North Carolina will soon have a new superintendent of schools. 

Superintendent Mark Johnson is vacating his position at the end of the year, and two former teachers vie to replace him as head of North Carolina’s K-12 public education system. The winner of the Nov. 3 election will set statewide education policy for at least the next four years. 

On Sept. 16, The USA Today Network spoke with the candidates by phone and asked how each, if elected, would address school reopening, K-12 funding, teacher pay, history standards, charter schools and deficiencies in rural education. Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

More: Questions about NC’s absentee ballots? We have some answers

Meet the candidates

Catherine Truitt (R): Serves as chancellor of Western Governor University North Carolina, an online higher education program. Truitt previously taught high school in Johnston County and served as an education advisor to former Gov. Pat McCrory. She defeated state representative Craig Horn (Union County) in the March primary to claim the Republican nomination.

Catherine Truitt (Photo: Courtesy of Catherine Truitt)

Jen Mangrum (D):  An associate professor at the UNC Greensboro School of Education. Mangrum previously taught elementary school in Onslow County and Guilford County. She defeated a field of four other candidates in the March primary to win the Democratic nomination.

How to reopen schools

USA Today Network: As state superintendent, what action would you take around reopening schools?

Mangrum: I feel like there’s a lack of statewide leadership from the Department of Public Instruction, and if I were superintendent, there would be more guidance regarding the metrics on when it is time to go back out, contact tracing, and communication about where we have clusters and where we don’t.

Funding and metrics to me are the two key components. We need more personnel. We should have a nurse in every school, particularly if we’re dealing with a global pandemic. I mean, that’s just a start, but those are the kinds of things I think we need to be looking at from the state level.

USA Today Network: What would you say to families struggling with remote learning who worry about the mental health and academic toll of being away from classrooms? 

Mangrum: My number one priority above everything would be children’s health and safety. For those that are not happy, I completely understand it. We are all in the same boat. This is unprecedented, and to me, academics are obviously important, but we cannot put kids in dangerous situations or educators.

I would like when we open to stay open and not cause clusters of illness that’s going to be taken back to caregivers and families and communities.

USA Today Network: As state superintendent, what different policies would you promote around K-12 school reopening?

Truitt: Over the summer, I would have preferred that the Governor issued a local control order. In other words, I wish that he would have said that there is no one size fits all plan and that local districts, local superintendents and their school boards and local health officials should drill down into local infection rates and determine whether or not a school should reopen. We had very different infection rates in some of our smaller Western counties, for example, where we have more poverty and more students at risk when they’re not in school.

I would’ve liked for Plan A to be an option all along. The problem with Plan B and Plan C is that Plan B forces a lot of districts into Plan C, because of either size or the amount of money that it would have taken them to have all the equipment that they needed to have and the amount of time that it would have taken for that money to find its way to schools.

USA Today Network: Returning to school presences some risks. Why do you advocate for some districts to return to Plan A when there have already been clusters at colleges and some school districts this year?

Truitt: What we’re talking about is weighing this risk with other risks, and I think that when everything that I understand and know about this issue is that children are inefficient spreaders.

It’s a lot easier to contain a single outbreak or two outbreaks in an elementary school or even a classroom than it is on a college campus and they’ve (colleges have) managed to have kids in class.

School funding equity

USA Today Network: In December, the long-awaited Leandro Report called for more than $400 million in additional funding for K-12 public education this year and billions over the next decade to provide an equitable education to all students. What is your biggest takeaway from the Leandro Report on school funding? 

Truitt: No matter how much money we’ve spent or not spent, and no matter which party has been in charge, we haven’t moved the needle on student achievement since the ’90s.

I wish that Judge Manning (Judge Howard Manning issued the Leandro ruling) would have met with the legislature before he issued the $400 million request because the judge cannot legislate this from the bench.

If we’re going to really do the work of Leandro, we have to have honest conversations about achievement and funding in our state. I do think there are a lot of really solid recommendations in that report, and that report is very clear that just throwing more money at this issue is not going to solve the problem.

hold (Photo: Courtesy of David Proffitt)

Mangrum: I would absolutely advocate that we use the Leandro Case as our guideline and our playbook for how to bring our schools up to par. And the thing to remember is that that money is just to get us to a place where our school systems are more equitable between them, but that’s not even talking about how we become the top state in terms of education like we once were.

I think instead of calling it funding, we should be talking about investing. We should have nurses in every school. They should have social workers. Teachers should have the materials they need so that they can teach creatively and impose critical thinking. I think we need to pay teachers at the national average. The pandemic is only highlighting all of those issues.

I’m completely behind Leandro. It frustrates me that a judge can make a ruling and say how much money should be put into schools and the General Assembly can just ignore it, but that’s what they’re doing.

Teaching history’s “hard truths”

USA Today Network: The state is currently revising its social studies standards. Over the summer, Mariah Morris, a 2019 NC Teacher of the Year, said that schools should teach “the hard truths of history.” What do “the hard truths of history” mean to you?

Mangrum: I do believe that our social studies curriculum needs to be more inclusive. It’s not even history if we don’t know what all the stakeholders were thinking. I think primary sources are such an excellent way to teach history because it’s not telling kids anything, it’s given them sources of information from the time period from multiple perspectives that they can critically think and generate their own thoughts and ideas around history.

