Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the Mathematics Vision Project’s business structure. It is a limited liability company.
A group of families in Wake County, N.C., have pushed for months to get the district to stop using a controversial new curriculum. Now, the company behind the curriculum is suing one of the most vocal parents for defamation.
It’s a surprising move that some say could have broad implications for parent advocacy around curriculum and instruction.
A win by the company “would certainly cast a shadow on the idea that parents have a right to participate in their own children’s education, to criticize schools for buying particular textbooks, to voice their concerns about instruction and curriculum,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher formerly at the Brookings Institution, who is not involved in the case.
The Mathematics Vision Project, a publisher of open source math curricula, filed a complaint this summer against Blain Dillard, a parent in the Wake County public school system. MVP has accused Dillard, an outspoken opponent of the math program, of libel, slander, and “tortious interference with business relations.”
The company alleges that Dillard has launched “a crusade against MVP” through his online criticism of the curriculum and advocacy with school officials and employees. MVP alleges comments Dillard made online and in person included false statements that harmed the company’s business interests.
Dillard has since issued a counterclaim against the company for lawyers’ fees and damages. In a written statement to Education Week, Jeffrey Hunt, Dillard’s lawyer, wrote that the lawsuit “has no legal merit.”
“It is alarming that a parent would be sued for defamation for expressing opinions and making truthful statements about his son’s high school math curriculum,” Hunt said. “The lawsuit appears to be an attempt to silence Mr. Dillard and other critics of MVP and to chill their First Amendment rights to speak about MVP’s services.”
The district is entering its third year using the MVP curriculum, which received a favorable evaluation from the curriculum reviewer EdReports. The open source curriculum emphasizes problem-solving and collaboration—students learn by working through problems, and teachers are expected to act as facilitators.
For months now, parents have spoken out against lessons that they say are confusing and poorly structured, lodging complaints with the district and making statements at school board meetings. Parents contend their children weren’t getting enough direct instruction and are encouraged to rely on their classmates for help. As a result, they said, students who used to get As and Bs are now getting Cs and Ds, which would have long-lasting effects on their grade point averages and college prospects.
Barbara Kuehl, an author and consultant at MVP, said that the organization’s materials encourage a variety of methods. “Our curriculum not only supports well-timed direct instruction, we advocate for it,” she said.
Setting a Precedent?
Pushback from parents over a new curriculum, and particularly a discovery-based program, is nothing new, said Loveless.
“There have been all kinds of programs that have been oriented around that philosophy, and they have been quite controversial,” Loveless said.
What is new? A curriculum provider suing parents over such complaints.
From a business perspective, it’s “dicey” for providers to start suing parents, Loveless said. “They’re salespeople. They want to sell their product, and they want to sell it to school districts. If you’re suing parents, I don’t see how that would be productive.”
MVP’s complaint cites two instances in which Dillard said reported student achievement gains after use of MVP were fabricated. Also implicated in the complaint are several of Dillard’s blog posts, including his analysis of student-achievement data and results of his informal teacher polling.
But Dillard’s counterclaim alleges that his statements can be reasonably interpreted as opinion and, as such, can’t be defamatory. In a response to MVP’s lawsuit, Dillard’s lawyers write that the company is “attempting to use the judicial process to punish a parent who dared to voice reasonable concerns.”
The counterclaim also invokes Utah’s statute against SLAPP lawsuits—strategic lawsuits against public participation.
“Essentially, [a SLAPP suit] is just a meritless lawsuit that’s brought to try to silence, intimidate, or harass a critic,” said Evan Mascagni, the policy director of the Public Participation Project, an anti-SLAPP advocacy organization that is not involved with this case.
Mascagni noted that he couldn’t speak to the specific complaint filed by MVP. In general though, businesses often bring these lawsuits to retaliate against negative online consumer reviews, he said.
“In public education, parents absolutely have a right to share their perspectives—including critiques—about all aspects of their children’s education,” said Kuehl, in a written statement to Education Week. “However, no one has the right to spread falsehoods about another person or organization; our libel laws are designed to protect against such unjust behavior.”
In a statement to Education Week, the company drew a distinction between Dillard’s actions and those of other parents, alleging that he alone had “crossed a line from sharing an opinion to sharing falsehoods.”
Sandy Joiner, another Wake County parent who has been active in the movement against MVP, thinks the district should be taking a stance in support of Dillard. “[School officials] should be very worried about a curriculum vendor that they chose who’s suing parents in their district,” she said.
If MVP wins the suit, the implications for Wake County could be broad, said Loveless. “That district in particular would have to clarify to parents: What rights do they have that they can exercise in terms of freedom of dissent without being sued?”
Amid the controversy around the curriculum and the lawsuit, the district is still using MVP.
Tim Simmons, a spokesman for the Wake County schools, said the district was not aware ahead of time that MVP was filing the complaint against Dillard.
“We don’t have any control over how that process turns out,” he said. “What we do have control over is making sure that the students have the materials that they need and the teachers have the support they need for this particular curriculum.”
In June, the district released an internal review of the curriculum—a response to formal complaints that parents had lodged with the school system. That review cited a small increase in state test scores for the 2017-18 school year, the first year that schools used the MVP curriculum.
The review committee, consisting of 12 district staff members and seven community stakeholders, found that the implementation of the curriculum hadn’t violated laws or district policies. The district’s review suggested keeping the curriculum in place for the 2019-20 school year—but with a few changes. The district plans to provide additional supports for teachers and students and hire an external third party to conduct another review of the curriculum. In August, the school board voted to keep the curriculum in place.
“The court action doesn’t change any of those decisions made in June,” Simmons said.
In an interview with Education Week earlier this year, Dillard said that he got involved in advocacy around MVP after his son started to struggle in math class. (He declined this month to comment on the lawsuit specifically, referring Education Week to his lawyer.)
Dillard doesn’t object to creative problem-solving, he said earlier this year, but he felt that students weren’t getting enough instruction in the fundamentals to figure out how to solve the problems they were presented with in class. The curriculum “demonizes the practices of rote memorization and lecture,” he said. Dillard also thought that the district had been too slow to respond to initial parent complaints.
In March, Dillard started writing a public blog, Wake MVP Parent, where he posted results from his public records requests to Wake County, his own analyses of district math achievement data, and results from informal polls he conducted with district staff members.
Joiner, the Wake County parent, was shocked when Dillard told her about the lawsuit.
“I didn’t really believe it. I thought he was kidding,” Joiner said. She recently started a GoFundMe and Facebook fundraiser for Dillard’s legal expenses.
“A lot of parents are working in this group together,” she said. “We’re all speaking at board meetings, sending emails to Wake County staff, emails to MVP. We’re all trying to advocate. It seems really odd that they would single him out.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2019 edition of Education Week as Curriculum Company Sues Parent for Defamation