Truitt will have to rebuild trust with the state board, whose relationship with her predecessor was combative.
Education in North Carolina has become “highly politicized” to the detriment of student achievement, says State Superintendent-elect Catherine Truitt.
While Democrats and Republicans fight over school funding, teacher pay, vouchers and charter schools, student achievement has remained stagnant for 40 years, Truitt said in an interview with Policy Watch this week.
“It is stagnant despite various times when we’ve dedicated a lot of money [to education] and it hasn’t changed, and it was stagnant during the recession when there was less money,” said Truitt, a Republican.
Parts of the state’s system of public education, and the nation’s as well, are broken, she said, and children suffer as a result.
“Although education in this country is still the surest pathway to success and economic prosperity, we’re not educating all students the same,” Truitt said. “We do not have a system of public education that allows for every student who desires to, to escape their circumstances through education.”
Truitt will soon leave her post a chancellor of Western Governors University North Carolina, a private online university based in Salt Lake City, Utah, to lead the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which oversees the state’s 115 school districts and 200 charter schools.
The former teacher and school administrator defeated another longtime educator, Democrat Jen Mangrum, an associate professor of teacher education at UNC Greensboro, to claim the state’s top K-12 education job with roughly 51% of the vote.
Mangrum received 48.6% of the vote in a race where the outcome mirrored several tightly contested races for North Carolina’s 10 Council of State seats. Republicans captured six of the 10 seats, but Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s bid to unseat Gov. Roy Cooper came up short.
Truitt will replace fellow Republican Mark Johnson who did not seek reelection. Johnson launched a campaign to replace Forest as lieutenant governor but lost in the March primary.
Johnson has been a controversial figure in state education. Johnson’s relationship with the State Board of Education became combative soon after he took office in January 2017. He and the board fought most notably over the powers of the superintendent. Another disagreement erupted in 2019 after Johnson unilaterally awarded of an $8 million state contract to Istation to assess K-3 reading levels.
“One-hundred percent, yes,” Truitt responded when asked if she and the state board will have a more collegial relationship than the one Johnson and the board experienced the past four years.
Truitt said the state board began building a relationship with the incoming superintendent even before Nov. 3 election. The state board contacted Truitt and Mangrum weeks ago to set up a meeting to “start communicating” with the eventual winner. The meeting is scheduled for this week. And Truitt said she has had numerous conversations with senior leadership at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
“The purpose of the meeting is to get off on the right foot,” Truitt said. “It’s to answer any question I might have about board communication and a chance for me to ask questions and to share my priorities with the board.”
SBE Chairman Eric Davis said it’s “very important” that the board and new superintendent get off to a good start.
Truitt said several big questions face the board: “What happens when our priorities don’t align? “How do we reach consensus?” “How do we communicate with one another?
She added: “Because I feel so well supported by the board, thus far, I’m approaching this with a trust–generously mindset, and I would say they are doing the same.”
Truitt said she will appoint three people whose job will be to “engage with people in the trenches, both teachers and principals” so policy decisions are informed by what is occurring within the schools.
“I’m talking about former principals and teachers who are in schools in a very coordinated way, not for a photo op, but for the sole purpose of observing classrooms and talking to principals and teachers and also parents so that we’re creating a continual feedback loop that goes to my external affairs and government relations team, which will be working in tandem with the [state] board’s government relations team,” Truitt said.
She’s also planning to reorganize the department’s senior leadership team to allow educators in those positions to be as “effective and efficient” as they can.
“If we’re truly going to follow the data, that means we have to have a work chart that’s student-centered,” she said.
Ongoing tiff with NCAE
Building a relationship with the N.C. Association of Educators, which backed Mangrum in the election, will likely be more difficult.
After it became apparent that Truitt had won the race, NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly tweeted: “Nothing Catherine Truitt could say shows me that she’s dedicated to putting students and educators first.”
