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The North Carolina Association of School Administrators held a virtual forum today where audience members could hear where the state’s candidates for governor and state superintendent of public instruction stand on issues related to public education.

Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper both gave standalone statements on their education positions. State superintendent candidates Jen Mangrum (Democrat) and Catherine Truitt (Republican) participated in a debate moderated by Anthony Jackson, superintendent of Vance County Schools and North Carolina’s 2020 Superintendent of the Year.

But all the candidates touched on a number of subjects that have become big-issues in North Carolina education, including teacher pay and school choice.

Teacher and principal pay

Cooper said that too many teachers are leaving the state and the profession, but that he’s worked hard to fix that since he was elected in 2016.

“When I became governor, our schools were facing real challenges,” he said. “We weren’t where we needed to be with teacher pay.”

Cooper said he’s pushed the General Assembly in the right direction on issues like teacher pay. But Forest fought back against that assertion.

“He actually vetoed every single teacher pay raise budget,” Forest said.

Cooper went against teacher pay raises proposed by the Republican-led General Assembly because he said they weren’t doing enough. He wanted higher pay increases. But Forest said vetoing teacher pay raises because you want them to be higher doesn’t make any sense.

In particular, Forest pointed out the long session of the General Assembly, when Cooper vetoed the budget and the General Assembly didn’t have the votes to override the veto. The result was no budget and no teacher pay raises.

Forest said Cooper’s rationale was: “Zero is good because I want more.”

“I don’t understand the logic of that,” Forest said.

Both Mangrum and Truitt got into the issue of teacher pay as well, with Truitt saying she wanted to get teacher pay in North Carolina to No. 1 in the southeast and Mangrum saying she wanted teacher pay in the state up to the national average.

Mangrum said that increasing pay was a necessary step in bolstering the teacher pipeline in North Carolina, particularly when it comes to getting students to consider going into the profession.

“We need to do what’s right for public education and that means when we give a good wage … we encourage young people to head that way,” she said.

While Truitt said that teacher pay was important, she said she wanted to see the state pay more attention to principals as well. She talked about how important principals are when it comes to things like teacher recruitment and retention. But too often, the role of principals is overlooked in the state.

“Principals have a low agenda status for the state, especially compared to teachers,” Truitt said.

Both superintendent candidates said there are issues with the state’s principal salary schedule. Truitt said the principal pay scale needs to be changed, and the state needs to put more attention and energy into scaling up the state’s principal training programs.

Mangrum said that the fact that principal salary is tied to the performance of students in a school makes it less likely that principals will go to lower-performing schools.

School choice

School choice was another big topic, especially after the General Assembly met earlier this month and used COVID-19 relief funds to expand some of the state’s school choice programs.

Forest said he supports school choice because he believes that parents want and can choose what is best for their children, and that not every student needs the same kind of education.

“Sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach to education doesn’t work for everybody,” he said, adding that the competition created by North Carolina’s school choice environment is good for everybody.

Cooper, on the other hand, said that the goal of Republicans was to “starve” public schools of their funding and send tax dollars to rich people so they can pay for private schools. School choice programs, like the opportunity scholarship (voucher) program, serve low-income students with funds that can be used to pay for private school tuition.

Cooper said, however, that Republicans want to loosen the income restrictions so that it is not only low-income students that can get the scholarships.

“They hurt our public schools,” Cooper said, adding that he thinks Forest is “satisfied with teacher pay and per-pupil funding,” and will “rubber stamp” the actions of the General Assembly.

Mangrum said that school choice programs, like opportunity scholarships and charter schools, are taking funding away from traditional public schools and contributing to resegregation.

“Vouchers have to be looked at as, how are they helping our schools? And I don’t see them helping them at all,” Mangrum said.

As for charter schools, Mangrum advocated making choice more about something like magnet schools than charter schools. She also said that it might make sense to put charter schools under the “umbrella” of school districts.

Truitt said she is not in favor of increasing the income threshold for opportunity scholarships.

“This should be a program for low-income families,” she said.

She also talked about wanting to see charter schools do more to share the innovative approaches they use and create an “interchange” between charters and traditional public schools.

And more…

The forum also featured additional debate where the candidates took issue with their opponents’ positions.

Cooper said that in a press conference last week, Forest talked about wanting all children to return to school without masks or precautions.

“Not only is that wrong, it’s dangerous,” Cooper said.

Forest responded at the top of his statement, saying that Cooper’s statement was full of “untruths” and “character assassination.”

He went on to say that he never said to let every kid into a classroom without a mask or safety precautions, but that school administrators should be responsible for doing what is right for students.

During the superintendent candidates debate, Truitt pointed out language from a piece Mangrum wrote for an EducationNC series where the candidates answered questions each week. In that piece, Mangrum talked about how she was “not going to work with a General Assembly that’s going to continue moving our schools in the wrong direction.”

Truitt called this point of view “very short-sighted.”

Mangrum responded, saying she had no problem fighting a political party that, she said, “wants to starve public education and put money into private schools.”

She also told Truitt that she was “stunned” that Truitt stood at the press conference last week with Forest, who Mangrum said doesn’t believe in science.

Watch the forum for yourself below.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.