the superintendent search gears up.  So it seems like a good time to visit a question that bubbled up  in the spring:  Does the foundation that's striving to reshape urban education also influence the way reporters cover education?

A "Broad virus" blog that's gone viral in education circles suggests that one sign of "infection" is local newspapers and public radio stations short-changing controversy about Broad-endorsed reforms.  When I was on vacation in May,  "Joe Teacher" emailed to say he'd heard an announcement that Charlotte's WFAE  is sponsored by the Broad Superintendents Academy,  which trains candidates to lead urban districts.  "Is there any way to tell if Mr. Broad is donating to other local radio?"  he asked.

I heard the announcement shortly afterward,  and the academy actually sponsors NPR,  not the local station. WFAE News Director Greg Collard confirmed that,  but said the NPR sponsorship announcement once landed right after a story about teacher performance pay by WFAE reporter Lisa Miller.  "Bad timing," Collard said.

That got me thinking about a comment Broad's Erica Lepping had made during a Charlotte visit,  mentioning earlier grants to the Education Writers Association and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.  I asked her for more information and she said yes,  in past years the foundation has given  "small grants" to both EWA (which I'm a member of) and Hechinger ("we used to fund a few Hechinger workshops for journalists, at least one of which I believe you attended").

Says Lepping:   Each of these organizations sends us proposals every year, as do many other media outlets (e.g. radio stations) that we have not funded to date.  Our foundation rarely funds these types of efforts –  we typically stick to investing directly in efforts to dramatically improve public schools.  During the recession when our endowment decreased,  we stopped doing any media grants, in order to focus all dollars directly to school districts and ed orgs.

As you may know,  Hechinger,  Ed Week and EWA are now all much more reliant on philanthropic funding than they were in the past,  given changes in business plan models and newsrooms under the recession,  so I expect they will continue to seek funding from all the foundations going forward.

However,  in any case where we have funded media orgs,  we have never required particular content/messages to be adopted as a result.  So,  for example,  when we funded an Ed Week series 8 years ago on Leadership,  decisions regarding what leaders to write about,  sources,  story angles et al were entirely up to Ed Week (same with the old Hechinger workshops).  In other words,  we do not get involved in editorial decisions.  When we have made a grant for ed journalism,  we trusted that those particular grantee orgs and their leaders would (given their strong reputations and track records) deliver high quality journalism that helps readers critically think,  provides facts and multiple perspectives and make up their own minds.

Interesting!  I can attest that when I've gone to education-reporting workshops,  there are panels of speakers representing various views,  with an audience of journalists who are quick to pick apart spin and question the diversity on panels.  I've never been sent home with a "write about this" mandate,  though organizers sometimes ask us to report back on what we learned and send links to articles where we've used the info.

It's smart to keep an eye on how the financial picture affects reporting.  It's no secret that money is tight these days,  and if reporters go to conferences,  it's often because someone else is footing the bill.  Journalists' organizations also feel the pinch.  And, yes, newspapers are certainly looking for ways to raise revenue in an extraordinarily challenging business environment (see Editor Rick Thames' column on one such avenue).

My take:  The best defense against anyone "selling out" is the vigilance and openness of those who care about journalistic integrity.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Testing wars: The national scene

The battle over testing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a microcosm of what education reporter John Merrow dubs "the education wars" being fought among the nation's top educators, policy-makers and journalists.

Here at home, interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh has just invited more teachers to weigh in on the controversial testing program CMS launched during the past school year. And last weekend the Observer ran New York Times columnist David Brooks' piece on why he thinks Diane Ravitch is wrong about testing.

Now Merrow, whose readers recently chose Ravitch as the most influential educator in America, fires back at Brooks and others. His blog post offers a summary of the issues and players, contending that "at stake in this struggle is nothing less than the direction of public education," and that today's public schools are the equivalent of yesterday's pony express.

It's probably worth noting, as journalists such as Merrow, Brooks and NBC's Brian Williams join the fray, that Eric Frazier and I are not opinion writers, even in the blog. Some posters have asked us to take a stand or voice more outrage. That's not what we do; we'll stick to providing readers the chance to explore various views and air their own.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Election filing season opens

Filing for three at-large seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board opened at noon today. As of 1:30 p.m., five candidates had put their paperwork in: Elyse Dashew, Keith Hurley, DeShauna McLamb, District 6 school board member Tim Morgan and Hans Plotseneder.

They were joined by Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte and most of the Cornelius commissioners in being some of the first folks to file. (That's them in the picture above, bracketing Dashew, who's second from left). In addition to the school board seats, offices in Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews and Mint Hill are also open for filing now through July 15. There was no sign in the initial hour of at-large school board member Kaye McGarry, who holds one of the school board seats on the ballot in the November elections. She has said she's still weighing her options.

The board race shapes up as a crucial one, with a new superintendent to choose and with the departure of two members of the five-vote majority that usually holds sway on crucial policy questions. The three new members could completely change the direction of the school system. Many of the challengers said that's exactly why they're running.

"The cards are going to be dealt a different way" after the election, McLamb said.