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State superintendent candidates sound off

State superintendent candidates sound off

As Primary Election season sets in, a number of statewide races will have voters making some serious decisions at the polls. Few contests hold more consequence for the prosperity of the state as a whole than the one for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Part cheerleader, part bully, part administrator, part educator, the superintendent heads up the Department of Public Instruction, one of the state’s largest departments. A teacher of teachers, a student of students and a superintendent of superintendents, the winner of this contest will set the tone and tenor of K-12 public instruction in the state for the next four years. 

Incumbent Republican Mark Johnson isn’t seeking re-election to his post, opting instead for a shot at the lieutenant governor’s seat, but there’s no shortage of candidates hoping to succeed him — five Democrats, and two Republicans. 

The winners of those respective primaries will face off in November and in the meantime are hoping to score enough points with voters to come out on top, but as at least one candidate says, it’s hard to describe the race in the usual tired metaphors of sporting analogy because no matter what happens the only winners — or losers — are North Carolina’s children. 

Importance notwithstanding, many voters don’t understand how the superintendent’s management of the Department of Public Instruction affects their daily lives. 

“If you look at the North Carolina constitution, it calls for a system of public education, free public schools for every citizen, and that we support those public schools through the levying of taxes,” said Michael Maher, one of five Democrats competing in the March 3 Primary Election. “It’s tax dollars that citizens throughout North Carolina pay to support our public schools.”

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Maher’s platform revolves around three main issues — equity, excellence and innovation. 

“One of our biggest challenges I think throughout the state is both racial and socioeconomic inequity,” he said.  “When you look, from one school to another, resourcing is different. Staffing is different. The opportunities that children have are different, and oftentimes that happens based on where they live.”

Constance Johnson, another Democrat in the race, said that although the superintendent doesn’t vote in the General Assembly there should be better coordination between the two. 

“I think there needs to be a greater relationship between the council of state and the legislature,” Johnson said. “I believe teacher pay is a critically important issue right now to make sure our teachers can survive on a daily basis so that they can focus more on their jobs.”

Keith Sutton and Jennifer Mangrum, also Democrats, say that’s a funding issue. 

“The biggest issue I believe that the public is aware of and in tune with is a lack of funding for education, but the biggest issue I believe facing it is this agenda for privatization,” said Mangrum.

The DPI and superintendent also oversee the state’s regulation of public charter schools. 

“I don’t think the experiment has gone the way that those who initiated charter schools had expected,” Sutton said. “I would like to see us get back to what the original intent was of charter schools and that was for charters to serve as incubators of innovation, and then we take that innovation and scale it up into the traditional public schools. We’ve sort of gotten away from that. Over the last few years charter schools have re-segregated our schools and re-segregated our communities.”

James Barrett, the final Democrat in the race, holds a similar view. 

“I think we have mixed results. We have some, some schools that are doing incredibly innovative work and are really serving students, and then I think we have other schools that are using cookie cutter models that allow profits to be taken out by the companies that are running those schools,” he said. “We need to make sure that we have high quality in all of our schools, whether they be traditional or charters.”

Surprisingly, there does seem to be some consensus on public charter schools between the five Democrats and two Republicans running.

“How’s it working out in North Carolina? Not well,” said Rep. Craig Horn, one of the Republicans. “But not because it’s a bad idea. It’s not working out well because we’ve lost our focus on the student and we’re so worried about who gets what from whom. I’m sorry to say in my view it’s become more about the adults than it is about kids. We, we have no real communication between our traditional public schools and all other charter schools in my opinion.”

Catherine Truitt, Horn’s fellow Republican and primary opponent, likewise summed up the disconnect between public schools and public charter schools. 

I think that we’ve come a long way with charter schools and that we have more accountability now than we did,” said Truitt. “What started off as an initiative from president Obama’s administration has now turned into something very political and something that most people view as a Republican issue. They were supposed to be this great way to bring innovation to public schools and I don’t know that we’ve done that yet, so that would be something that I would want to work on if I’m elected.”

The contest between Horn and Truitt offers perhaps the clearest distinction between candidates, the former a longtime legislator with scads of policy experience and the latter a university chancellor. 

“I’ve spent my entire adult life in education,” Truitt said. “Even before I graduated from college, I was volunteering in classrooms and have 10 years’ classroom experience and then another three years serving nationally as a turnaround coach in high poverty schools, so I know the challenges that all kinds of kids face at school. I know the challenges that teachers, principals and superintendents face firsthand.”

