Lexington-Richland School District 5 effectively gutted a popular current issues course taught by Dutch Fork High School teacher Kelly Payne earlier this week, pulling the plug on a program that has brought such luminaries as Gov. Mark Sanford, then-Rep. Nikki Haley, House Speaker Bobby Harrell, then-Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and numerous other politicians, journalists and leaders into her classroom.
In a post on the social networking site Facebook, Payne said District 5 had told her that elected officials will no longer be allowed to speak to her class, which she referred to as the "It Kids."
She said the district had put her on “academic freedom restriction,” because “I’m 'perceived' as a Tea Party Republican extremist.”
Video cuts from speakers who appeared before Payne’s class appeared regularly on The Nerve over the past year or so, including three earlier this week: two of SLED director Mark Keel (here and here) and one of Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture Martin Eubanks.
A District 5 official disputed that Payne was prohibited from having elected officials speak to her class.
"When individuals are running for office and appear in a class, it can be seen as giving them a platform," spokesman Buddy Price said. "If it's a non-election year, it's not as much of a problem."
When Price was asked why the action was taken against Payne at this time, during an election off-year, he sidestepped the question, saying that video posting can be problematic because they can capture students in a classroom and as such, that requires approval.
He added that he did not know if Payne had approval to post videos.
However, Payne has been posting videos on her own site for at least two years and had received no pushback from this district until last month, she said.
Price said that the district had received complaints from community members about the speakers Payne had invited to her class. He wasn't specific about who the complaints came from, stating only that they were from "parents and other community members."
Payne said she has never received a complaint from a parent and that there has always been a waiting list for students who wanted to enroll in her class.
Payne, who two years ago was awarded the Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year Award for Lexington-Richland 5, compared the district’s actions to those of Joseph McCarthy and his quest to tar opponents as Communists during the early years of the Cold War.
“Because of my quest to change the fabric of the behind-the-iron-curtain mentality of the public school system, I’m now facing the same sort of critical pursuit non-compliant educators faced over 60 years ago. Sadly, this will be the last video my class and I are allowed to post on The Nerve,” she wrote.
According to Payne, “major ‘modifications'” have been made to her class program.
“No more elected officials for now,” she wrote, stating that the ban applied to both Democrats and Republicans.
Payne believes the trouble started in September, when she attempted to have state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais, a Republican who replaced Rex, a Democrat, in January, speak to her class.
School officials pulled the plug on Zais’ visit the day before he was to speak to the class, Payne said.
Zais actually commented on Payne’s Facebook page Wednesday night, writing, “I think your organization was the kind of creativity schools should encourage. I am sorry your district has chosen this course of action.”
Payne wrote that the District 5 board passed a new academic freedom policy last week.
“I'm not sure if there is a correlation or not, however, as a result I may not bring politics/political issues into the Current Issues class at this time. I'm not sure that there is much substance left in the course now.”
One of Payne’s supporters criticized the district’s actions.
“What I can't understand is you are teaching the students what is going (on) in TODAY’S world,” wrote Grace Hutchinson. “This is what our students of today need to know for TOMORROW!! This is all part of learning and history. This is a bunch of crock.”
In response to a question on Facebook, Payne said District 5 officials “didn't say my teaching methods were in question, it's the subject matter (taxation, health care, stimulus money, gov't spending, etc.).”
Payne’s class, which offered students the opportunity to not only listen to scores of well-known speakers since 2008, but also ask them questions, had generated considerable publicity over the past couple of years.
While many speakers were political leaders, some from as far away as Myrtle Beach, Orangeburg and Beaufort, there were also numerous nonpartisan state government employees, journalists from media outlets such as The State, the Free Times, television station WACH and radio station WVOC, and bloggers, along with political party leaders, activists and a host of local community leaders.
Payne wrote that it's ironic that legislators will now be kept out of her current events class, when they’re the ones making the decisions that affect the lives of all South Carolinians.