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Rep. Craig Horn for state superintendent? How many people want the top education spot

While Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson still hasn’t revealed whether he will run for reelection in 2020, a couple of education leaders have expressed their interest in running for the seat as a Republican. With six candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, the number of interested contenders is up to eight.

Last week, WRAL revealed that Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, is interested in the title. And we reported in late August that Western Governors University North Carolina Chancellor Catherine Truitt was interested as well. Both Horn and Truitt are just waiting to find out whether Johnson is going to run. All Johnson will say is that he will be involved in the 2020 election. 

“Mark Johnson will be a candidate for public office in 2020 and we will make a more specific announcement about that at an appropriate time,” Jonathan Felts, spokesman for Mark Johnson, said in an email. “A number of potential candidates have contacted both of us expressing interest in the Superintendent’s seat if Mark Johnson does not seek reelection and I feel confident there will be a strong Republican nominee for Superintendent whether it is Mark Johnson or someone else.”

With the candidate filing date coming up in December, Truitt said it’s important that Johnson make an announcement about his plans. 

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

“The public does deserve to know what his plans are, as do any candidates who are considering running because it does take considerable resources to mount a statewide campaign,” she said. “This is not something that challengers can undertake without much thought or consideration. It’s a big deal for their families, and in my case, I’m serving the students of WGU North Carolina, and I’ll be doing both of those things if I decide to run, and I want to get my ducks in a row.” 

Horn said he’s been considering running for a while but hadn’t anticipated making that public quite yet. Then last week, rumors began circulating on Twitter about his interest and a reporter from WRAL reached out to him. 

Horn said he’s been encouraged by friends and others from both chambers of the General Assembly and both parties. He said he doesn’t want to run against Johnson, but he can’t say for sure that he wouldn’t. That decision will have to wait until he knows whether Johnson is running.

“The decision should be made on one and only one basis. And that basis is who can move the rock for kids,” he said. “Who can do the best on improving outcomes for kids?” 

Horn, a chair of both the House education K-12 and education appropriations committee, holds a lot of sway on education matters in the General Assembly. Truitt said she worries about the hole he would leave if he moved over to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

“I know where he’s coming from in terms of the legislation that he supports, and while we may not agree on every single point, I have total trust that he is someone who wants to do what’s right for kids,” she said. “So I would prefer that he stay a K-12 education chair if that’s what he chooses to do.” 

Horn is still thinking through the implications of running. In particular, he said the fact that he is not and hasn’t been a teacher, and that he is 75 years old, give him pause. 

“I think it could be helpful — it would be helpful to have teaching experience,” he said. “I agree with that. But I don’t think that eliminates me from being considered.”

Truitt, who worked in multiple schools in multiple places including North Carolina, said she thinks teaching credentials are essential. 

“I think that not only do we need a state superintendent who has a significant amount of classroom teaching experience, we also need someone who understands the 0-20 continuum,” she said.

Both Truitt and Horn said they would bring something different to the role than Johnson has.

Horn is an almost eight-year veteran of the Air Force. After that, he made his living as a food broker, retiring in 2002 from his business which he says was the largest food broker in the country at the time. When he retired, he worked with big names such as General Mills, Butterball, and ConAgra. Horn said the role of state superintendent is primarily a managerial one, and that is something he has a lot of experience with.

“My management style is very different than (Johnson’s). And how I implement that style is very different than what I see coming from him,” he said, adding later: “I’ve got a 40-year history in business and a nine-year going on 10-year history in the legislature for people to use to judge what my style is.”

In addition to being chancellor at WGU North Carolina and a former teacher, Truitt worked as associate vice president of University and P-12 Partnerships at UNC General Administration and was a senior education advisor to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. 

“I think I’m a very different candidate than Mark would be,” she said. “I bring a different set of experiences as well as a different skillset to this role. In fact, I would argue different than anyone who is running, including Rep. Horn.”

Since it was revealed that he was interested in the role of state superintendent, Horn said he’s gotten a lot of feedback, both good and bad, about the possibility of a run for the top education spot. He said that people on Twitter have pretty consistently been against the idea. 

“Some have stated their reasons, one being that I’m Republican. That’s all the reason they needed to not vote for me,” he said. “I thought that was a little strange coming from people who decry the politicization of education. That seems counterproductive to me.”

Horn said he thinks he has essential skills that would make him good for the job. What he is trying to figure out is whether there is someone else who would be better.

“I believe I’m a person that can bring people together. I have a story of building teams and bringing people together across divides,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m the best person for the job. And that’s the struggle I’m having right now.”

One area where he might be effective is in stemming the cuts that have regularly been implemented against the state Department of Public Instruction by the General Assembly. There was some hope that Johnson, a Republican with close ties to the legislature, would be able to as well, but on his watch, the cuts have continued. Those included $5.1 million in cuts that necessitated Johnson eliminating 61 positions at DPI. Twenty-one of those were vacant positions, but that left 40 people who were laid off. Horn said he thinks he could work well with the legislature to lessen impacts on DPI.

“I’m a child of the legislature. I’m a product of the legislature. I think I have a better understanding than most of how this place works. Why we do some of the things we do. And a lot of it is the ability to communicate with both legislators and legislative leadership,” Horn said. “We speak in our own language as every organization does. And again, my style is much more collaborative than most peoples. And I have worked hard over the last nine years to build relationships that engender trust, and I’ve never avoided accountability.”

On the Democratic side of the aisle, six candidates have announced their intentions to run. They debated each other on a recent candidate panel.

They are: 

  • James Barrett, a school board member in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
  • Amy Jablonski, leadership development and research project director at SWIFT Education Center (and formerly of DPI).
  • Constance Lav Johnson, an educator and activist in Charlotte.
  • Michael Maher, assistant dean of professional education at North Carolina State University.
  • Jen Mangrum, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro School of Education associate professor who unsuccessfully took on Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, in last year’s election.
  • Keith Sutton, vice chair of the Wake County Board of Education.

Meanwhile, while Horn waits to see what Johnson will do, he is keeping his eye on the legislature.

“I’m trying my best to focus on getting an education budget enacted,” he said. “I think that is the number one goal at the moment. Not having a budget is devastating for education in this state.” 

A budget was passed over the summer but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The legislature has been passing pieces of the budget in individual bills to try to get through non-controversial spending items.

Yesterday, a bill began working its way through the Senate that would give step increases to teachers and pay raises to principals. It passed the full Senate today. A more thorough education budget bill, including teacher pay raises, has not yet been introduced.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.