There’s a subtle amount of variation in the credentials of the five Democrats as well — each of whom thinks they’re the best candidate to face Truitt or Horn come November. 

“I have the leadership experience necessary to run the large Department of Public Instruction,” said Barrett, who works in information technology management. “I’ve got the policy background as well, to make sure that we serve all of our students well. I have more experience in advocacy, and making sure that we get what we need from a variety of sources — not just funding, but that we get the right policy decisions across the board.”

Johnson paints a decidedly bleak portrait of what teachers in North Carolina face each day, and why she should be Democrats’ first choice. 

“I’ve walked that walk through the valley of being a teacher, trying to decide between gas and school supplies and school materials,” she said. “I’ve been a counselor who watched assessments, who had to ensure that the children were tested and made sure that students were exhibiting the proper behaviors they need to succeed in school. I’ve always focused on parents because I know from being a teacher and a counselor that the parents being accessible and being available for the teachers and the principal make a tremendous, tremendous difference. That’s the missing link.”

Mangrum says she has the experience voters want in the next superintendent. 

“I have 12 years as a classroom teacher. I taught reading to elementary kids and then for two years after that I stayed in the school and was the literacy coach helping my teachers in my building teach reading. So I have 14 years of classroom experience,” she said. “I’m super qualified in terms of understanding what happens in a classroom and being a champion for teachers. I then worked at the district office, then I got my Ph.D. and my first job was at N.C. State. I created the elementary education program there, which like any other university program when it’s brand new was full of political influence and jockeying, but it was a multi-million dollar project, and I completed it successfully.”

While defeating members of one’s own party in the Primary remains the immediate goal for all seven candidates, they’re all aware that if they’re successful in March, they’ll have an opponent from the other party in November. 

That doesn’t mean that this is one of those hyper-partisan races, though. In fact, most candidates wish it wasn’t political at all, and at least one wishes it wasn’t a race at all given that the overwhelming majority of U.S. states appoint, rather than elect, the state’s top educational official. 

Maher said he doesn’t think partisanship will define the General Election, but rather credentials. Sutton said he’s got a proven ability to work across the aisle. Mangrum said she wouldn’t hesitate to speak out against her party if they weren’t supporting teachers.

Barrett and Johnson, though, disagree. 

“I think the Republican Party is willing to accept winners and losers in our educational system and only serve some students,” Barrett said. “I think there’s a significant philosophical difference there.”

“We’ve been engaged in building an educational system or improving an educational system under the leadership of Republicans for the past four years, and we’ve had incremental increases in some areas and decreases in others,” said Johnson. “But children are still not fairing as well.”

Republican Craig Horn also stands firm against the partisanship that can become counterproductive in deciding what’s best for children. 

“I’m not going to convince voters that a Republican belongs in the office,” Horn said. “I’m going to convince voters that I belong in the office. If anyone has followed my career in the legislature, you know that I am issue-focused, not party-focused. That’s probably the rub on me. There are things I’ve supported that my colleagues do not support. There are things I’ve opposed that my colleagues do support because at the end of the day, I’m interested in one thing only and that is have you moved the rock and if so, how far?”

Truitt, Horn’s opponent, takes a more pragmatic view of the partisanship question. 

“If it were up to me, we wouldn’t politicize this role. However, it is what it is, and I would be naive to say that politics don’t play into this. I think that I bring the most broad set of experiences that are still education-related to this role,” said Truitt. “I think that the Republican-controlled legislature would prefer to have a Republican in this role, and I do worry that there could be not as great of a spirit of collaboration if there is not a Republican in this role.”

Two of the seven candidates will end up facing each other in November, but they won’t be alone on that ballot. To a certain extent, every Republican, every Democrat, and every third-party candidate in the General Election will have to account for the presence of President Donald Trump — the hero/villain who will help/hurt every single one of them. 

“I believe, because of the issues surrounding his presidency and the mistakes that he’s made, that he doesn’t have the same following,” Johnson said of Trump. “And I believe that the selections that we have in our party will drive Democrats who haven’t voted in two or three terms to come out and put us over. The Democrats do outnumber Republicans in the state of North Carolina by a long shot. It’s just a matter of voting.”

Barrett also acknowledges Trump’s role in the election, but hopes that his track record on education will be more important to voters than his party affiliation. 

