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Voter’s Guide: Meet the candidates for state superintendent

We published the results of the March 3 race here for State Superintendent on March 4 at 8:15 a.m. Link: After primary elections, who will be on the ballot in November?

Tuesday is primary day. Voters across North Carolina will go out to cast their vote in a variety of races. But the most important for education could very well be the race for state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Current state Superintendent Mark Johnson will have his name on the ballot in a different race: lieutenant governor of North Carolina. So one thing is certain: Come January, the state will have a new state superintendent.

But with a crowded field of five Democrats and two Republicans seeking the seat, it’s less clear who that new superintendent is going to be.

With primary day here, we take a look at all of the candidates for State Superintendent of Public Instruction below. 

There is a variety of information here, from campaign essentials to issue positions. We also include campaign finance number for candidates. To put those numbers in context, they represent fundraising for the last half of 2019. When Mark Johnson ran for Superintendent, he raised about $75,000 in the last half of 2015 — the year right before the November elections. 

After this election, there will only be two contenders for state Superintendent: one Democrat and one Republican, so this primary election will have a big impact. To find your polling place, here is the official website from the State Board of Elections.

Note: Some of policy, positions, and thoughts sections below were sourced from a superintendent forum hosted by Public Schools First NC, the Public School Forum of North Carolina, the NC League of Women Voters, and the North Carolina Parent Teacher Association. For a full live stream of the candidate forum, click here to watch the Democratic candidates and click here to watch the Republican candidates. The remainder of the information was sourced from a superintendent’s candidate forum held by the North Carolina School Boards Association, which was only attended by Republican candidates, on January 24th.

The Democrats

James Barrett

James Barrett

Who is he?

A school board member in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Basic information

Website: barrettforschools.com

Email: james@barrettforschools.com 

Twitter: @jcbarr

Campaign finance: Raised $25,100 (Source: The Insider)

Education: Graduate of College of William and Mary, M.S. Georgia Institute of Technology

Policy, positions, thoughts (from superintendent’s forums)

Two most important duties of Superintendent: Chief Administrative Officer for the entire system of schools across North Carolina. Advocacy.

Opportunity scholarships (vouchers): “I don’t understand how this is constitutional when it creates a separate system, has separate accountability requirements — basically none — and has no transparency within that system. … I would say that I’m a little more cautious around the other voucher program — not the opportunity voucher program — for kids with disabilities. And we do have kids that aren’t being well-served in our traditional schools and we need to make sure those students are well-served. If they could use those vouchers in traditional schools that would be even doubly awesome.”

Achieving a level playing field for all students: “Whether we ever get there or not is less important than we absolutely need to be engaged in the work and having the hard conversations about what that looks like and passing budgets that actually implement our values. And if that’s our value of having equity, then we need to work towards it. Whether we get there or not, I don’t know, but we need to be working towards it and not just throw up our hands and say we’ll never get there.”

Transcending politics: “I was trained in a model of community organizing based on relationships first, making sure that we understand and respect each other as human beings so that we can start that conversation. And then I think Rep. Horn was absolutely correct — that having common ground, what we call in community organizing ‘small wins.'”

Why should people vote for you? “I’m the only one here with really professional decades of leading change in really, really large projects with thousands and thousands of stakeholders and being effective in bringing that change at a professional level, and executive level. … I have a track record on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board of having the most progressive policies around … All those levers need to be used by the superintendent and I have the track record in each and every one of those to be really effective.”

What grade would you give North Carolina public schools? B

Constance Lav Johnson

Constance Lav Johnson

Who is she?  

Owner of CityPolitical Magazine, and a former teacher, school counselor, and school administrator.

Basic information

Website: constancelavjohnson.com

Email: 2020@constancelavjohnson.com or constancelavjohnson@gmail.com

Campaign address: 7209 Charlotte, North Carolina 28227

Twitter: @johnson_lav

Campaign finance: Unavailable (Source: The Insider)

Education: Graduate of Livingstone College, M.Ed. University of Maryland

Policy, positions, thoughts (from superintendent’s forums)

Two most important duties of Superintendent: Advocating for teachers and building relationships with state government.

Opportunity scholarships (vouchers): “I don’t believe in the voucher program. I don’t believe that the objectives are clear and well thought out. … I believe that charter schools really need to be under the same umbrella as public schools and those funds need to be given to the public schools. I believe in choice, I’m not against choice. I’m against a failed system that does not bring our students to a higher academic level at a certain pace.”