Truitt was stung by the statement. “I have said all along that I will meet with them, certainly if they would like to meet, but their president’s [Walker Kelly’s] tweet the morning after the election lead me to believe they don’t want to meet with me,” Truitt said. “She tweeted a very negative statement, the only group to tweet those types of comments came from the NCAE.”
Walker Kelly shared this statement when asked if the NCAE and Truitt can find common ground:
The first thing to do is for Catherine Truitt to ask herself and examine why her positions put her opposite of our statewide organization and educators of North Carolina. Our goals have always remained consistent. NCAE will continue to advocate for full implementation of Leandro, for every teacher and every support personnel to receive a salary that is at least at national average, and for public money to remain in public schools. If Superintendent-Elect Truitt supports that agenda, we have the beginning of a common agenda. We can then work toward a constructive conversation with her in the coming weeks to create a shared agenda to advance a great public school for every child in North Carolina.”
The Leandro court case that Walker Kelly referenced began more than 25 years ago, after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education. In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.
The judge overseeing the Leandro school funding case signed a consent order calling for $427 million in additional education spending to help the state meet its constitutional obligation to provide all children with the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. Superior Court Judge David Lee has said the state must not allow the fiscal trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent it from providing economically disadvantaged children with a quality education.
Truitt said she’s spoken to the state board about creating an equity office to address those issues not associated with the Leandro case. “For example, our career and technical education certificates across our state — what we’re offering kids, in fact, that’s a huge issue of equity,” Truitt said.
NC’s educational system is politicized
While the state superintendent is elected, state board members are appointed; that electoral dissonance has long politicized North Carolina’s education culture, Truitt said. She said state superintendents should be hired by the board, similar to how local district leaders are hired by their respective boards of education. She noted that the UNC System president and the NC Community College president are appointed. “What I would suggest, just like in those two organizations, rather than it be an elected or appointed person, that it be someone who is hired by the state board,” Truitt said.
This was a point of contention between Truitt and Mangrum, who disagreed when Truitt shared her thoughts on the campaign trail about the state hiring superintendents to oversee DPI.
“This position will determine the fate of public schools either towards stronger, more equitable public schools or towards privatization,” Mangrum said. “I felt it was important that the people of North Carolina have a say in that direction.”
Democrats and Republicans often fight over educational issues and vote on them along party lines. These divisions have resulted in a proliferation of charter schools, whose numbers have doubled to 200 since the GOP-led General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. Critics complain that charters siphon money from traditional public schools and that they aren’t held to the same standards.
The state’s school voucher program, also known as “Opportunity Scholarships,” is another point of contention. The program directs millions of dollars each year to religious and private schools, presumably to help low-income families escape failing schools. Republicans tout the program’s benefit to low-income children while working to expand it to include more affluent families. Democrats are largely opposed to the program contending that some schools who benefit have discriminatory practices that exclude students and families based on religion and sexual orientation. The NCAE is supporting seven parents who have sued the state, challenging the voucher program.
As superintendent, Truitt will have a platform from which to tout the benefits of charters and school vouchers.
She unapologetically supports both but believes restrictions should remain in place to limit vouchers to only low-income families. “I do not support expanding Opportunity Scholarships beyond the 150% economic threshold,” Truitt said. “It should be for low-income students.”
Lawmakers recently bumped the eligibility threshold to 150% of the income required to qualify for free-or reduced-priced school lunches. It had been 133% to qualify for the scholarships of up to $4,200 to help pay for private school tuition.
According to the NC State Education Assistance Authority, 13,921 students received $28.29 million in Opportunity Scholarships this school year to attend 467 schools.
Truitt said the claim by some progressives and the NCAE that Republicans are working to dismantle public education is a liberal talking point that does little to advance student achievement. “It’s not useful in the conversation around what we must do to improve outcomes for all kids,” she said.
Truitt said she will continue to support quality charter schools.
“Charter schools, that too, is an example of a red herring that detracts from the fact that we have not improved outcomes for kids across administrations, regardless of how much money we’ve spent or not spent over the last 40 years,” Truitt said.