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Toward the end of a debate hosted yesterday by BEST NC between the two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction, the moderator asked them a question he said they wouldn’t be prepared for.

“In the interest of civil discourse, in the interest of bringing us together … what do you like about your opponent’s platform?” said Chris William, moderator and executive producer of Carolina Business Review.

As it turned out, the answer was a lot.

“Catherine brings a lot of things to the table, and I haven’t had the chance to tell her,” said Democratic candidate Jen Mangrum of her Republican opponent Catherine Truitt. “She’s very much about literacy, which we know is critical in the early years … she also wants to do right for kids.”

Mangrum also said she valued the fact that Truitt was willing to be publicly critical of current state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, saying that as strong women leaders, when she and Truitt see something that needs to be called out, they’re willing to do so.

Truitt said that she really respects Mangrum’s “passion for educators” and her “desire to engage in the classroom” and support educators. Truitt said that when people ask her if the state superintendent needs to be a teacher, Truitt always says yes. And she says Mangrum is an example of why.

“She knows exactly what it’s like to be in the trenches and the struggles our teachers face each and every day,” Truitt said.

Truitt is chancellor of Western Governors University North Carolina, an online university. She has also been a teacher and worked in classrooms for 10 years, served as associate vice president of University and P-12 Partnerships at UNC General Administration, and served as senior education advisor to former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

Mangrum is a University of North Carolina at Greensboro School of Education associate professor who took on Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, in the 2018 election. She is also a former teacher of 14 years and helped create the elementary education program at North Carolina State University’s school of education

The two candidates answered questions on a variety of topics, including what needs to be done to help students catch up when the pandemic is over and they can all return to school buildings.

Mangrum talked about her belief that the curriculum in schools is watered down and not rigorous and engaging enough. She said that remediation for students who have fallen behind during online learning is the wrong way to go.

“We don’t remediate and slow down and say it extra slow,” she said, adding later: “Excitement and acceleration will get them to advance.”

Truitt disagreed.

“I actually believe that acceleration would be a big mistake,” she said.

Truitt said that the state needs to prioritize reteaching the losses that have occurred in reading and math in particular, even if that means doing so at the expense of other subjects.

The two were also asked about the relationship between the state Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education. During Superintendent Johnson's tenure, the Board and he have often been at odds. The tone was set early when the General Assembly passed legislation just prior to Johnson being sworn in that transferred powers from the State Board to the superintendent. That move became the subject of a lawsuit that Johnson ultimately won.

"I think that starting off my tenure if elected without a lawsuit would be a great way to start," Truitt said.

She went on to call the current State Board of Education high-functioning and said they deserved a leader that would put aside politics.

Mangrum said she already has the support of some on the State Board of Education and will have no trouble working well with them.

The two candidates differ on whether or not they think the state superintendent should be an elected job or not.

Mangrum said that an election is how the people get their say.

“Through an election process, the entire state of North Carolina gets to have a voice in their student’s education," she said. 

Truitt said it should be more like president of the state community college system, with a widespread presidential search, interviews, and a vote by the Board.

“By nature, an election is political, meaning that candidates are fundraising and having to prioritize things that go into a political campaign, rather than perhaps doing what’s best for education," she said.

William asked the candidates about the importance of assessments. He asked the question this way:

"A recent national poll of parents found that 89% of parents ... are interested in information on how school closures and other COVID-related interruptions affect students' long-term outcomes ... 65% want to know the amount of academic progress students have made when schools were closed. Given that we did not have end-of-grade testing last year ... how important is it to conduct student assessments this year as we enter the next school year and what might that look like?"

Truitt said that the state's current system of assessments doesn't give parents the data they need or want.

“I’ve said in the past we need to get rid of EOCs (End-of-Course tests) and EOGs (End-of-Grade tests) as we’ve known them and go with a nationally-normed test," she said.

She said she would like to see more formative tests, as well. These are tests that are used by teachers to inform instruction.

Mangrum said that assessments are important, but that what's critical is how students are assessed and how those assessments are used. She added later that the way they are used in North Carolina is stigmatizing.

The two also talked about the landmark Leandro case, their respective qualifications for office, the role of accountability in education, and more. Watch the full debate below.


Editor's note: Chris William serves on the board of EducationNC.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.