Whether in teaching American history or in shaping its own campus culture, the Moore County Board of Education is narrowing constraints on how teachers and schools handle issues of race.
The national political furor over critical race theory seeped into much of the Moore County Board of Education’s more than 12 hours of meetings on Monday — even when it came to items as routine as reviewing an overview of the district’s mental health programs and renewing a contract for online surveys.
Most board members maintain that Moore County Schools teachers are neither embracing nor structuring lessons based on the controversial legal and academic movement. But the board’s newest members use the term “critical race theory” as a catch-all for things like diversity training and equity and inclusion programs, which have come into vogue as schools work to close academic achievement gaps between white and minority students.
This spring, the board narrowly voted down a policy banning the use of critical race theory as a basis for school curriculum. That vote reflected disagreements among board members’ definitions of CRT, and some who didn’t think board policy should deal with specific academic theories.
But on Monday the board approved a new “equality and nondiscrimination” policy — in much the same vein — by a 6-1 vote. Board member Pam Thompson opposed it.
“I feel that we have policies in place that address discrimination, and we have staff who — if we allow them to be in their expert role and stop micromanaging — I believe will follow the policies,” said Thompson, the board’s only Black member. “So I do not agree with this one particular policy.”
Board member Robert Levy proposed the policy, which does not explicitly mention critical race theory, with the backing of the other two members of the board’s policy committee: Libby Carter and Ed Dennison.
The vote approving the policy came after a three-hour public comment session. For about half of that time more than 20 speakers addressed CRT and fears that the Panorama survey platform, which the board also discussed at length on Monday, might be a vehicle that exposes students to it.
The policy echoes a piece of pending legislation that’s now sidelined in the state Senate. It was written to bar public schools from promoting racist concepts that CRT critics associate with it, including that:
*Any one race is superior to any other;
*An individual’s race or sex alone signifies that they are inherently racist, oppressive, or otherwise immoral;
*An individual’s race or sex identifies them as culpable for past injustices; or
*It is inherently racist to believe that the United States is a meritocracy.
“I think that what we have heard here tonight is we have a public which is concerned about something called ‘critical race theory,’” said Levy. “We debate a lot of what critical race theory is, and oftentimes we don’t get a definition of it. This defines, I believe, what the public is concerned about and it is important that it get into our policy.”
Fears of ‘Implicit’ Teaching
This debate, which is raging in school districts across the country, has coincided with North Carolina’s introduction this summer of new standards for teaching social studies in kindergarten through 12th grade. The standards are timed to go into effect for the upcoming academic year.
The standards deal more directly with issues of race and marginalization throughout American history. Supporting documents from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction offer a wider range of minority and female historical figures as possible topics for teachers to cover in their lessons.
About two dozen Moore County Schools teachers spent two weeks in June translating the standards, first approved by the state Board of Education in February, into more detailed outlines to help their colleagues in lesson planning. They also consulted the state’s supporting documents, which were then in draft form but have since been approved.
State board approvals for the standards and associated documents have largely been along partisan lines, with the support of the board’s Democrats and opposition from the Republican minority.
Last month, the Moore County Board of Education passed a resolution asking both the state school board and the N.C. General Assembly to authorize a one-year delay in the standards’ implementation. Board members have said that they need more time to vet the standards and gather public input, as well as address fears that CRT might be “implicit” in the standards.
“What’s going to happen here is we’re going to be teaching it before the public knows about it, and that concerns me. It concerns me a lot because the public that I’m talking about wants input into this,” Levy said.
“Quite frankly I think it’s being rushed and I think it’s being rushed on purpose by the State Board of Education, because they know that once they can get it implemented it’ll be very, very tough to undo.”
And so Moore County’s board took matters into their own hands, voting 4-3 vote to effectively delay the new standards. That vote came at 11:30 p.m., 15 hours after the board’s work session convened that morning.
While most of the board expressed some resentment at the tight deadline to develop and implement the new curriculum, board Chair Libby Carter said it’s fairly typical.
“Every time there is a course change: whether it’s math, science, whatever, it is done just as quickly and it falls to our teachers, our curriculum planners, our curriculum instruction folks to make the change happen on a very, very fast turnaround year after year after year and from that standpoint, that shouldn’t happen to us over and over,” she said.
‘Where’s the Foul?’
But Levy and board member David Hensley presented the situation as an opportunity to “push back” against the state. They, along with Ed Dennison and Philip Holmes, voted to continue using last year’s social studies standards until further notice.
“There’s no End-of-Grade testing for social studies standards,” said Hensley. “So if we teach the existing curriculum, where’s the harm, where’s the foul?”
The board will still allow high schools to reorganize their series of social studies courses in keeping with new state graduation requirements requiring a personal finance course for the incoming ninth-grade class.
There’s still some chance that the state school board could move to postpone the standards. State superintendent Catherine Truitt is scheduled to appear before the State Board of Education next month that could lead to further revisions.