Achieving a level playing field for all students: “I believe we can have a level playing field and I believe that is going to take a direct focus on our teachers and our parents. I believe that right now we are so focused on money, our political system is focused on contribution dollars … We need government to be a strong backbone for education but we need to take politics out of education and we have to make sure that our superintendent focuses on parents, teachers, and students.”

Transcending politics: “I believe that I’m a highly skilled moderator and it comes from my experience as a counselor. My education is in guidance and counseling … I believe in listening to every side, making sure we are addressing the true needs of people who need those resources or need that level of pay. And I’m a publisher, so I can take the information from both sides and put it into a bill that kind of suits both sides … There is an answer that pleases both sides and if we can focus on the victims that need those issues addressed, that’s the best way. To be a listener and a communicator.”

Why should people vote for you? “I own a business, so I manage employees. My employees never leave me and when I have to sometimes let them go they beg to come back and I usually let the come back. But I’m a dynamic manager and I know everything about HR, about benefits. I’m probably one of the only ones up here that’s run a business … I was a counselor for pastors. … I’m extremely creative. If I see a problem, I’m a communicator … I’m a problem-solver, I’m an infrastructure-builder. … I have every skill this position needs.”

What grade would you give North Carolina public schools? C-

Michael Maher

Michael Maher

Who is he?

Former assistant dean of professional education and accreditation at North Carolina State University, and vice chair of the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission.

Basic information:

Website: www.maherfornc.com

Email: michael@maherfornc.com

Campaign address: P.O. Box 10955, Raleigh, NC 27605

Twitter: @MaherforNC

Campaign finance: Raised $13,100 (Source: The Insider)

Education: Graduate of Belmont Abbey College, Ph.D. NC State

Policy, positions, thoughts (from superintendent’s forums)

Two most important duties of Superintendent: Chief advocate for public schools and agency head for the state Department of Public Instruction.

Opportunity scholarships (vouchers): “I am opposed to vouchers in all their forms. I think it is time to repeal the voucher law. We should not be providing tax dollars to unaccountable private institutions, particularly institutions that are free to discriminate against students and teachers and families. … This is another example of how we nickel and dime our schools — we take much-needed resources, dollar resources, we draw it away from public schools and push it into private schools.”

Achieving a level playing field for all students: “I think if you don’t think it’s possible you shouldn’t run for this office. You need to be a visionary leader that people want to get behind, you need to have real goals, you need to be pushing the system forward. I think this is really a question about equity policy.”

Transcending politics: “I think it comes down to relationships. … In my prior work as the assistant dean at NC State, I was responsible for being a liaison between the college and representatives of the General Assembly and I coordinated visits for members of the General Assembly every semester to come visit the college. … If we try to solve all the problems of the world our way right away, then we run the risk of solving nothing and staying in a stalemate. … Compromise doesn’t mean you meet in the middle. It means you take the best parts of both parts and put that together.”

Why should people vote for you? “The superintendent needs to be someone with experience, expertise, and vision. I spent the last 24 years in public education. I started as a high school teacher. … I moved on later and became a college professor, working in teacher preparation. … so I know what it’s like to prepare teachers. I was the assistant dean at NC State for 12 years overseeing one of the most effective teacher preparation programs not just in the state but in the country, so I know what it’s like to build effective preparation programs. … I’ve also been an advocate … and I’ve worked in policy. So I believe I’m the one candidate that brings all the different components that you need to be an effective superintendent — it all comes down to experience, expertise, vision.”

What grade would you give North Carolina public schools? A

Jen Mangrum

Jennifer Mangrum

Who is she?

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. Mangrum is endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators.

Basic information

Website: www.jenmangrumfornc.com

Email: jenmangrumfornc@gmail.com

Campaign address: Jen Mangrum for NC, 1852 Banking Street #9544 – Greensboro, NC 27408

Twitter: @jenmangrumfornc

Campaign finance: Raised $59,700 in second half of 2019. (Source: The Insider)

Education: Graduate of UNCW, M.Ed. ECU, Ph.D. NC State

Policy, positions, thoughts (from superintendent’s forums)

Two most important duties of Superintendent: Being collaborative and showing up to State Board meetings, schools, and districts.