I also agree that are typical social studies materials, whether it be textbooks or children’s books, leave out the stories of people of color, of the advances they’ve made, of their contributions to society. So what I would like to see is a more inclusive social studies curriculum that told stories from multiple perspectives that asked kids to question what they’re reading and what they’re seeing.

Truitt: The hard truths of history for me always go back to our Constitution when it says that all men are created equal, and I think it’s a hard truth knowing that that statement at the time did not apply to women nor slaves.

I also think it’s very important that we never do revisionist history or take historical events out of context. It’s very important to say that while absolutely that did not apply to slaves that also slavery was a very common practice all over the world, including in Africa. And that doesn’t make it right. But at the time that’s the cultural context in which we’re dealing.

I also know that there are lots of groups that feel left out of the standards we have currently. I know that the Trail of Tears, for example, is not taught in North Carolina, and it obviously needs to be.

More: Cooper announces NC schools can return younger students full-time next month

Charter school stance 

USA Today Network: North Carolina continues to see an increasing number of charter schools since the cap of 100 was lifted in 2012. What role do you believe charter schools have in NC’s education landscape and how would you look to impact charter schools as state superintendent?

Truitt: I don’t have a problem at all with charter school expansion. I think that as long as we keep in mind that it’s the State Board of Ed that holds the charter, and the State Board of Ed has the power to both open and closed charter schools.

They can refuse to open charter schools that do not show how they can provide transportation to students who would not be able to get to the charter school, as well as provide nutrition for kids who need those services from schools.

Charter schools are a key part of school choice. I would love to see more collaboration between our districts and our charter schools and our district school leadership and our charter school leaders.

Mangrum: We have charter schools that are successful, and we have charter schools that aren’t. In order to make sure that our children are getting a quality education, charter schools need to move under the purview of districts.

They need policies that govern them, that keep them from closing in the middle of the night, that keep them from not giving the kids all the resources they need. If they don’t provide lunch, if they don’t provide transportation, if they don’t serve English language learners, if they don’t serve children with special needs, then they’re in my mind selecting their students and they’re not being a true public school.

I think that charter schools that have these great innovations, we need to learn from them, and we need to move them into the school district, so there’s some oversight and accountability.

Teacher pay changes

USA Today Network: How should teacher salaries change over the course of their careers to best support the profession?  

Mangrum: Recruiting good teachers is so important. As a university professor, I’ve watched my introduction class dropped from over 200 students about 50 to 60 students. I know that we need to recruit really good people into the profession. We have to make sure that we’re giving a salary that will get the attention of young people and encourage them to become teachers.

When a teacher gets more experience is when their salary really slows down. It’s hard to manage a family with two or three children on just a teacher salary. We can’t solve everything. Teachers will never make top dollar, but if we can get to the national average, that would be attractive.

Buy Photo

Area teachers, parents and students participated in the “Our Schools Deserve Funds Now” protest at Vance Memorial in downtown Asheville January 15, 2020. The rally was organized by the Asheville Association of Educators. (Photo: Angela Wilhelm/Asheville Citizen Times)

Truitt: My issue is not necessarily with the starting salary for teachers. I think it’s also important to look at the total compensation (including non-salary benefits) when discussing teacher pay. 

I think that my issue is that in order to encourage teachers to stay in the profession after pay was frozen during the recession, we had to front-load salaries in the first 12 years of a teacher’s career.

I am a big proponent of advanced teaching roles. I would like to see that program expanded it’s an opt-in program that allows teachers to be paid more for extra responsibility for leadership roles in the classroom so that they don’t have to leave teaching in order to move up a ladder in their career.

More: With demands unmet, NC teachers gauge interest in statewide strike

Bridging the urban-rural gap

USA Today Network: Even before the pandemic, researchers said North Carolina’s rural education was in “a dire situation.” No state besides Texas has more rural students than North Carolina, yet our state’s rural students rank 34th in math and reading. As state superintendent, what can you do to improve rural education?

North Carolina teaches more rural students than any other state but Texas. (Photo: Courtesy of Toby Burrell)

Truitt: There’s first of all, digital inclusion. In rural counties, we’re probably not going to get more providers to provide last-mile service in our rural communities, so we have to find other ways.

One of the most important things that we can do in rural counties is finally cracked the nut on teacher recruitment and retention in remote places in our state. We have to think out of the box.

There are lots of opportunities that don’t involve the state only solving these problems, I do believe that there has to be a joint effort with other nonprofits, for-profit corporations and philanthropy.

Mangrum: If we can put a missile across the world within 3 feet, we can put broadband in rural North Carolina. So, we need to work on the laws and the funding to get that done. Even if we’re not doing remote learning, I see the internet as a necessity for people now. 

I also mentioned that I want to be physically present in rural schools. The districts that I’ve talked to feel very left out sometimes in North Carolina, particularly the far west and the northesast. So, I’m gonna make it my mission to make sure that I’m there physically and supporting them in any way that I can.

More: ‘The challenges are staggering at times’: NC rural schools in dire situation, report says

Brian Gordon is the education and social issues reporter for the USA Today Network. Reach him at b[email protected] or follow him on Twitter @briansamuel92.

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