Janice Robinson, of Mecklenburg County’s Public School Strong, speaks during a hearing at a CMS board meeting.
Janice Robinson, of Mecklenburg County’s Public School Strong, speaks during a hearing at a CMS board meeting. | Screenshot /CMS Board of Education meeting

When North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper declared a rare state of emergency for public education in May, it revved teams of parents across the state. They, too, wanted to push back against the impacts of what Cooper called the Republican legislature’s “schemes” to expand private school vouchers, defund public schools and push culture wars in the classroom.

Janice Robinson took the call seriously, and on a night in August when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board approved policies to comply with the Parents’ Bill of Rights, she spoke out. Robinson called the new laws that limit instruction of LGBTQ+ issues in elementary schools, among other things, a “ruse to take away the rights of other parents.”

“Our goal is not about being loud, but being reasonable and inclusive,” Robinson told The Charlotte Observer last week. “We join supporters of public education.”

Robinson and a group of about 20 parents make up Mecklenburg County’s chapter of Public School Strong, a network launched in May with about 30 other teams across the state. Their charge is to be an ever-increasing presence at school board meetings, wearing matching blue shirts with big hearts.

Down Home North Carolina, a left-leaning advocacy organization focused on rural areas, equates the network to a counter for “Moms for Liberty and other grassroots groups trying to be the loudest voice in the room, pushing book bans and trying to erode our trust in public education.” Brooke Weiss, chair of the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty’s Mecklenburg chapter, has been a major parent presence during school board meetings and welcomes other parents’ voices.

“We believe in every parent’s fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children, which includes directing their education,” Weiss told the Observer. “Every parent should be able to feel comfortable voicing their concerns and advocating for their children without fear of being targeted with false, hateful rhetoric.”

Students are Suffering

Stacy Staggs, a member of Public School Strong, has twin CMS fourth-graders. Staggs says she’s seen enough “telegraphed and manufactured” issues taking center stage in education while students suffer. She’s fed up with the threat of expanded vouchers to funnel millions of dollars to North Carolina private schools, claims about pornographic books in media centers and attacks on LGBTQ+ children.

“We started this movement with sheer determination and ongoing commitment,” Staggs said. “We’ve already been engaged for years in our children’s schools and with their educators. As more attention is given to the inner workings of public education, our efforts and presence will continue to be highlighted.”

While she doesn’t want her group to be labeled as the opposition to organizations like Moms for Liberty, Staggs understands the need to draw the comparison. She also understands the opposing views could make for interesting school board meetings. “We can see a clear timeline of telegraphed and manufactured issues, from boogeymen of CRT, ‘COVID as a hoax’, anti-masking efforts, to excerpts from books they mistakenly claim to be pornography and hostility against LGBTQ students and staff,” she said. “All the while, real-world concerns like honest and accurate education, literacy and life skills, partnering with staff in the buildings and focusing on improving student outcomes across our district are where the real work is happening.”

Are Public Schools a Battlefield?

The goal, Staggs says, is to refocus attention on what matters most in education: ensuring the state’s children have access to “honest, accurate, safe and fully-funded public education.”

The Mecklenburg County group’s creation comes amid a state budget stalemate within the Republican-controlled General Assembly — forcing teachers to continue to wait on anticipated raises. The Republican-led Senate’s budget proposal also includes expanding private school vouchers that Gov. Roy Cooper has called a “public school disaster.” Staggs’ group showed up at the CMS board meeting Aug. 22 when school board members approved four policies that comply with the Parents’ Bill of Rights — a new law created through the legislature’s veto override last month of Senate Bill 49. The laws force schools to notify parents prior to any changes in the name or pronoun used for a student in school records or by school personnel. The new state law also gives parents the right to review library and education materials, including textbooks used in class and a way for parents to object to material in school media centers and/or books and educational materials used in class. “Everyone benefits from supporting public education rather than painting it as some kind of battlefield enemy,” Phillip White, a CMS parent, said.

Enough Facades

Robinson, a 30-year licensed occupational therapist, told school board members during Parents Bill of Rights discussion Aug. 22 that parents already have the right to be involved in their children’s education. “Parents want the freedom to educate their kids and have their kids’ education presented to them in a way that does not discriminate against them and their friends,” Robinson said. “It is unfair. It is wrong.” Ultimately, groups like Public School Strong and Moms for Liberty want to bring solutions to the table, both Staggs and Weiss said.

For example, Weiss pitched an idea to district officials in February of a rating system as a solution to controversial books circulating in school libraries and classrooms. Staggs, in turn, would like the community to partner together to help improve literacy — a shared concern among parents.

”We intend to pitch the idea of ‘reading buddies,’” Staggs said, “or expanding the reading buddies program that could pair up seniors (elders) or even older students looking for community service hours, with younger students for tutoring.”

This article appears courtesy of our media partner The Charlotte Observer.

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