Tag Archives: Mark Randall Johnson

Ed Tech Spending Rampaging through North Carolina Public Schools

27 Oct

By Thomas Ultican 10/27/2020

A North Carolina cabal of school superintendents, politicians, consultants and technology companies has gone wild over the past seven years. In Chapel Hill, Education Elements obtained an illegitimate $767,000 contract. Chapel Hill-Carborro City Hills Schools (CHCCS) Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance, Jennifer Bennett, supposedly ignored school board policy and agreed to the contract in secret. It seems that when the state and local schools are spending on education technology, policies and law are being ignored.

After the Education Elements negotiations, Bennett sent a message to their Managing Partner, Jason Bedford, saying, “Need to get you guys to modify the [contract] if you can since if we include the whole potential payment value, then we have to take this to the Board since over our $90K threshold ….” This seems very damning, however, local citizens think they are being gas lighted. In the comments section on the school boards web site, several parents expressed the same opinion as parent Jeff Safir who wrote,

“I find it hard to believe that Jennifer Bennett acted alone and was the only person aware of the money being spent on the Education Elements engagement and I don’t understand why she is able to serve out the rest of her contract in an alternate capacity when the position is at-will ….”

Education Elements was created with funding from NewSchools Venture fund and a four other venture capital groups that invest in education startups. As noted in a previous article, “There are few districts in America that do not have a deeper bench when it comes to education theory, practical application and leadership talent than Education Elements.”  In agreement with this point, parent Kavita Rajagopal wrote,

“There is zero information as to exactly what our taxpayer dollars even bought from EdElements. I have spoken to numerous (double digits) teachers and not a single one found the training to be novel or particularly eye opening. Why are there no teachers at the table?”

Particularly galling to CHCCS parents is the fact that 20 of 40 teaching assistants working in special education were let go at the same time this contract was consummated. Parent Payal Perera wrote, “I was appalled to learn that the EC support staff funding was cut, while $750K was available for these other things!”

Mary Ann Wolf is President of the CHCCS school board. She is also a long time proponent of education technology. In a 2010 paper she wrote,

“Personalized learning requires not only a shift in the design of schooling, but also a leveraging of modern technologies. Personalization cannot take place at scale without technology. Personalized learning is enabled by smart e-learning systems, which help dynamically track and manage the learning needs of all students, and provide a platform to access myriad engaging learning content, resources and learning opportunities needed to meet each students needs everywhere at anytime, but which are not all available within the four walls of the traditional classroom.”

Wolf is Director of the Digital Learning Programs at The Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, North Carolina State University and is a member of the Digital Promise Micro-credential Advisory Board. She also presents at Future Ready symposiums.

In other words, Board President Mary Ann Wolf isn’t just a fan of putting kids at digital screens. She is a well paid leader in the movement.  The headline on the Friday Institute’s homepage proclaims, “Coaching digital learning institute.”

At the Friday Institute, Wolf had a colleague named Lauren Acree who in 2019 took a position as Design Principle at Education Elements. Parents in CHCCS are suspicious about why Wolf never revealed her connection to Education Elements when the scandal erupted.

It is not just North Carolina school districts ignoring past practices, policies and laws concerning education technology spending. In 2018, Mark Johnson, the Republican Superintendent of Schools, led a group of three local politicians and two superintendents of schools on an all expense paid junket to Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Seven months later, Johnson announced a $6.6 million I-pad contract to supply the devices to North Carolina public school students in kindergarten through third grade. It was a no-bid contract that bypassed the state Department of Information Technology.

Johnson has great connections but he is not qualified to lead schools. In 2016, 33-years-old Mark Johnson became North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. He garnered 50.6% of the vote besting his opponents 49.4% tally.

The young lawyer vacated his position as corporate counsel at Inmar, an international technology company, where he had worked for three years to take the Superintendent’s position. His only training and experience in education was a two year temp teacher stint with Teach For America (TFA).

