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2020 Candidates for NC Superintendent of Public Instruction

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

We encourage you to take time this season to do your homework and to learn about the candidates who are seeking your vote. PENC will not endorse candidates and will not tell you how to vote, but we do believe it is important for you to make an informed decision at the poll. To facilitate your information gathering, we put together the list of questions for the candidates above to elicit their views on a number of topics of interest to the education community. Their unedited responses have been published for your review. Our sincerest thanks to the responsive candidates who have provided you with this valuable information. We encourage you to visit their websites and consider their qualifications and goals on issues that are important to you. Most importantly, we encourage you to get out and vote! #voteyourvoice


  Jen Mangrum (D                      

Catherine Truitt (R) 

Question 1: Demands on Teachers In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you plan to address increasing demands on teachers, including lack of support staff? Answer from Jen Mangrum:  I decided to run for political office precisely because of the increasing demands on school personnel and the lack of support for North Carolina’s public schools over the past decade.   As State Superintendent, I do not have the power to make laws or approve the public education budget, that is the responsibility of the General Assembly.   The State Board of Education is responsible for setting policies based on the laws and budget and I am only one member on that board. However, given my platform and the opportunity to get in front of the Governor, the members of the General Assembly and collaborate with the State Board of Education, I believe I can do the following to address the issues faced by public schools. 1) Advocate with key stakeholders and communicate to the public the need to adhere to the Leandro Court ruling; funding the state’s constitutional obligation to provide every child with a sound, basic education.  2) Advocate with the stakeholders to create professional working conditions to attract and retain excellent teachers.  3) Utilize DPI resources effectively, efficiently and smartly in order to meet the needs of school districts instead of purchasing unnecessary devices and glossy marketing fliers.   4) Use commonsense and my years of experience in the classroom and school building to remove barriers that negatively impact school personnel.  5) Listen and make decisions based on the recommendations and needs of people working in the field.  The people closest to the students have the most knowledge and skills.  Answer from Catherine Truitt: Even before COVID-19, lack of school support staff has been an issue integral to teacher retention and student success.  School counselors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers must be fully funded and a plan put in place to ensure there are trained professionals willing to work in high-needs districts and money to pay them. This school year’s focus must be on remediation, growth, and safety and while assessments are important, they should be used to gauge learning rather than as an accountability measure. When schools closed this spring, many high-poverty districts focused more on offering supports to students, while teachers in more affluent districts were more likely to teach virtually.  Local superintendents with help from DPI should create a plan to address the learning gaps that are in place now and that will continue to grow.  I recommend a plan that emphasizes the following: Regular screenings to identify the largest learning gaps and address these through intensified Tier 1 instruction School-wide social-emotional learning supports so that students are mentally and emotionally ready to resume learning Growth for all students as the key metric when conducting progress monitoring  More time focused on reading and math/foundational skills in K-3 classrooms. 

