When Amy Swain decided to run for a seat on the nonpartisan school board she didn’t anticipate the conservative backlash both from outside and within Martin County.
An education professor at East Carolina University with a long history of social activism, Swain was quickly and pejoratively tagged by conservative provocateurs as a promoter of “woke” culture who, if elected, would foist critical race theory upon the small, rural district’s nearly 3,000 students.
“If [Amy] Swain were to be elected in Martin County, families could be sure that critical race theory would be mandated in every class as a way to improve the district’s 25% pass rate for math, and 30% rate for reading,” Sloan Rachmuth, founder and president of Education First Alliance, wrote on the conservative education advocacy organization’s website days before Tuesday’s election.
On Tuesday, Swain finished last in a three-way race for the board’s District 4 seat with 17% of the vote. Incumbent Gene Scott won with 51.6%, and Shonique Jones Brown finished second with 30%.
Located in the state’s Black Belt, Martin County is one of the nine counties in eastern North Carolina where cotton and tobacco plantations thrived due to the rich, dark fertile soil and the labor of enslaved people who made up most of the region’s population.
Today, the county of nearly 22,000 people is 55% white and 42.2% Black. Within Martin County Schools though, the racial makeup is reversed: About 52% of students are Black while 33.6% are white.
Nearly 70% of the 11,500 registered voters in the small, rural county about 100 miles east of Raleigh are Democrats. Despite that fact, former president Donald Trump won the county in 2016 with 49.8% of the vote.
As Policy Watch reported last year, Rachmuth has helped lead a concerted movement in North Carolina to ban critical race theory from classrooms. The organization’s stated mission is to stamp out “toxic progressivism” wherever it exists.
Most educators say critical race theory, the academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped American law and public policy, is not taught in K-12 classrooms. It is often confused with culturally relevant teaching, which recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.
Nevertheless, conservative organizations such as Rachmuth’s Education First Alliance weaponized critical race theory, an obscure academic discipline usually taught in law schools, to whip the Republican base into a frenzy in advance of mid-term elections, believing that doing so would bear fruit at the polls.
The animosity started during the earliest days of Swain’s campaign. After announcing her candidacy, Swain received a private Facebook message from a person she didn’t know who was angry that she’d placed a Black Lives Matter sticker on her office door. The message ominously contained a photo of that door.
That incident was the one time she felt afraid during her campaign run.
“I would never apologize or even think that that would be problematic because to say Black Lives Matter is just affirming the value of Black human life and that people matter to me,” Swain said.
Swain stopped reading online public comment forums because of how some parents derisively discussed her family.
“It has definitely been unnerving,” Swain said. “It makes me grieve that we’ve gotten to a place in society where an invitation for love and connection is spurned in favor of hate and derision. I say I want public schools to serve all of our kids and celebrate the dignity and humanity of all the people in our society and people say they don’t want that.”
Meanwhile, Rachmuth searched public records to uncover Swain’s youthful transgressions. She also documented Swain’s social justice work while Swain worked as an English teacher in Durham Public Schools. Swain and more than a dozen educators were arrested in 2016 as they marched in Raleigh; they had blocked streets downtown to protest what they said was the underfunding of public schools.
Swain defended her actions.
“I’m definitely proud to say that I have stood in the street and protested unjust educational policies for the children of our state, absolutely,” Swain told Policy Watch. “I would do it a hundred times, today, tomorrow and everyday if that was enough to foster change.”
Rachmuth also criticized Swain for posting on social media that she allows her 11-year-old to watch “Breaking Bad,” a crime drama about a drug-dealing cancer patient.
“Swain’s familiarity with the criminal justice system may explain why she’s okay with watching Breaking Bad with her own 11-year-old,” Rachmuth wrote. “The show carries an “MA” warning for drug use, criminal conduct, violence and gore, and intensely sexual situations. Imagine the kind of inappropriate materials Swain would approve for other peoples’ children in the classroom.”
It’s difficult to calculate the impact Rachmuth’s attacks had on Swain’s election night loss. Scott, the incumbent, is a 20-year veteran of the board who served eight years as its chairman. His campaign Facebook page boasts that he has served 50 years as an umpire in local sports leagues and is a deacon and elder in his church.
Swain is relatively new to the county, having moved there in 2020 to work with Martin County Schools in an “unofficial capacity” on a grant-funded project with ECU and the school district that didn’t develop, she said.
“When the election came up this year, some teachers asked me to run for school board, and I told them to go find somebody else,” Swain said. “When they couldn’t find anyone else, they came back to me and I said I would.”
Ironically, it is Swain’s work to increase the number of teachers in the rural parts of the state that raised the ire of a Tik Tok detractor who warned listeners that Swain, through her work at ECU, is working to put “woke, radicalized” teachers in the state’s rural public schools.
“We have to get the right people involved and shut this down immediately,” said the detractor who goes by the Tik Tok handle margoinnc.
Swain is part of a group of professors in the College of Education at ECU that received a $9 million Teacher Quality Partnership grant to support educator preparation programs. The group will use the federal money to create the Educator Pipeline in Rural Action for Teaching Equity (edPIRATE) in partnership with the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank, Greene County, Washington County and Lenoir County school districts.
Losing the school board race won’t stop her work to improve schools in rural, eastern North Carolina, she said.
“My team and I are still going to be placing close to 100 teachers in schools with their master’s degrees for the next five years,” Swain said. We’re still going to be building a community school in Pasquotank County and hopefully setting up two to five other schools over the next five years.”
“Margoinnc” urged Martin County voters not to vote for Swain, facetiously calling Swain her “favorite radical” among the eight ECU education professors attached to the grant.
Swain said the past few months have been eye-opening.
“I think fear is an effective motivator, and that is the reason why the people behind these attacks are using that strategy,” Swain said.
The efforts of people such as Rachmuth and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson won’t have a lasting impact on public education, Swain said. “They’re only talking about ways to make education smaller and that looks like restricting information for students and limiting who gets recognized in our public schools and who is welcome to participate in public schools.”
The attacks on education and those who advocate for equity and increased funding will lead to a slow “suffocation” of public schools, Swain contends.
“These parents who are clamoring right now, who are using their voices the loudest, those parents who don’t want their children to go to schools where the dignity and humanity of all children are recognized,” Swain said. “They’re saying that they get to control what their children have access to but public schools should be, and are, places where all children are welcomed and loved and accepted for who they are and that means if a kid is gay or trans or Black or Latino or immigrant or child with special needs.”
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