Although he clearly lacked the qualifications of Professor June Atkinson, the incumbent, several billionaires including Arthur Rock, Michael Bloomberg, Jonathan Sackler and Steuart Walton contributed heavily to his campaign.

In 2016, Johnson also received support from the Leadership for Education Equity (LEE) PAC. It supports TFA alumni running for office. The Silicon Valley billionaire, Arthur Rock, is a board member of LEE along with Michael Bloomberg’s daughter Emma. 

Superintendents Organized to Sell Education Technology

In 2015, the Raleigh law firm Everett Gaskins Hancock LLP established The Innovation Project (TIP) with ten superintendents from North Carolina’s public school districts. The more than 100-years-old firm has deep ties to the business and political communities in North Carolina’s capital. For example, their self published history notes,

“Ed Gaskins was a member of EGH’s other predecessor firm, Sanford & Cannon. Sanford & Cannon was formed in 1965 by Terry Sanford (1917-1998), former Governor of North Carolina, and Hugh Cannon (1931-2006), one of Governor Sanford’s senior advisors who served as counsel to the governor.”

Why did law firm Partner Gerry Hancock initiate TIP as a service of the Raleigh law firm in their offices at the historic Briggs Hardware Store? Whatever the real motive was, by 2017, TIP had 26 superintendents of public education signed up and were ready to move onto the campus at North Carolina State University as a non-profit.

The Innovation Project’s Strange Road to Non-Profit Status

The odd TIP path to non-profit status began in 2013 two years before it was founded. Joe Ableidinger received EIN 46-3120883 for the non-profit World Class Schools. He was attempting to start two charter schools using computer based instruction. In July 2013, World Class Schools received a $100,000 grant from the Educause’s Next Generation Learning Challenges fund. An intiative financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The charter schools never opened and the non-profit changed its name to The Innovation Project in 2017.

TIP’s 2017 form 990 covering 7/1/2017 to 9/30/2018 is filed under the World Class Schools EIN 46-3120883 but with the new name. It lists two salaried employees Ann McColl and Joe Ableidinger.

In 2015, TIP received a startup grant of $150,000 from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and soon after other foundations like the Belk Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation gave support. However a significant portion of their funding comes from membership dues. In a letter accompanying TIP’s invoices for the 2017-2018 school year, they announced cutting the dues from $36,000 to $30,000 per year.

TIP’s initiatives include establishing a virtual academy; creating their own version of turnaround schools called restart schools; establishing innovative classroom programs; addressing North Carolina’s teacher shortage and serving home-school families.

Unfortunately, this entire agenda with the exception of teacher shortages is being addressed by promoting education technology. For the teacher shortages, they have partnered with TNTP. In North Carolina, TIP could have partnered with the existing exemplary education professionals at University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University or Duke University to create alternate paths to teacher credentialing and professional development. Instead they chose to contract with the TFA created TNTP that is an unqualified light weight in education circles.

TIP also sites Mary Ann Wolf’s Friday Institute as a partner. (Update: On June 15 Wolf left the Friday Institute to become President of the Public Schools Forum also at North Carolina State University.)

On the TIP resource page, they list three sources under the category of Changes and Innovation.

  1. Center on Reinventing Public Education, Tracking Actions in Districts related to COVID-19
  2. Chiefs for Change,Tracking Innovation
  3. FutureEd, Tracking state legislation in response to COVID-19

Center on Reinventing Public Education is the billionaire financed organization promoting privatizing public education using the portfolio model of management. Chiefs for Change is the Jeb Bush founded organization promoting education technology, vouchers and charter schools. FutureEd sells the idea of putting children at digital screens instead of with actual teachers. This is the TIP agenda.

Dr. Lynn Moody, Superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools, was one of the superintendents accompanying Mark Johnson on that free trip to Apple Inc. She is also a TIP member.

In the paper Personalizing Learning in a Digital World: Four key priorities for digital and personalized learning,” the Digital Learning Institute thanked “Dr. Lynn Moody, …” for helping make the report possible.  