Question 2: School Safety The state has invested a great deal of resources into school safety, including SROs and active shooter training, but we lack resources in mental health.  What is your plan to increase mental health resources for kids? Answer from Jen Mangrum: This is one example of the NCGA overreacting to concerns instead of reflecting and planning the most effective solutions. It is imperative that we put resources into additional nurses, school psychologists, social workers and school guidance counselors.  The WestEd Report recommends funding for these positions.  My role would be to advocate for them as mentioned in question #1. I will use data to support these recommendations and use the bully pulpit to inform the public of the impact these positions have on student learning.  Answer from Catherine Truitt: After a decade of decreased rates of suicide in teens throughout the 90’s, it is now the second leading cause of death among 15-24-year-olds while the suicide rate among ages 10 to 24 has increased by 56 percent in two decades. This upswing began in 2007 and correlates to the advent of the smart phone.  Currently, the effects of Covid-19—job loss, family stress, isolation, lost opportunity—leave our young people vulnerable to increased mental health issues. Long after the virus is no longer front and center, schools will have to address the mental health challenges that isolation and trauma have left in their wake.  The Department of Public Instruction’s website includes resources for students and families for transportation, school nutrition, dropout prevention, and so on.  But there is nothing related to mental health services or supports. While the Department has made efforts to include mental health in its school safety agenda, I think this issue needs to be a stand-alone initiative that encompasses all aspects of mental health.  Solutions include: Mental health training and trauma-informed practices training for all school personnel Funding for higher numbers of school counselors, nurses, and social workers Public-private partnerships in communities without community-based mental health services Integration of mental health issues into elementary health curricula  COVID-19-specific resources to help teachers recognize trauma and respond effectively   Finally, a new tool by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common initiative called the “Relationship Mapping Project” provides ALL students in a building with a network of adults who will be there for students when they need emotional help.  This interconnected map could also create a more equitable system of social capital for students and is critical to student success during time of remote learning. Question 3: School Grades PENC recognizes that the current system is unfair. How do you think schools should be evaluated?  What do you envision as a better plan to evaluate schools? Answer from Jen Mangrum: I question why schools are assigned “grades”.  Currently, those grades reflect only the level of family poverty. In this way, “grades” are used to promote or devalue realty and property values.  This has sustained the status quo in segregating communities.  I’d like to see a post-pandemic transformation of our schools in which our focus is no longer competition, high stakes testing, and big tech but instead the well-being of our children and schools that foster creativity, communication and critical thinking. Therefore, (and this is not an exclusive list) I would want evidence of: mental health services and staff positive work condition reports from all school personnel culturally-sustaining curriculum  observations of excellent and equitable instruction (by peers and admin) appealing and accessible playground extensive arts’ programs sufficient media center resources student access to nutritious meals assessments created and analyzed by educators examples of feedback and communication to students and parents opportunities for parent involvement and accessibility clean and inspiring facilities formative and diagnostic assessment results. Answer from Catherine Truitt: The current school accountability model is flawed on many fronts, not the least of which is that it is not student-centered. Rather, it is used to attempt to hold schools accountable for achieving certain standards through one-and-done assessments that are not nationally normed and do not measure a student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of standards. Parents and students often do not receive the results of these tests until well into summer and they provide little benefit to teachers. The accountability model itself (calculated by weighting achievement at 80% and growth at 20%) should be changed to reflect growth over achievement.  A fifth-grade teacher whose students are anywhere from 1 to 3 years behind cannot be expected to bring all students to the same level during nine months’ time.  However, he should be expected to grow each and every student in his care.  Furthermore, North Carolina should redesign its assessment program to include NC Check-Ins as standard as well as give nationally normed mid- and end-of-year tests that are performance-based and generate data that can be used to help students continue to grow.  Question 4: Recruitment and Retention Starting in 2021, newly hired teachers will not receive health insurance in retirement. How much impact do you feel this has on teacher recruitment and retention?  Are you in favor of repealing this state law? Answer from Jen Mangrum: I absolutely believe that laws/policies such as this one negatively impact recruitment!  Alone, it may not, but it is part of a larger effort in reducing benefits; removing longevity, due process, Master’s pay, etc.  I am in favor of repealing this law and reinstating these benefits. Answer from Catherine Truitt: North Carolina has one of the top 5 teacher and state employee retirement systems in the country.  It is funded at about 90% (national average is 75%) and uses a benefit design that has prevented the spike in pension costs that other states have seen.  Teaching is one of the few professions that still provides free health care prior to retirement and the current benefit package for teachers is over $16,000 per year—money that teachers do not have to set aside in a 401K or for large healthcare premiums (many of which run a family of four $12,000 per year).  The State’s contribution for those already teaching hovers at close to 20% of a teacher’s salary prior—a very generous benefits package by any standard.  I’m open to revisiting the entire benefits package so that we can ensure that the benefits package speaks to a new generation of teachers while respecting the teachers we have. But most important is protecting the teacher retirement system fund we have for future and current educators—something many states have failed to do.

