Johnston County Commissioners. Photo from Twitter. 

This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

Satisfied with a policy revision banning Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the Johnston County Public Schools, county commissioners on Monday unanimously agreed to release $7.9 million in new school funding that commissioners had withheld over the summer because the district had no such prohibition in place. 

“Extortion,” is how April Lee, president of the Johnston County Association of Educators, described the commissioners’ move to use the funding to pressure the school district. The money wasn’t available until the school board met the commissioners’ demand to ban the obscure academic concept, which educators say isn’t taught in district classrooms. 

“It’s wrong,” Lee said. “It might not be legally wrong—we’re looking into that—but it is ethically wrong, and I think all of you on this board know that.”

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, agreed. “The Johnston County Board of Commissioners and the Johnston County Board of Education are attempting to stroke fears, divide parents and communities, and discredit Johnston County’s hard-working teachers, yet all they are doing is hurting our children,” she said.

CRT is an academic discipline that examines how American racism has shaped law and public policy. It emerged in the legal academy in the 1980s as an offshoot of critical legal studies.  

The commissioners’ vote to release the new school funding, which is part of the county’s $79 million local allocation, follows the Johnston County Board of Education’s unanimous vote Friday to revise the district’s Code of Ethics policy to restrict certain concepts from being taught in K-12 classrooms.

Under the school board’s revisions to Policy Code 5100, teachers can be disciplined or fired if they “undermine” the nation’s foundational documents or fail to recognize or present all people who contributed to American Society as “reformists, innovators and heroes to our culture.”  

The school board’s policy revision does not mention CRT, but Commissioner Fred Smith made the commissioners’ intent clear on Monday. 

“When we adopted our budget, we withheld certain funds from the school board because we believe that teaching CRT is harmful to our children and to our country,” Smith said.  

In North Carolina, school districts are funded by the federal government, the state and the county. School boards have no taxing authority. Commissioners are expected to hold districts accountable for how they spend local tax dollars.  

Student test scores are often the litmus test. However, it’s unusual for commissioners to penalize a school board and district over a disagreement unrelated to student performance or fiscal mismanagement.  

“The fact that an entirely white board of commissioners is using its control of funding to ensure students don’t hear about systemic racism is a powerful example of systemic racism in action,” said Justin Parmenter, a Mecklenburg County school teacher who has spoken against GOP efforts to limit what students can learn about the nation’s racial history.  

Johnston County district officials told Policy Watch that the school system does not teach CRT. 

“Johnston County Public Schools does not have an instructional model that teaches Critical Race Theory. Our district is dedicated to academic excellence and to teaching to the standards outlined by our state,” spokeswoman Caitlin Furr said in a statement. 

Nevertheless, CRT has been a point of contention at Johnston County school board meetings and others across the state and country. Parents critical of CRT contend it divides students racially by focusing on the negative aspects of the nation’s history. 

Conservative operatives have traveled the state fanning flames of discontent over CRT and mask mandates, both of which have been described by an array of political observers as “wedge issues” the national Republican Party is using in hopes of turning the 2022 mid-term elections its way.   

Republicans in the state legislature passed House Bill 324, which would restrict what students can learn about the nation’s racial past. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill. 

“The legislature should be focused on supporting teachers, helping students recover lost learning, and investing in our public schools,” Cooper said in a statement accompanying the veto. “Instead, this bill pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education.” 

Commissioner Smith noted the similarities between HB 324 and the Johnston County school board’s policy revisions. 

“[I] have determined that they are both compatible and have met the objective that we intended for the good of our students and the good of our country,” Smith said.  

Walker-Kelly of the NCAE, however, rejected this assessment. “Teachers are trained professionals and practitioners who know how best to design age-appropriate lessons for students, help them grapple with complex facts, and teach them to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

“Our students deserve honesty in education, rooted in facts and truth. Loving America and what it stands for means learning about our history, both good and bad. If we censor our history and ignore today’s challenges, we will never live up to our ideals of liberty and justice for all.

“This manufactured outrage to score political points by creating a problem that does not exist will hurt our children and diminish the quality of their education. For the sake of our students and the future of this state, this must stop.”

Commissioner Ted Godwin noted that his seventh-grade teacher read passages from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to him and his classmates every day after lunch. The anti-slavery novel by Harriett Beecher Stowe had a profound impact on students who became acutely aware of the evils and immorality of slavery, Godwin said. 

“I think everyone understood how wrong and how difficult and bad it was,” Godwin said. “I hope we’re teaching our kids today the same thing. I hope, and I think this is the reason for the whole discussion, we’re not teaching them that my grandson is responsible for those actions, and that is really the crux of it.” 

Alan Hall, a district parent, said commissioners should be ashamed for forcing the school board to adopt a policy banning a concept that isn’t taught in schools.

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Hall said the GOP has used the uproar over CRT to rewrite history in a manner reminiscent of the actions of United Daughters of the Confederacy after the Civil War. The group funded Confederate monuments across the country and promoted the false notion that the Civil War was a heroic cause and not centered on slavery.   

“We’re still fighting in 2021 over whose narrative of history will be taught, the true atrocities that white people have perpetuated all over the world or a sanitized, whitewashed version of history that makes little white kids feel better about themselves,” said Hall, who is white. 

Dale Lands, founder of Citizen Advocates for Accountable Government, a group that has opposed CRT and the district’s mask mandate, said the policy revision is intended to ensure students are taught “regular history, regular math.” 

Lands urged commissioners to continue to use county tax dollars to hold the school board accountable. The policy revision wouldn’t have occurred if commissioners hadn’t withheld $7.9 million from the school board, he said.  

“I do hope you will keep that in your toolbox,” Lands said. “I hope you never have to use it again, but always keep that in your toolbox and understand that you can use it.” 

Angelique Legette, a mother of four from Smithfield, reminded commissioners that the “Never Again Education Act” was passed to provide a context for citizens to learn about the horrors of the Holocaust and about what happens when “hate goes unchallenged.”

Legette said it’s important to teach the truth about the “brutality, lynchings and bad things” that happened to Blacks and other people of color during the building of America. 

“We need to get everybody the full picture and not try to influence them with anything,” Legette said.  

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