Censorship controversy, thin record spark concerns over McCrory’s State Board of Ed nominee

By: - April 24, 2015 9:59 am

State Board of Education nominee Todd Chasteen sits with book challenger Chastity Lesesne at final hearing on Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

State Board of Education nominee Todd Chasteen sits with book challenger Chastity Lesesne at final hearing on Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.
State Board of Education nominee Todd Chasteen sits with book challenger Chastity Lesesne at hearing on Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. (Photo credit: Lonnie Webster)

Governor Pat McCrory’s recent nomination  of J. Todd Chasteen to serve on the State Board of Education has raised the eyebrows of some western North Carolinians.

A Boone resident who appears to have a thin record of experience with public education, Chasteen was deeply involved last year in efforts to ban a book from a public high school English classroom in Watauga County.

“We should reject Governor McCrory’s recent nomination of Wataugan J. Todd Chasteen to the North Carolina Board of Education,” said Appalachian State University English professor Craig Fischer at a public forum at the university earlier this week, objecting to Chasteen’s lack of experience in public education.

“Chasteen sided with would-be censors during last year’s battle over keeping Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits in the sophomore English Honors curriculum at Watauga High,” Fischer added. “He spoke on behalf of banning the book at a February 10, 2014 school board local forum about the controversy, claiming–inaccurately–that Allende’s book is full of ‘deviancy’ and child pornography.”

Chasteen, an attorney and executive with Boone-based international aid organization Samaritan’s Purse, not only spoke publicly for removing The House of the Spirits from the classroom, but also lobbied the eventual tie-breaking board of education member, Ron Henries, in person and via email in an effort to persuade him to vote for banning the book, according to emails obtained by N.C. Policy Watch.

A move toward censorship

“[The House of the Spirits] glamorizes promiscuity, it trivializes rape, it trivializes prostitution. Those are not good concepts for kids to be exposed to,” Chasteen told a local Fox news outlet during the height of the controversy surrounding Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, which is a fictional novel that follows a family through the Chilean Revolution during the 1970s and includes scenes of rape, torture and incest.

Initiated by a Watauga High School parent who found the book to be too graphic and thus inappropriate for her child, the move to censor The House was a months-long affair beginning in October 2013 that polarized the western North Carolina mountain community of Boone and even resulted in mailed threats to Watauga High School teachers.

Mary Kent Whitaker, the Watauga English teacher who fought to keep The House in her classroom, said she always provided alternate texts for students to read who wanted to opt-out of The House — but more than 90 percent of her students wanted to read it over the four semesters she’s taught the book.

Chasteen, who declined to be interviewed for this story when reached via email, disagreed with Whitaker’s book selection and sought to become engaged in efforts to make it a non-option for Honors English students at Watauga.

Following a February 2014 forum in which members of the public spoke for and against the book, Chasteen emailed Ron Henries, the Watauga County school board member who was regarded as the swing vote in the book challenge.

Parsing one person’s testimony in support of the novel, Chasteen reiterated his case for why Allende’s book should be removed from Whitakers’ classroom, which he had already made earlier at the packed school board meeting.

Woody Mckay eloquently and with gentleness compared The House with the Bible. If the Bible contained the 59 sexual references and the graphic, descriptive detail of The House, my kids would not read the Bible, nor would I. Mr. Mckay stretched to find a few violent, non-descript stories in the Bible of 1500 pages. The House, 59 depictions in 430 pages, a pattern, pervasive vulgarity, and very descriptive. The Bible, as non-graphic, does not say that King David enjoyed “the dark, hot, juicy cavern of her _____.” This is not a mere nuance. The reading of the Bible does not produce sensual arousal.

Some students at the public hearing pointed out that Allende’s novel, which is fiction but highlights the social and political upheavals that Chile has endured, helped them learn more about Chilean history.

“I read the book. I missed the history part,” said Chasteen in an email to board member Henries. “ It really should have been entitled, “Three Generations of Dysfunctional Sexuality”, the main theme of the book.”

Henries, who says he didn’t care for the book himself, was ultimately unmoved by Chasteen, providing the tie-breaking vote to make The House continue to be available to students in Whitaker’s class.

“I don’t know of another book that could have taken its place that could have met the objectives any better than [The House of the Spirits]. I didn’t like the book but that’s not the point.”

Chasteen’s boss, Samaritan’s Purse founder Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, was also involved in efforts to have the book censored, encouraging employees with children to attend local school board meetings on the subject.

McCrory’s nomination

Todd Chasteen
Todd Chasteen

Todd Chasteen appears to have strong connections in private, religious education.

His wife, Kim, runs a private Christian school in Boone called Grace Academy. And Chasteen is a proponent of home schooling, having served as a government instructor for High Country Christian Home Schoolers.

Chasteen’s bio for HCCHS says he “has a passion to help ground and prepare our students against an onslaught of liberal views that they may face in higher education, and to be able to convey the subject matter with academic freedom.”

Prior to joining Samaritan’s Purse, Chasteen worked as a tax attorney. He holds his degrees from James Madison University and the University of Florida.

Why choose someone with little involvement in public education to serve on the State Board of Education?

“The number one thing we’re looking for is competence and an independent thinker,” said Eric Guckian, Governor Pat McCrory’s education advisor, when asked why Chasteen was chosen as a nominee to serve an eight year term on the State Board.

Guckian was unconcerned with Chasteen’s apparent slim record in public education, saying that he came highly recommended to the Office of the Governor. “I think you’re on thin ice when talking about private versus public background,” said Guckian, pointing to his own experiences in the private sector and with private education.

When asked about Chasteen’s efforts to censor The House of the Spirits, Guckian said he didn’t know much about that.

“These are local municipality issues,” said Guckian. “I’m not saying it’s not relevant, but I’m not saying it would be part of a final decision either.”

“I was very impressed with Todd’s competence,” said Guckian about the Governor’s choice. “He’s a lawyer and very engaged in Watauga County. He’s done a lot international aid work and will bring a good perspective to the board.”

N.C. Policy Watch reached out to Chasteen repeatedly to learn more about why he would want to serve on the State Board of Education. Chasteen declined to be interviewed unless he could respond, via email, only to questions asked of other State Board of Education members in past stories written by this reporter.

Pending confirmation by the General Assembly, Chasteen will serve an eight year term on the North Carolina State Board of Education. McCrory also made a second nomination to the board, former Wake County school board member Patti Head.

Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at [email protected] or 919-861-1460

Twitter: @LindsayWagnerNC

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Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works as a Senior Writer and Researcher at the NC Public School Forum. She has also worked for the American Federation of Teachers in Washington, D.C., as a writer and researcher focusing on higher education issues and for the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of State's Fulbright program and the Brookings Institution and an Education Specialist at the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. [email protected]