Opportunity scholarships (vouchers): “I believe vouchers are unconstitutional and I hope they’ll come before our supreme court once again. … Private schools rarely cost $4,200, and the ones that do are popping up all over and they’re using our tax dollars and they’re not necessarily educating our children. … To me, vouchers are a complete waste of money, they’re starving our schools, and I believe they’re unconstitutional.”

Achieving a level playing field for all students: “I do think it’s possible, or I wouldn’t even run. Equity means not that everyone has the same but that everyone has what they need. And so schools that don’t have enough resources should be getting more funding so that they can support their children. We can have a level playing field, but it’s going to cost money and it’s going to take people working together to make that happen.”

Transcending politics: “I think some things are too important and there’s too big a sense of urgency to compromise, particularly our children. … There are some things that are worth fighting for, and to me education is one. That doesn’t mean I don’t come to the table and don’t have the conversation, but I keep coming, and I keep coming … You bring data, you bring examples, you bring real life. And ultimately, what do we want for North Carolina? We want it to be better. And to make it better we have to address some of these issues head on.”

Why should people vote for you? “I was a classroom teacher for 12 years and then another two years as the literacy coach in my building. … I created the elementary education program at State … and I’ve been at UNC-Greensboro for 11 years. Both my parents were teachers. Teachers to me are the people who put the humanity in education. They’re why our children show up. They take care of our kids. I think we have a crisis — I know we have a crisis. … If we don’t start taking care of our educators, we are going to not be an ‘A’ in our schools. I know education from many different perspectives — also as a mom — but what I want to do is make schools in North Carolina the best they can be”  

What grade would you give North Carolina public schools? Schools — A. Legislators — F.

Keith Sutton

Keith Sutton

Who is he?

Education innovation consultant and vice chair of the Wake County Board of Education

Basic information

Website: votekeithsutton.com

Email: voteksutton@gmail.com

Campaign address: PO Box 40191, Raleigh, NC 27629

Twitter: @votekeithsutton

Campaign finance: Raised $17,300 (Source: The Insider)

Education: Graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, M.Ed. University of Pennsylvania

Policy, positions, thoughts (from superintendent’s forums)

Two most important duties of Superintendent: Set the conditions for educational success and lead the state Department of Public Instruction.

Opportunity scholarships (vouchers): “I don’t support vouchers. I don’t think we should use public funds to provide private education. I think they do hurt our system. I think they help to re-segregate our schools and communities.” 

Achieving a level playing field for all students: “I don’t know that we’ll ever have a level playing field, or that we should, but we do want to make sure that we have equal opportunity and equal access. We want to make sure every student, every family, every community has access to a high-quality education … and that every student, regardless of their ability, regardless of where they come from, regardless of what zip code they’re born to, they have access to opportunity.”

Transcending politics: “I agree that we have to find some areas of commonality, and I think we want the same things. … But I think the difference becomes in strategy and how to get there and some of that involves philosophical differences. … What we need to do is get the hell out of Raleigh and get into classrooms. Children are hurting all across North Carolina. And it doesn’t take much to see that.”

Why should people vote for you? “I’ve been on the board of the largest system in North Carolina for the last 10 years. … Just this year … we were the first district to raise the minimum salary for bus drivers to $15 an hour across North Carolina. We gave teachers the only teacher raise that they got in Wake County because the state chose not to do so. … Experience and leadership matters. We’ve seen what three years of inexperienced leadership looks like at the head of the Department of Public Instruction, and we can’t afford another four years of inexperience.”

What grade would you give North Carolina public schools? D

The Republicans

Craig Horn

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, talking at press conference on K-3 class size bill. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Who is he?

Lawmaker from the state House of Representatives who chairs both the House education K-12 and education appropriations committee.

Basic information

Website: www.horn4ncschools.com

Campaign address: Post Office Box 80665, Raleigh, NC  27623

Twitter: @dcraighorn

Campaign finance: Raised $29,900. Of that, $25,000 was loaned by himself to his campaign. (Source: The Insider)

Education: In 2015, Rep. Horn was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters by Wingate University for his work in education

Policy, positions, thoughts (from superintendent’s forums)

Two most important duties of Superintendent: Lead the department to ensure that we are delivering the finest education to the most number of kids across the state and to work in conjunction with the General Assembly, the governor, and other levels of education to ensure a smooth continuum of education that provides the best outcome for every student.

