As the proud owner of a new restaurant, Leonardo Williams surely had other things to do this past Saturday.
But there he was, taking notes and listening closely to six state superintendent candidates who want to replace Mark Johnson in the November 2020 general election.
For the record, Johnson has not announced whether he will seek re-election.
Williams, a former educator and two-time Teacher of the Year in Durham who still has more than a passing interest in educational issues because of his work as a consultant, explained that the superintendent’s race will be the most important statewide race on the ballot.
He said the winner of the election — he’s betting it’ll be one of the six announced candidates present Saturday — will be charged with the important work of slowing what he sees as an attempt by the Republican-led General Assembly to privatize public schools.
It’s a sentiment shared by school choice critics across the state, including most of the six individuals currently running for state superintendent.
“The person who will become state superintendent has to stop the momentum of what’s happening,” Williams said. “I know that’s become a buzz phrase, the privatization of public education, but whenever you have public money going to private use without public accountability, you can’t control what’s happening.”
Williams was one of the two dozen-plus people who attended the candidates forum sponsored by the North Carolina Caucus of Black School Board Members  (NCCBSB) and moderated by Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina .
The six announced candidates are:
- Educational consultant and former teacher Amy Jablonski of Raleigh,
- Charlotte educator and activist Constance Lav Johnson,
- Wake County school board member Keith Sutton,
- Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at the College of Education at NC State University,
- James Barrett, a Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member, and
- Jen Mangrum, a clinical associate professor in the School of Education at UNC-Greensboro who ran for a seat in the legislature last year against Senate leader Phil Berger.
The panel shared views on equity, race, school discipline and school choice, all of which are important to the NCCBSB. The organization was founded in 2000 by Black school board members from across North Carolina to ensure African American communities are informed about educational policies and practices that affect students of color.
“There is a focus on how we can support school board members and school boards so collectively we can do the important work, and that is making sure our children receive a free and appropriate and sound education,” said NCCBSB President-elect Clinton Williams, a member of the Northampton County Schools Board of Education .
Panelists agreed there is much work to do to help Black students overcome the impact that race and poverty have on their academic progress.
Black students in North Carolina fall at or near the bottom of nearly every statistical indicator of academic success. And they are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than their white peers.
Race, equity and opportunity
When asked to share his views about race and education, Sutton, the current NCCBSB president, wasted little time attacking the leadership in the General Assembly, which he contends refuses to acknowledge the impact race and poverty have on student success.
“The problem with that is, if you don’t see race and poverty as part of the problem, then guess what, you won’t see race and poverty as part of the solution,” Sutton said.
He noted that nearly all of the schools that received a ‘D’ or ‘F’ grade on the most recent state accountability report are located in poor and minority communities.
Mangrum said it’s important for teachers to set high expectations for children of color.
“The biggest problem is expectations, and teachers teach down, [leaving students they] feel can’t do better or won’t do better,” Mangrum said. “The key to it is having rigorous instruction that’s integrated across all classes their entire K-12 experience.”
Maher said he’s learned from his work at N.C. State that it’s important to have teachers of color in classrooms.
“We have to begin thinking about what kind of policies we can put in place to both attract and retain teachers or color, and especially how we keep them,” Maher said.
Barrett said policy makers must operate with a racial lens to combat disparities.
“We can’t declare ourselves great; people like to say Chapel Hill-Carrboro [City Schools] is the best in state, no, it’s not, it can’t be because we’re not serving our Black and brown students very well,” Barrett said.
He said one thing school districts can do to improve academic outcomes, particularly for children of color, is to stop suspending them for minor infractions.
“We’ve got to get rid of the [suspension] categories that are subjective, the disrespect and things like that,” Barrett said. “We also need to stop suspending kids for skipping class. It doesn’t make any sense to punish a kid by taking them out of class for missing class.”
Jablonski said children of color are harmed by policies, instructional practices and curricula that “marginalize the most fragile populations” in schools.
“We don’t advocate or highlight the strengths [of our students], we come at it from a deficit perspective,” Jablonski said.
