2020 NC superintendent candidates disagree on school choice

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From left to right, Democrat Jen Mangrum is running against Republican Catherine Truitt in 2020 to become North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The two candidates competing to lead North Carolina’s public schools clashed Monday over the value of school choice and how they’d work with state lawmakers if Republicans retain control of the General Assembly.

Democrat Jen Mangrum and Republican Catherine Truitt are hoping to replace Mark Johnson, who did not run for re-election, as state superintendent of public instruction. At a virtual candidate forum Monday sponsored by the N.C. Association of School Administrators, Mangrum repeatedly attacked the General Assembly while Truitt said she’d work with lawmakers.

“Your party wants to starve public education and put money into private schools,” Mangrum said to Truitt. “That’s not what I’m about, and so if that means going toe to toe with the leadership in the General Assembly, I’m in it and I’m going to do it for the administrators who are out there and for teachers everywhere.”

Mangrum is a former K-12 teacher who is now an associate professor at UNC Greensboro’s School of Education. Mangrum, who ran against GOP Senate leader Phil Berger in 2018, said public schools have been “significantly underfunded for the past decade” by the state.

Defending state lawmakers

Truitt called Mangrum “very short-sighted” for telling EducationNC that “she’s not going to work with a General Assembly that’s going to continue moving our schools in the wrong direction.” Democrats are hoping to regain control of the General Assembly in this fall’s elections.

Truitt said she’d work on building ties with state lawmakers so that they’d agree to give school districts more flexibility in how they spend state money.

“Funding in this state, since 2014, has risen 20% from the state,” Truitt said. “So to suggest that this General Assembly has not given money to schools is sadly mistaken.”

Truitt is a former K-12 teacher who was Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s education advisor before becoming chancellor of Western Governors University North Carolina, an online university.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and his Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, also spoke at the forum Monday.

School choice debated

Earlier this month, the General Assembly passed a coronavirus relief bill that included several school choice measures reluctantly approved by Cooper. Lawmakers added more seats at two virtual charter schools and expanded who can get a state-funded voucher from the Opportunity Scholarship program to attend a private school.

Mangrum said vouchers and charter schools are helping to lead to school resegregation and are taking funding away from traditional public schools. She said school choice would be better served by expanding magnet schools, which school districts operate to encourage families to attend specific schools.

“We all want choice because choice is a good thing,” Mangrum said. “However, when school choice is taking away funding from schools that are already significantly underfunded, it causes a real problem.”

Truitt countered by saying a Duke University study shows magnet schools are contributing to in-school segregation. Truitt also said that while she’s against expanding who can get a voucher, she’s for giving more choices to low-income families.

“So when parents of means decide that their neighborhood public school is not working for their child, they pay to send their children to a different school,” Truitt said. “In fact Gov. Cooper’s children went to a private school. Low-income families do not have this option.”

Both candidates agreed on a number of areas, such as raising pay for school employees and reforming the high-stakes standardized testing system for students.

But Truitt said she has both the right experience and the right disposition to bring the changes that are needed. She says the public school system needs to adjust to the students and not the other way around.

“We’re not educating all kids because the system in which we all must operate is broken, and I know this because despite working harder than ever, we have not been able to improve outcomes for kids for 40 years regardless of which party has been in charge and how much money we’ve sent,” Truitt said.

Mangrum said she’d speak up for educators who “feel devalued and beaten down” and students who don’t feel supported.

“My opponent would let you think schools are failing … so everybody should jump ship and go to private schools, when actually it’s our General Assembly is failing and our current leadership as superintendent,” Mangrum said.

Learn more about the candidates

For our North Carolina voter guide, we compiled candidate information and responses for more than 90 races, including statewide and congressional elections and many key races in the Triangle and Charlotte areas.

Go to either the News & Observer voter guide at newsobserver.com/voter-guide, the Charlotte Observer voter guide at charlotteobserver.com/voter-guide or the Herald-Sun voter guide at heraldsun.com/voter-guide.

T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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