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State superintendent candidates talk about early learning, race in North Carolina schools

The learning and development of the state’s youngest students was at the heart of a debate among North Carolina state superintendent candidates Friday.

As Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson finishes his term and runs for lieutenant governor, the race to fill his seat in 2020 is getting crowded. Five Democratic candidates and Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who said he is considering running but has not announced his official candidacy, answered questions Friday on how the state should support students starting in pre-K and throughout their early elementary years.

The North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation (NCECF) organized the event, placing early childhood education at the front of a race that usually focuses on K-12 education. Muffy Grant, NCECF executive director, said the organization wanted to give candidates the chance to speak on early education issues — and how to connect the early childhood and K-12 systems. The superintendent’s office oversees the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and the state’s K-12 students, while child care and pre-K fall under the Department of Health and Human Services. There are some exceptions — DPI allocates preschool funding for Title 1 slots and exceptional children.

“We want to take full advantage of 2020 as an opportunity to get the word out about what potential candidates are going to do to bridge that gap as it relates to early learning into the K-12 system in our state,” Grant said. “We just thought we really wanted to leverage this opportunity to give a platform to talk about these candidates’ understanding of the importance of early brain development and all of the issues around early learning and education, particularly in K-3, but along that continuum.”

The five Democratic candidates were James Barrett, former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member; Constance Lav Johnson, former educator and publisher of CityPolitical magazine; Michael Maher, president of the North Carolina Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators and vice chairman of the North Carolina Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission; Jennifer Mangrum, former educator and associate professor at UNC-Greensboro’s college of education; and Keith Sutton, Wake County school board member.

Amy Jablonski, leadership development and research project director at SWIFT Education Center and a former state DPI staffer, was another Democrat aiming for the office, but she dropped out of the race a few weeks ago. Republican Catherine Truitt, chancellor of Western Governors University, was supposed to join the debate Friday but was recovering from surgery. Truitt told she is indeed running for the Republican nomination. Former Rep. Chris Malone, Republican and former Wake County school board member, has also said he will run for the spot.

On race’s impact in the classroom

Many of the questions from moderator Susan Scott, chief growth officer at UNC-TV, and responses from the six participating candidates revolved around race — how it impacts instruction, discipline, curriculum, and the teacher workforce. 

“We acknowledge that there’s bias in standards, curriculum, materials, assessments, and systems,” Scott said. She asked candidates what needs to happen for schools to be culturally relevant to all students.

Johnson said that growing up as a black child in North Carolina’s public schools, she often did not learn about examples of influential black individuals in subjects from history to science.

“If I could see myself in the English literature, if I could see myself in math, if I could see myself in social studies and economics … I would be more inclined to feel as if I belong to those subjects, and I would be more interested in delving into those subjects academically,” Johnson said. She said that teachers need to incorporate diverse figures into their curricula and that minority teachers need to feel empowered to share their own cultural and racial perspectives with students.

Mangrum said teachers often have lower implicit expectations for students of color.

“When you have lower expectations, they don’t get the same quality instruction that our children who are not of color get,” she said.

Mangrum spoke of her work at UNC-Greensboro to bring engineering instruction into high-poverty, high-minority elementary schools. She said high expectations and high-quality instruction that is relevant to students and their communities are important to provide opportunity to all students.

Barrett pointed to a lack of state funding, saying more resources are needed for culturally relevant books and materials and for librarians and media assistants who can curate relevant literature.

“We do not have the resources in our classrooms to meet our constitutional obligation to the education of all of our kids,” Barrett said.

When asked about the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of young students of color, Maher brought up the state’s accountability system, saying that an overemphasis on proficiency in the way the state grades schools fails to recognize other factors that affect student success. 

“This data exists, so we can look now school system by school system and see where disproportionate suspension is happening, and I think armed with that data, schools are able to make better decisions,” Maher said. He suggested including “measures of equity” in the state’s report cards, such as disproportionate suspension rates, racial disparities in special education labeling, and access to advanced courses in high school.

Scott shifted the conversation to the importance of racial match between a student and teacher, which research has shown helps students of color. As the state’s student population grows more and more diverse, the overwhelming majority of teachers and principals are white.

Sutton said recruiting and retaining teachers of color is going to take meaningful partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). He pointed to the new version of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, which partners with institutions of higher education to provide free tuition to soon-to-be teachers who commit to teaching in the state. Sutton highlighted that none of those schools are HBCUs.

“This doesn’t mean just going out and having a table, sitting at a college fair, hoping that some African American teachers or students pass by — but we need meaningful partnerships,” Sutton said. He also spoke in favor of “grow your own” programs that encourage high school students interested in education to return to their local communities to teach.

Horn said attracting educators of color is going to take re-imagining educator preparation. He also mentioned Profound Gentlemen, a national organization based in Charlotte that professionally and personally supports male educators of color who often feel isolated in their roles. 

“Our schools of education are designed by white women for white women,” Horn said. “… We need to reach down into our high schools, no, we need to reach down into our middle and elementary schools, and promote the career of education.”

Barrett said he has been involved in hiring 50% more teachers of color over the last year in Chapel Hill, leveraging existing state funding to recruit internationally. “It’s a problem and it’s a challenge, but it is a solvable challenge,” he said.

On NC Pre-K, funding formulas

Horn was the only candidate to tackle NC Pre-K expansion, which has faced obstacles in recent years as counties who need more slots for at-risk four-year-olds have turned down state funding due to a lack of space and resources to create those slots. 

“Appropriate more money,” Horn said. He also said that to expand access, a mindset shift is needed.

“What really I think needs to happen is we all need to take an active role in ensuring that we are getting both our services to the child and the child to the services,” Horn said. “We know that in our major metro areas we have a plethora of options, but check that plethora out in Greene County. How’s that look?”

The discussion also touched on professional development for educators, ensuring teacher quality, and the statewide school funding model. Sutton said the state should intervene to level education funding in poor counties without the tax bases to support their schools.

“I think the state has a role to play in ensuring that every county has access to not just a sound basic education but high-quality education,” Sutton said.

Horn mentioned his work with a legislative committee that studied school finance and suggested the system should fund schools based on the needs of individual children. 

“Why don’t we fund the needs of the child?” Horn said, adding that students with certain disabilities, for example, need more funds than others. “It should be a child-centered process.”

Barrett said the focus should be not on changing the model but on providing more funding.

“It’s not re-allocating money,” he said. “It’s not shifting money around between pots. The answer is more money.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said this debate was the first among superintendent candidates this year. It was not the first.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.