GOP lawmakers mock students in charter debate

By: - March 25, 2011 10:26 am

A group of Rutherford County schoolchildren found themselves recent fodder for legislators’ jokes about the state’s public school system.

The jesting began after a number of students from the Western North Carolina county emailed lawmakers about legislation affecting the state’s charter schools and the funding they get from traditional public schools. Some of the emails arrived with grammatical and spelling errors, and that became an opening to start joking about the failings of the state’s public school system.

“Are English and writing still ‘apart’ of our core curriculum in North Carolina?,” wrote Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, in response to a student  who said he was “apart of RS Central,” a high school in the Western North Carolina county.

“From the emails we are receiving I would say no,” quipped Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican, in response.

Blust and Cleveland sent their March 9 remarks to an email chain that included bipartisan House education committee members who held hearing earlier this month on Senate Bill 8, a GOP-backed bill that could lift the 100-school cap on charter schools and allow charters more access to public funding streams and oversight outside of the N.C. State Board of Education.

In another exchange, Carlton Huffman, a legislative aide for GOP state Rep. Jonathan Jordan, forwarded a student’s email to the legislative aides for Republican House members with the comment, “More great grammar results from the public school system.”

Copies of the some of the legislator’s emails were obtained by N.C. Policy Watch through a public records request to the Rutherford County Public School System. Names of the children were redacted and copies of the emails can be seen here, here, here and here.

The email exchanges highlight a growing rift between supporters of charter schools and traditional public schools as the legislature debates the fate of Senate Bill 8, which has passed the Senate and is scheduled next week for a hearing in the House Finance committee. (Though, notably, there’s been no cost estimate of the legislation done yet.)

Public charter schools, funded with public dollars and tuition-free, are off-shoots of traditional public school systems and been glorified recently in critically-acclaimed documentaries like “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman,” which portray the schools as last hopes for parents raising children in urban areas with sub-standard schools.

But charter schools and the “parental choice” that goes along with them have also become rallying cries for conservative groups and the Tea Party movement that’s praised the business-like approach to education. Critics on the left fear the push from conservative quarters to expand charters is a dangerous first step to privatization of the public education system.

In North Carolina, the push for charters is coming as the state grapples separately with a $2.4 billion budget shortfall that will likely result in drastic cuts to the state’s public schools, with proposals like eliminating teacher’s aides positions in classrooms or cutting out Smart Start and More At Four early education programs already on the table.

Tensions rise in Rutherford

The debate of charters over traditional public schools appears to be most heated in Rutherford County, a rural manufacturing community in the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills with unemployment rates nearly twice the state average.

The Rutherford County School system, which has the undesirable distinction of being the county’s largest employer after manufacturing plants have steadily pink-slipped thousands of workers, was sued in January 2009 by its local public charter school, the Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy.

The lawsuit opened up a divide in the community, and between the two school public school systems.

Thomas Jefferson is a top-ranked charter school that puts students on a tracks toward college but is accused by critics in the county of being an exclusive haven for children of area’s well-to-do professional class. Teachers and Rutherford County administrators have also seen some low-performing children sent away from the charter and back to the traditional public school system just before end-of-grade tests, an important measure of how schools stack up against each other, said Dr. John Mark Bennett, the chair of the county school board and a local family physician.

In the lawsuit, Thomas Jefferson sought $900,000 in funds the charter school contends the school system should have shared. The charter school got a favorable ruling from a lower court, but an appeal went to a panel of N.C. Court of Appeals judges who are expected to weigh in soon with their decision.

It’s in that atmosphere of growing tension in Rutherford County that Senate Bill 8 has attracted so much attention and inflamed emotions, Bennett said. A lifelong resident of the area and 11-year member of the school board, Bennett thinks that Senate Bill 8 has split the county more than any other issue he’s ever seen his county face.

An informational meeting held by the school district about the bill, and what it could do to budget of the local public schools system, drew 500 parents out on a recent evening. A Facebook page, “Stop NC Senate Bill 8” attracted more than 1,000 followers in less than a month, and keeps concerned parents and teachers abreast of the debates going on 200 miles away in Raleigh. Local newspapers carry stories and editorials about the bill, while parents, teachers and schoolchildren on both sides of the debate have contacted legislators with their views.

State Sen. Debbie Clary, a Republican who represents the Rutherford County area, had forwarded some of the jokes made by legislators about the schoolchildren’s grammar to Rutherford County School Superintendent Janet Mason to show her what was being said about the schoolchildren and to urge the students to either stop writing or at least use proper grammar. (Clary doesn’t always stick to the proper grammar and punctuation and rules in her electronic communications, as seen in this email she wrote to a constituent that was posted on the anti-Senate Bill 8 site).

“To have children tell legislators that they have no respect for them at all is why most parents want their children out of the traditional public schools,” Clary wrote in an email to Mason and Bennett. “A lack of respect for adults, authority and teachers is being taught at your schools by your teachers and I am ashamed.”

Clary was referring to an email a 17-year-old high school senior had sent her, in which the student expressed concern that funding destined for charter schools could mean cuts to traditional public schools.

The student told Clary, “Mrs. Clary, I have no disrespect for you at all. But this Bill is way more than a document. The effects it will have on our school system are very damaging.”

Clary later said in an interview that she thought the student had sent her a well-written email, and that she was impressed with the student’s clarity and writing ability.

Clary’s gotten as many as 200 letters from Rutherford County students in her district, and found some to be disrespectful of authority and adults. Several emails had inappropriate language and names like “moron” directed at lawmakers, Clary said. N.C. Policy Watch asked Clary to provide copies of those emails but Clary said she had deleted all the emails that contained profanity and could not retrieve them.

“I’m not taking name-calling from a child,” Clary said. “It’s embarrassing for me that these are coming out of my district with the misspelled words and bad grammar and bad language.”

A supporter of charter schools and co-sponsor of Senate Bill 8, Clary said charters like Thomas Jefferson have been able to succeed primarily because of parental support in the school.

“There’s a misnomer out there that the children are going to be educated by the government and therefore I have no responsibility as a parent,” Clary said. “We’re going to have to have to make parents understand that they have a responsibility in the education of their children.”

Blust, the legislator that emailed a joke about a student’s misuse of the word “apart,” said he thought the students were emailing as part of an orchestrated effort and expected better grammar and spelling if they hoped to influence lawmakers.  .

“You’d think that if someone were pushing school children, they’d be very careful they (letters) were well written,” Blust said. “I don’t think someone, a schoolchild, sitting in Rutherford County would do that on their own.”

But that’s exactly what’s happening, Bennett said, who thought legislators were inappropriate and mocking in their jokes. Instead of making fun of the children, they should have been commended for taking an interest in a problem facing state government, and taking the initiative to get involved, he said.

The fight over charter schools has filtered down in the community to schoolchildren in Rutherford County and created a situation where children are passionately trying to defend their school system.

“The sad part is this is an adult issue with administrators and boards and legislature making decisions,” Bennett said. “But there’s a lot of bitterness with the children, saying ‘Your board is trying to steal our money’ and things like that. They see it and they feel threatened about it.”

The bill is expected to be heard next week when the House Finance committee meets.

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy caters to academically gifted students. The school prepares students for college through a rigorous curriculum, but is required to open to students at all learning levels.

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Sarah Ovaska-Few

Sarah Ovaska-Few, former Investigative Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch for five years, conducted investigations and watchdog reports into issues of statewide importance. Ovaska-Few was also staff writer and reporter for six years with the News & Observer in Raleigh, where she reported on governmental, legal, political and criminal justice issues.