North Carolina’s massive purchase of tablets, intended to boost tech for elementary literacy, came and went quietly in June, but the events preceding state Superintendent Mark Johnson’s move did not.
A Policy Watch investigation found Johnson and several influential budget writers were courted by Apple reps in a private gathering at their Silicon Valley headquarters months before, with the mega-sized tech company picking up the tab on school leaders’ meals, transportation and lodging.
State leaders claimed they did nothing wrong, but ethics experts argued that the trip skirts the state’s ethics rules and flouts the intent of the state law, which was designed to bar the kind of “wine and dine” trips with lobbyists and vendors that were once all too common for North Carolina lawmakers.
The investigation found Johnson’s trip was no isolated event, uncovering multiple courting trips between tech giants and movers and shakers in school finance.
And days later, a separate Policy Watch investigation found the superintendent may have inadvertently broken the state law in the roll-out of his new website, which some likened more to a campaign site than anything else.
Both controversies only fueled a particularly rocky year between Johnson and the State Board of Education.
2. More than 20,000 educators and K-12 advocates “school” legislators on funding, policy in unprecedented rally
North Carolina teachers said they were coming to Raleigh. Boy, did they ever.
A May rally and march to the legislative building marked a staggering pushback to a decade of K-12 cuts and policy shockers that roused educators into action like never before.
Culminating with a speech by Gov. Roy Cooper, the fiery event took on every major school controversy of the day – privatization, teacher pay, school choice, infrastructure, classroom supplies, teaching assistants, and much, much more. It signaled that educators did not intend to leave the business of funding school – perhaps the legislature’s chief job – to the political types.
3. Locals push back against North Carolina school takeover
When North Carolina pushed, local school leaders pushed back.
Indeed, there were plenty of bumps in the road for the fledgling Innovative School District in 2018, a controversial school takeover program that could allow private groups and charter leaders to seize control of struggling traditional schools.
Between questions about ethics, capacity and a private takeover group’s cozy relationship with state lawmakers  and school choice bigwigs, the ISD also faced a daunting new takeover of a Wayne County school.
ISD chiefs endured significant push-back during a takeover in Robeson County last year, but Wayne County leaders pushed even harder, at times suggesting that a lawsuit may be needed to settle looming questions about the state’s process in tapping a Goldsboro elementary for the program.
State leaders eventually offered a reprieve , potentially allowing the district’s local school board to retain control of the school provided they follow through on an application to join the state’s “Restart” program, which grants traditional schools charter-like flexibilities.
But not before Wayne County leaders threw some punches at state legislators and ISD chiefs.
Things won’t get easier for the ISD, which is expected to move on several more schools in the coming year.
4. Despite segregation fears, North Carolina municipal charter bill becomes law
To education advocates, state lawmakers’ push to clear municipal charter schools in a few Charlotte suburbs may have seemed a local matter, but the bill – which eventually overcame stiff opposition – has sweeping implications for North Carolina schools.
The culmination of a lengthy feud between suburban leaders and Charlotte school chiefs, the law may offer a road map to re-segregating districts, they said, particularly in more urban districts already roiled by division.
Defenders said they simply wanted to give suburban leaders more power over their schools, but critics weren’t buying it. As these schools steamroll to an opening someday in the not-so-distant future, North Carolina school leaders will be watching, and worrying.
5. North Carolina students stand up to gun violence
In 2018, students in North Carolina and across the United States made sure that Americans did not consider February’s mass shooting at a Florida high school just another shooting. They burned the names of the dead into our collective memory, and demanded that policymakers in states like North Carolina do more than offer condolences.
Florida students galvanized a massive rally in D.C., but North Carolina students engineered their own protests and walkouts, a stirring reminder that, for these students, schools have become a more harrowing place than any of us could have ever imagined.