Question 5: Diversity in the Classroom According to EdNC and also in light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, “NC public schools are becoming increasingly diverse with students of color now making up more than 50 percent of total enrollment.  The state’s teaching workforce, however, does not reflect that diversity, with about 80 percent of teachers both white and female.”  What will you do to encourage recruitment and retention of educators from under-represented groups? Answer from Jen Mangrum: Establish a vision and core values through the lens of equity that guide our work and decision making at DPI. Establish an Office of Equity Affairs at DPI.  Engage all employees at DPI in hard conversations about racism and its impact on public education.   Create an infrastructure to support high school cadet program.  The earlier we can reach our young students of color, the better chance we have of immersing them in a career of education.   Committed to hiring a diverse group in DPI especially in my cabinet.  Prospects must see that there are opportunities for advancement and see themselves as leaders. Expand the Teaching Fellows program and include all HBCUs.  Organize an advisory board made up of teachers of color, to share their experiences and ideas to recruit and maintain teachers of color. Answer from Catherine Truitt: The benefits to students of color of having a more diverse teaching workforce are clear—higher attendance rates, better school performance, higher aspirations for students of color, and even benefits to other teachers of color.  Inadequate preparation and lack of mentoring often result in higher turnover rates because teachers of color are more likely to have entered the profession through non-traditional routes to licensure. Furthermore, teachers of color—especially women—are more likely to have attended a for-profit institution that caters to their need for a more flexible schedule, resulting in poor outcomes and a greater debt burden. Solutions include: Loan forgiveness programs for those who teach in high-needs areas “Grow Your Own” initiatives that pair high schools with community colleges, especially with the new AA/AS in Education Public-private partnerships with HBCU’s and minority-serving institutions to bolster recruiting efforts Include teachers of color in the hiring process  Efforts to diversify the teaching workforce must be part of our Leandro work to ensure there is a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.  All students should be able to see themselves in those leading their education journey. 

Question 6: Teacher Frustration Teacher frustrations and needs are well-publicized in sources like the Teacher Working Conditions survey. What are the most important teacher issues that you will address in your administration, such as work-load, compensation, veteran teachers, and school calendar and other charter-like flexibility? Answer from Jen Mangrum: In my experience, the biggest frustration for teachers is the lack of professionalism and respect for our career.  When I began in 1987, I had the autonomy to make instructional decisions and I had input in school-based decisions.  I was not evaluated on results of a high stakes test but on peer and administrative observations, reflection of my teaching, and the strategies I used to enhance my craft.  I also had greater job satisfaction because I had a full-time Teacher Assistant, excellent benefits and my classroom supplies were provided for me.   In addition, salaries were appropriate. These positive aspects have disappeared.  Maybe that explains why there was a surplus of teachers in 1989 and last year we had 1300 vacancies on Day 40 of the school year.  I spent 14 years in an elementary school as an educator. If I win, I will advocate for educators so that our children have access to our best and brightest teachers!  Answer from Catherine Truitt: 1. Fully funding school support personnel to the recommended ratios is the single-most important step we can take to help teachers get back to doing what they want to do: teach.  Teachers are giving insulin shots, making sure a child has a place to sleep at night, and serving as testing coordinators.  Teachers must be able to focus on supporting their students within the confines of the classroom; we cannot continue to expect teachers to take on the responsibility of teaching as well as that of a social worker and school nurse.  2. Teachers in North Carolina have received pay increases every year for the past five years until this past session, which ended in a stalemate between the Governor and the legislature. We are currently #4 in the Southeast and I want North Carolina to be #1.  We need a transparent plan that will get us there and keep us there by 2023.  3. Veteran teachers should have opt-in opportunities to benefit financially from their years of experience in the classroom through mentorship and Advanced Teaching Roles. Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Teacher-Leader salary supplement should be considered as an option for statewide implementation.  4. If I am elected my tenure will be characterized by a focus on local control.  Local superintendents, school boards, teachers, and school leaders are the best people to decide how to match resources where needed, what the school calendar should look like, and which charter-like flexibilities can benefit a particular district.  The State Superintendent has no regulatory authority over local superintendents and should be a support to district leadership, not a hindrance.

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