Vision for public education: “My vision for public education in North Carolina is we will provide every child an opportunity to achieve their goals, recognizing that their goals are going to change as they move along in life.”

“Our kids need to be not just be reading on grade level by the end of third grade. They need to be performing on grade level every grade. And we all know that different kids learn different things in different ways, and we have to adjust to that. We need people and policies that will allow that to happen.”

School performance grades: “To me, the very definition of education is growth. … I believe and I have consistently advocated for a significant change in that A-F as far as it’s 80-20 — 80% performance, 20% growth. That’s not right at all, I would prefer it to be exactly the opposite, 80-20.”

“We need to change the formula. It needs to be more reflective of actually what happens in the school and cannot be a deterrent, should not be a deterrent. And frankly, it has become a deterrent. It’s become a deterrent in attracting teachers, attracting principals, and moving principals.”

On opportunity scholarships (vouchers): “I support school choice. … I support the idea that no one thing works for everyone. …. My obligation as a legislator, my obligation as a superintendent, is to make our public schools the first choice, not the last resort.”

“Do I support giving kids a choice to find out what works best for them? Yes I do. But when you take my money, you’re getting my nose. If you’re going to take my money, me, the state, take your money, I want accountability for it.”

On teacher pipeline: “We need a teacher in every classroom. And we need an excellent teacher in every classroom, but first we need a teacher in every classroom. We don’t even have that in this state.”

“We need to raise this up and talk about the great things about teachers. You can touch the future. We need to get his message across to our schools of education and up the game, up the game, not lower the standards, let’s raise them. Let’s talk positively. We need a positive message. We can do this, and it’s up to us.”

What grade would you give North Carolina public schools? C+

Catherine Truitt

Catherine Truitt at the NC Chamber’s Education and Workforce Conference Aug. 2019. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

Who is she?

Chancellor of Western Governors University North Carolina and former education advisor to Republican Governor Pat McCrory.

Basic information

Website: catherinetruitt.com

Email: https://catherinetruitt.com/contact/

Twitter: @CTruittNC

Campaign finance: Raised $5,900. (Source: The Insider)

Education: Graduate of University of Maryland, M.Ed. University of Washington

Policy, positions, thoughts (from superintendent’s forums)

Two most important duties of Superintendent: Advocate to the legislature on behalf of public schools in North Carolina and be a liaison on behalf of superintendents building leaders and teachers.

Vision for public education: “My North Star for public education, my guiding principle, is that every decision we make needs to be about kids … To be more specific, I would say that we need to have a highly-qualified teacher, and I don’t mean that in a technical sense, but we need to have an excellent teacher in every single classroom across our state.” 

School performance grades: “That system is purely a reflection of socio-economic status in schools and has got to go. That system does nothing but marginalize the families and the children who go to those schools and demoralize teachers who are at those schools. All schools should be considered growth schools.”

“I advocate for doing away with the system. While we do need to measure where we are, we do not need to grade schools according to how kids perform on an exam that’s really more about teacher accountability that student achievement.”

On opportunity scholarships (vouchers): “I support some funds going to opportunity scholarships because I believe that low-income parents need to have choices just like high-income parents do. However, I think $140 million is too much.”

On teacher pipeline: “They’re not leaving the profession, they’re leaving their district to go someplace else. So sometimes that looks like they start teaching in a rural county with the hopes of moving to teach in Charlotte-Meck or in Wake County. Sometimes that means going over the border, unfortunately, which is what we really don’t want to see. I think that a big part of getting an excellent teacher in every classroom is, first of all, what we’ve learned in the last 5-10 years is that alternative routes to licensure were not working the way we thought they were going to work. So it’s awesome when somebody decides, ‘I’m going to leave my current job and become a teacher.’ What was happening was that they had three years to get their teacher certification and there was no standard path to do that.

And, unfortunately, there’s a disproportionate number of people of color taking that route. They did not receive the supports that they needed, and ended up leaving the profession.”

“Part of getting an excellent teacher in every classroom is recruiting more teachers of color. The data is very clear that kids need to have teachers who look like them, and in order to do that, we have to start doing a better job of recruiting.”

What grade would you give North Carolina public schools? C+

Staff

EdNC staff reporting relies on staff, interns, and columnists.