She noted that students who miss the most school have the biggest gaps in mathematics.
“That’s our students of color because when they’re out of school for being suspended or being absent, they miss [assignments],” Jablonski said.
Maher said equity is the Number One issue in North Carolina.
“We have to have equitable opportunity and access for all our children if we’re to be successful,” Maher said.
He cited Mississippi as a state that is tackling equity issues by investing heavily in early childhood literacy.
“They actually enroll more children in Pre-K than North Carolina does and they’re about a quarter of our size,” Maher said.
Charter schools and vouchers
Each candidate had strong opinions about charter schools and school choice, particularly the state’s Opportunity Scholarship or voucher program, which provides up to $4,200 for families who qualify to attend private schools (many of which are faith-based).
Like Williams, nearly all candidates worry about the use of public money at schools where the state has little oversight.
Critics of vouchers contend that curricula at many religious schools are not based on science and that some of them openly discriminate against students because of their sexual orientation.
“I have a huge problem with using public dollars for private entities,” Maher said. “Our state constitution calls for a public system of education, not a taxpayer-funded private system.”
But charter schools are more complicated, Maher said.
He’s not opposed to charters, which are public schools that are free of many of the rules and regulations that govern traditional schools.
Maher does, however, question the state’s expansion of charters, whose numbers have doubled since lawmakers lifted the 100-school cap in 2011.
“I think when we had 100 charters schools, it was a system that could be managed,” Maher said.
Johnson had a different take on charters.
She thinks charters should share facilities with underutilized traditional schools and be managed by each county’s board of education.
“I would like to provide choice, allow you to select the school you would like to attend, but put them under the umbrella of the public schools and make sure the schools are being used.”
Mangrum opposes vouchers and charter schools, which she contends contribute to school segregation.
“Charters are a place for families to escape, they’re white flight, they’re re-segregating our schools all over again,” Mangrum said. “They’re either predominately white or predominately Black and we’re using them as a way to separate ourselves.”
She added that charters rob traditional public schools of resources, but don’t produce better results.
“There’s no research that shows charter schools are doing any better than others,” Mangrum said. (Note: State data in recent years has shown North Carolina charters tend to perform as outliers, either out-performing or trailing traditional schools, although, just like traditional schools, those results correspond with high concentrations of affluent or low-income children.)
Meanwhile, Jablonski said charter schools and voucher programs drain traditional public schools of resources.
“We have spliced and diced education into charter schools, into lab schools and into privatizing schools…instead of pooling our resources together to ensure we have the best outcomes for all kids,” she said.
Sutton doesn’t support charter schools in their current form because, he said, they lead to the re-segregation of communities and public schools and operate with a lower standard of accountability.
“Hell, if we could cherry pick our students, have teachers who don’t have to have licenses, then put that system in a traditional public-school setting, we would knock it out the box,” Sutton said.
He’d like charters to become the “incubators of innovation” they were intended to be when state lawmakers first approved the concept in 1996.
Charters were sold as centers of innovation for best educational practices. The thinking was those practices would be shared with traditional public schools to improve academic outcomes. There’s very little evidence that has taken place, he said.
Barrett, who, along with Sutton, are the only two candidates serving on local school boards, agreed that the privatization of public schools and re-segregation are “huge” problems as a result of school choice programs.
“I would, as state superintendent, make sure that every charter application has a plan that was not making those things worse,” Barrett said.
He said it would be interesting to see what would happen if local school boards were authorized to approve charters as laboratory schools.
“You would maintain some local control of what was going on,” Barrett said. “You’d make sure that the board of the charter school was accountable to elected people. Those kinds of things I think are interesting conversations to have because maybe there is a place for some level of choice.”
Throughout the panel discussion, the candidates criticized Johnson for the rocky relationship he has with the State Board of Education and for his support of charter schools.
“If we continue with the superintendent that we have and the General Assembly that we have, then we’re going to have more charters, more vouchers and more privatization,” Mangrum said.