The N.C. Republican Party’s Aug. 17 panel discussion in Hendersonville was billed with the theme of “Family First.” For Chuck Edwards — the Republican state senator for District 48 and nominee for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District — and other local GOP leaders, those words primarily meant driving conservative change in public education.
Among the priorities shared by the panel were divesting powers held by the N.C. Board of Education, encouraging parents to join local boards of education and eliminating discussion of gender identity in the classroom. Participants included Edwards; Henderson County Board of Public Education Vice Chairperson Amy Lynn Holt*; Hendersonville City Council member Jennifer Hensley; state District 117 Rep. Tim Moffitt; and N.C. Republican Party Vice Chair Susan Mills, who is also a teacher.
NCGOP Chair Michael Whatley moderated the panel at The 2nd Act, a Hendersonville cafe and bar, for an audience of roughly 50 people. About 20 protesters gathered outside the event in the rain, holding signs in support of reproductive rights and denouncing former President Donald Trump.
‘Stop talking about pronouns’
Gender identity discussions in schools were brought up twice during the panel. While criticizing the federal government’s role in education, Edwards said, “We’ve got to change the conversation. … We’ve got to stop talking about pronouns and start talking about protons,” he said, to audience applause.
Education should focus on “preparing children for jobs in the future,” Edwards continued.
Later during the discussion, Whatley asked Holt, who is currently vice chair of the Henderson County Board of Public Education, “How important is it for us to have engagement on the school board — not just with the school board — as conservatives?”
Holt responded, “That’s the most important thing we’re going to do, is raise these kids up and teach them how to read, how to write, how to do the right thing, how to have their own mind and their own thoughts and not be subjected to this figurehead in front of them all day, telling them that you must call Susie ‘Sam’ because that’s what Susie wants to be called.”
Holt continued, “That has no place in education. It’s not what we need to be doing for our children.”
Abolish the board
Whatley praised Republican Catherine Truitt, the elected head of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, as “a fantastic superintendent of public education.” But, he continued, “We also have a school board that is run by [Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper] and making decisions in terms of agendas and programs that the schools would have to follow all across the state.”
(Of the 20 members of the N.C. State Board of Education, 11 are gubernatorial appointments approved by the state legislature. The composition of the board is dictated by the state constitution.)
Whatley asked Edwards whether the state’s top educational board needs structural reform.
“My preference is that we abolish the State Board of Education,” the state senator replied, to approval from the audience. He called the board “unaccountable” to the public and declared, “They tend to bully the elected leaders of the education [system].”
Edwards shared that he has an unfiled bill on his desk in Raleigh to amend the state constitution, dismantle the state board and transfer its power to the state superintendent. (In a follow-up email, Edwards said he hasn’t filed the bill because he was unable to secure the votes needed for it to pass.) He then turned to Moffitt, who is running for the District 48 seat Edwards is vacating to run for Congress, and said he would be happy to hand that bill over.
Concurred Moffitt, “Structural reform is needed from top to bottom.”
Earlier in the discussion, Whatley addressed Holt while discussing parental involvement in public education. “I’ve been stung over the last two years as I’ve heard Democrat after Democrat after Democrat say that we don’t need parents involved in the education decisions for their children,” Whatley said.
Holt responded, to enthusiastic support from the audience, “There’s going to be nothing in your life that’s more important than that, to be involved in your children’s education. And that includes going to board meetings, speaking up, emailing, showing up in the classroom.”
Holt then referenced “an issue in a classroom with an assignment that came from … a teacher within Henderson County” regarding a New York Times article about Trump.
“That was the only resource they were allowed to use — it was unacceptable,” she claimed. “But if we don’t find out about those things, there’s not a way for us to handle it. So we’ve got to have parents speaking out, telling us what’s going on, so that we can stop this leftist agenda.”
One topic that drew considerable discussion among panelists was Panorama surveys. The feedback tool, employed in at least 10 North Carolina school districts, is designed to assess social-emotional learning and mental health. (Panorama has partnered with Asheville City Schools since 2021, according to ACS mental health liaison Luke Mackenzie. The company has partnered with Buncombe County Schools since spring 2019, says spokesperson Stacia Harris.)
Whatley asked Mills, who is a teacher in Sampson County, about her experience “on the ground.” Mills said schools need to focus on literacy and continued, “One of the things a lot of my time is wasted on is the Panorama survey.”
Panorama surveys solicit student feedback about classroom experiences; how to foster safe learning environments; cooperation among teachers, staff and administrators; and healthy families. Sample questions for a “student check-in,” according to an information sheet on the company’s website, include “What emotion are you feeling the most today?” and “Do you feel bullied by other students?”
Of the Panorama survey, Mills said, “So far, I’ve been able to avoid that in my homeroom.” She told the audience she let her homeroom students know that filling out the Panorama survey is optional and “if you want to play on your phone [instead of take the survey],” students could.
Holt chimed in to say Henderson County Schools no longer conducts Panorama surveys. “They have a leftist agenda that they were trying to push into our schools, and we cut ties with them,” she said. “It’s the voices of parents — that things are being pushed to their children — that brought that up.”
Although the bulk of the discussion concerned public education, panelists also discussed Republicans’ hopes for state regulatory reform and the need to acquire veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly to pass those reforms.
Both chambers of North Carolina’s state legislature are controlled by Republicans, but Democratic Gov. Cooper is able to veto legislation. A vote from three-fifths of elected officials in the legislature can override the governor’s veto; Republican majorities in the House and Senate currently fall below that threshold.
“We need to have a veto-proof majority,” said Moffitt. He spoke about the Administrative Procedure Act, a state law dictating how agencies create and enforce regulations, which is set to change at the start of 2023.
“As we begin to grant the regulatory authorities back into the legislature, the Democrats are opposed because the Democrats want a strong government,” Moffitt said. “They want to rule every aspect of your life. And they do that through regulations that bypass the legislature at the federal level and at the state level, and we need to stop that from happening.” * Sept. 5, 2022: This article has been updated to state Amy Lynn Holt is Vice Chairperson of the Henderson County Board of Public Education.