In opposing the motion, Carter echoed arguments made in May against the earlier version of the CRT policy and expressed confidence in teachers to impart the new standards in accordance with the community’s prevailing political conventions.
“I have ultimate faith in our teachers and our curriculum planners,” she said. “If they have taken these new standards and created a curriculum that follows the guidelines that we have put to them, especially ones passed tonight, then they will be teaching the curriculum that we want them to teach in the fall, regardless of what comes out of Raleigh.”
Survey Platform Debated
CRT permeated many of the matters before the board Monday, including how the school surveys students on sensitive health and wellness issues.
A slim board majority went ahead in renewing Moore County Schools’ contract with Panorama Education, the company it uses to host surveys gauging students’ emotional well-being and perception of their school environments.
That vote went ahead even though the board’s three new members found reasons to suspect CRT and “ideology creep” in the company’s webinars and professional development offerings.
The board initially reviewed that contract extension last month. At the time it agreed to hold off until staff could propose comparable offerings from other companies.
On Monday administrators proposed two viable alternatives: SoGo Surveys and Qualtrics at an annual cost of $29,654 and $43,900 yearly. Both are primarily focused on the business sector rather than education.
The schools have used the Panorama online platform to host student and teacher surveys for several years. Those surveys deal with social-emotional learning and school climate and culture. Moore County Schools pulled back its Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which asked students about things like sexual behavior and drug use based on questions suggested by the Centers for Disease Control, this past year.
But Levy and Hensley have objected to the company itself, based on a former employee’s previous economic development work in Cuba as well as online webinars dealing with things like “equity, care, and connection” and “dismantling white supremacy,” and its use in the school systems in New York City and San Francisco.
“She brags about going to Cuba and helping the communist regime in Cuba,” said Levy. “This is not the kind of company that Moore County ought to be doing business with.”
“I think it’s fair to say that Panorama’s approach to pretty much everything, certainly the professional development, is very far left,” said Hensley.
But administrators say that Panorama offers the best tools for extrapolating survey data, as well as the ability to compare Moore County Schools’ results with other systems around the country. Panorama also offers a “playbook” of strategies to help the district make improvements where needed.
“We don’t want to transform our children; I want our children to transform us by equal opportunity and by our children using that equal opportunity to become better than we are and to achieve higher and to achieve their loftiest goals,” said Levy. “That’s what I want, and I want someone who will support both America and our capitalist system.”
As approved on Monday, Moore County Schools’ new contract with Panorama will not include professional development. The contract will extend for three years at nearly $51,000 annually.
Mental Health Plan Critiqued
As Monday’s meeting stretched past 10 p.m., both Levy and board member Stacey Caldwell offered lengthy monologues outlining their positions on the platform. Caldwell spent nine minutes outlining the various modes of parental notification surrounding the surveys’ administration and offered examples of questions used on past surveys.
Parents aren’t offered the option to opt their children out of the social-emotional learning survey, since it doesn’t deal with potential illegal activity or other sensitive matters. But administrators say that students aren’t penalized for refusal to take any survey.
“I wanted the public to know that I did my due diligence on this matter. I do not see anything wrong with using Panorama,” said Caldwell. “I saw no signs, facts, data, saying that our Moore County school system is using the platform to promote CRT. I do not care what other counties may use it for around us, or even that our state superintendent — which she does — uses Panorama. I just care about Moore County Schools and what we do.”
Levy argued against continuing to work with Panorama, using a metaphor about letting a camel stick its nose into your tent to suggest that the rest of the company’s offerings would be quick to follow the survey platform.
In a separate topic on Monday, Hensley and Levy also saw red flags in an outline of Moore County Schools’ programs to support student mental health.
Administrators presented that in advance of a state deadline to submit the district’s plan for promoting students’ mental well-being and improving the effectiveness of their existing programs.
Hensley said he was alarmed by the district’s use of data from past Youth Risk Behavior Surveys to inform that evaluation.
“I looked at this and I saw ‘oh, okay we’re going to authorize a mental health plan,’ and then I get to page one and the first thing I see is talk of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey,” he said. “I’m concerned that this could be a Trojan horse that the board votes and says ‘Oh yeah approve this mental health plan, and then next year we’re having a Youth Risk Behavior Survey.”
He and Levy also asked administrators to present a full breakdown of Moore County Schools’ costs related to mental health, including programs and staffing of psychologists and counselors, at a future meeting.
Over the years the district’s plans have also involved training teachers in aspects of social-emotional learning as defined by the Collaborative for Academic and Social, and Emotional Learning. Levy said he has “a lot of misgivings” about that organization.
“I believe it’s part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” he said.”I used to have a list of all the people, all the entities supporting CASEL and they were rather left-leaning.”
“That has nothing to do with what we’re talking about,” Caldwell responded. “Let’s keep it focused.”
The board went on to approve the mental health plan, also on a 4-3 vote.