“All these down-ballot races, we have to worry about who’s at the top of the ticket and then obviously we don’t know who is going to be on the Democratic side yet, but I don’t think President Trump has a coherent education policy that serves all students,” said Barrett. “I think we have to just get our message out and make sure people know that even if they like some of the other things that he’s doing, then when it comes to public education, I’ll be the best person to serve all North Carolina’s students.”

Maher’s view is that the national political climate affords North Carolina a better shot at being included in education policy on an even greater level. 

“Our voice has been absent on the national scene,” he said. “We’ve had a superintendent for the past three years who is not engaged in any meaningful way on national issues. That same superintendent has the opportunity to engage the U.S. Department of Education on various issues, including accountability reform. We just have not had that voice and I’m quite comfortable in that role. I’ve actually done some national advocacy work. I’ve been on Capitol Hill. I’ve met with federal policymakers, both Republican and Democrat. I would actually look forward to an opportunity to put North Carolina back in the national picture.”

Similarly, the two Republicans competing for their party’s nomination are more concerned with getting their message out to voters than with what the president will do to them, or for them, at the polls. 

“It’s a fact of life. It’s not a matter of whether I like it or I don’t like it. It’s a fact of life. I don’t have a magic wand and certainly, and I don’t have a Trump strategy or an anti-Trump strategy,” Horn said. “Going back to what I said in the beginning, there’s only one thing I’m interested in, and that’s outcomes for kids. If you want to talk about something else, that’s fine, find someone else. We’ll still talk about it, but if you want to talk about education, that’s what I want to talk about. How do we get better outcomes for our kids?”

Truitt, for her part, points at the historical implications of Trump’s last election, almost four years ago now. 

“I think if we look back to the 2016 election, Mark Johnson, who is the current state superintendent, he won barely — I believe one or two percentage points,” said Truitt. “It was a squeaker and a lot of pundits will say that he was swept in by the Trump wave. Historically, people like to elect women to this role, whether or not they realize that’s what they’re doing. There are not a lot of Republicans who work in public education, let alone run for office. So I think that it’s either going to hurt me in that regard or it’s going to help because President Trump is likely to win North Carolina. It’s my hope that people look at my unique set of experiences and vote for me, not because I’m a Democrat or Republican, but because I’m the best person for the job and I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think that I was the best person for the job.”

Horn, a five-term member of the N.C. House, put the whole election into a non-partisan, child-focused perspective. 

“I abhor the fact that we have let sports analogies overtake our society because in sports, for anyone to win, someone has to lose,” he said. “But life’s not that way. I don’t have to lose for you to win and you don’t have to lose for me to win. We’ve got to get that message across to the people in North Carolina, the people in the United States of America. It’s not a zero sum game. It’s not.”


Superintendent Candidates


james barrett

James Barrett

• Residence: Chapel Hill

• Age: 49

• Occupation: IT management for Lenovo

• Political experience: Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board member, 8 years

constance johnson

Constance Johnson

• Residence: Charlotte

• Age: 57

• Occupation: Publisher, education/government consultant

• Political experience: Unsuccessful campaigns for state Senate, Rowan County School board

jennifer mangrum

Jen Mangrum

• Residence: Raleigh

• Age: 55

• Occupation: UNC-Greensboro associate professor, teacher education

• Political experience: Unsuccessful campaign for state Senate

keith sutton

Keith Sutton

• Residence: Raleigh

• Age: 49

• Occupation: Entrepreneur and educational consultant

• Political experience: 10-year Wake County School Board member, current chair

michael maher

Michael Maher

• Residence: Wake Forest

• Age: 45

• Occupation: Left position as assistant dean of N.C. State’s College of Education in December to campaign full time

• Political experience: First campaign


craig horn

Craig Horn

• Residence: Weddington

• Age: 75 

• Occupation: Retired food broker

• Political experience: Current five-term representative in N.C. House

catherine truitt

Catherine Truitt

• Residence: Cary

• Age: 49

• Occupation: Chancellor, Western Governor’s University

• Political experience: First campaign


Learn more

A Democratic candidate forum for the Superintendent of Public Instruction contest will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Harrell Canter Auditorium at Lake Junaluska, 701 North Lake Shore Drive. Candidates James Barrett, Constance (Lav) Johnson, Michael Maher and Jennifer Mangrum have confirmed their attendance. The event is hosted by the Haywood County Democratic Party and The Smoky Mountain News, and moderated by Staff Writer Cory Vaillancourt. Free and open to the public. Come prepared to ask your own questions. For more information, contact Doreen Carroll, 910.545.5556.

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