When Tip member Cathy Moore was deputy superintendent of Wake County Public Schools she was featured in a promotional video on the Education Elements web site. Today she is the superintendent.

Mary Ellis is a TIP member from the Union County Public Schools (UCPS). In 2015, while acting as Superintendent for UCPS, Ellis started a private endeavor called Educatrx Inc. She had three partners, two district technology leaders and Jason Mooneyham from the Chinese computer manufacturing company Lenovo.

In 2016, Ellis had legal corruption charges brought against her for conflicts of interest when her company facilitated a few technology deals including purchasing 10,000 Chromebooks from Lenovo. The district attorney dropped the charges.

Ellis is also a TIP consultant. In the 2017 TIP tax form, she is listed as being paid $121,629 for her services.

TIP creates classes for the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS). After reviewing NCVPS, state auditor Beth Wood said, “Be concerned that these online classes may not be preparing your children for the next grade or for college.” In the audit, Wood noted that eight of 12 NCVPS courses audited did not meet required curriculum content standards and there was no assurance that 11 of the 12 NCVPS courses analyzed met adopted standards for rigor. 

The vast majority of America’s school principals believe that students are experiencing too much screen time and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a 2015 report that heavy users of computers in the classroom “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.

Dr. Nicholas Kardaras wrote “Screens In Schools Are a $60 Billion Hoax” for Time magazine. When discussing health risks associated with student screen time, he stated, “over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.”

Not all education technology is bad, but there are limitations. Students eventually need good graphing calculators, spread sheets, word processing and modern data acquisition capability. However, when the technology is little more than worksheets delivered by a digital device like those from I-ready and Education Elements not only is the screen time required unhealthy, the lessons are hated by students and ineffective.

To conclude this piece, here is a list of the 26 North Carolina school districts and their leaders that sent $30,000 or more to The Innovation Project in 2017.

  1. Alamance-Burlington Schools
    Dr. William “Bruce” Benson, Superintendent
  2. Asheboro City Schools
    Dr. Terry Worrell, Superintendent
  3. Beaufort County Schools
    Paul Higgins, Instructional Technology Director
  4. Cabarrus County Schools
    Dr. Chris Lowder, Superintendent
  5. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools
    Dr. Pam Baldwin, Superintendent
  6. Craven County Schools
    Dr. Meghan Doyle, Superintendent
  7. Cumberland County Schools
    Dr. Marvin Connelly, Superintendent
  8. Edgecombe County School
    Dr. Valerie Bridges, Superintendent
  9. Gaston County Schools
    Mr. Jeff Booker, Superintendent
  10. Hoke County Schools
    Dr. Freddie Williamson, Superintendent
  11. Iredell-Statesville Schools
    Dr. Brady Johnson, Superintendent
  12. Johnston County Schools
    Dr. D. Ross Renfrow, Superintendent
  13. Kannapolis City Schools
    Dr. Daron Buckwell, Superintendent
  14. Lenoir County Schools
    Dr. Brent Williams, Superintendent
  15. Lincoln County Schools
    Dr. Lory Morrow, Superintendent
  16. Moore County Schools
    Dr. Robert “Bob” P. Grimesey Jr, Superintendent
  17. Mount Airy City Schools
    Dr. Kim Morrison, Superintendent
  18. Onslow County Schools
    Dr. Rick Stout, Superintendent
  19. Person County Schools
    Dr. Rodney Peterson, Superintendent
  20. Rockingham County Schools
    Dr. Rodney Shotwell, Superintendent
  21. Rowan-Salisbury Schools
    Dr. Lynn Moody, Superintendent
  22. Vance County Schools
    Dr. Anthony Jackson, Superintendent
  23. Wake County Schools
    Dr. Cathy Moore, Superintendent
  24. Warren County Schools
    Dr. Ray Spain, Superintendent
  25. Wayne County Schools
    Dr. Michael Dunsmore, Superintendent
  26. Wilson County Schools
    Dr. Lane Mills, Superintendent