Democrat Lindsey Prather was elected to the state House in November. A former educator who calls Buncombe County home, Prather is eager to get to work to fight for better teacher pay, expand Medicaid, and defend abortion rights.
The 2023 North Carolina General Assembly session is now underway, and Cardinal & Pine is conducting interviews with newly-elected state lawmakers in order to help their constituents get to know them better, ask about their priorities, and serve as a reference point for their time in the General Assembly.
Democrat Lindsey Prather was elected in November to represent North Carolina’s 115th state House district (which includes parts of Buncombe County to the south and east of Asheville. She is a former educator who has seen first hand the consequences of decades of disinvestment in public schools.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Cardinal & Pine: What do you love about North Carolina?
Rep. Prather: Oh my gosh, absolutely everything. I love how genuinely diverse we are in so many ways. I’ve recently been reading about how linguistically diverse we are in terms of the different accents around the state, the different types of people that we have here, the different businesses and areas of the economy that we’re so strong in. We’re truly a purple state in a lot of different ways and I absolutely love that about us. We are never boring and I feel like we’re always striving to do better. Anything that you could possibly want in your life, I feel like you can find in North Carolina.
Where is your favorite place to go or thing to do in your community?
We’ve got a great county park just down the street from me that just actually received some additional funding and that is where I like to take my dog. That’s where I like to meet up with friends. It’s just a really nice place. There’s fantastic views and so I really enjoy spending time there. And then a little bit further out in Candler is Pisgah Highway, on which we are going to be getting our county’s first state park. I’m super excited about that. It has just gorgeous views, you can follow it all the way up to Mount Pisgah.
We’ve got some really decent barbecue joints and it’s a great balance between feeling like you’re kind of a little bit further out in the county. I can hear the four wheelers and the shotguns, but it’s still close enough that we can access downtown Asheville really easily. It’s a beautiful place and very friendly.
Obviously you love North Carolina. How did that love of your community and state translate into running for public office? What inspired you to run?
I love public education. I grew up in Wake County actually in the early ’90s when we had the best public education system in the South. I had just incredible teachers and had an opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people in the classroom. But then by the time I was ready to become a teacher and I was ready to step into the classroom on the other side, our education system had changed.
I was a high school teacher in Buncombe County for six years and just got really frustrated with feeling like I wasn’t able to provide the same quality education to my students that I got years ago. That’s ultimately what made me want to run for office—wanting to take a step back and have that bigger influence on the system and make sure that we could get back to being a state that could be proud of our K-12 schools and even expand beyond how great we used to be.
Sticking to the topic of your background in education, how does that affect the way you think about your priorities in terms of legislating and serving as an elected official?
I have always believed that education is the foundation of everything, specifically public education. I think that any of the other issues and problems that we want to solve start with education, so I really do feel like having that background can be a starting point for these other issues and these other discussions.
I’m on three different education committees, including universities and community colleges, and I’m very, very excited about that. Obviously I’m coming to this with that background and with that experience, but I also understand that I don’t know everything. I think that that attitude of still being open and honest and willing to learn is definitely helpful. But I’ve got that background to know who needs to be at the table and what stakeholders maybe haven’t had a voice at this point.
I’ve still got all those connections. Most of my friends are friends that I made in the school system, whether they’re social workers or counselors or administrators if they’re not in the classroom anymore. My twin sister is still teaching high school, so she’s a great connection as well to still stay plugged in. I think those are ways that are helping to frame my mind, but I’m also not a single issue representative. I’m not here just for education, but I do genuinely believe that if we do that right, then everything else becomes easier.
Education has been a pretty big topic in the last couple years. In North Carolina specifically, there’s debate over the Leandro ruling and teacher pay. There’s also a nationwide movement towards vouchers and more “parental choice” and bills targeting LGBTQ students. Can you talk about what your priorities are and where you stand?
I would say at the top of mind for myself is teacher preparation and our programs that train our teachers. We’ve done the research time and time again, and we know that the single most important factor when it comes to outcomes for students is who is in the classroom—who that teacher is. And so we’ve got to do that right.
Of course it is important to have safe buildings. We need to address making sure that our water is safe to drink and we need to make sure that our schools are safe. We need to make sure that students have access to that technology that they need. But number one in my mind is making sure that we have strong and prepared teachers.
Our enrollment in our college and university teacher education programs is dropping and I know why, and I think a lot of us know why. This is not necessarily an appealing career to get into right now. And if you don’t prepare teachers correctly—you could invest and spend that four years [of college or university] getting them ready, but if they’re not getting put into the classroom until it’s time to start teaching, then that might be the moment where they realize this isn’t the right job for them.
We need to give them that option before that four years is up, and so making sure that we’re doing that teacher preparation correctly and making sure that we are offering many different pathways to the education profession [is critical]. Not everybody is like me, not everybody in North Carolina knew when they were a junior in high school that they wanted to be a teacher.
There are so many different ways to get to this profession and so we need to make sure that we’re including everybody who might want to be a teacher and might be a good teacher in that conversation.
Republican legislators have introduced more than 300 bills targeting LGBTQ individuals, primarily youth, including two in North Carolina. Are you concerned about these bills and how do you plan to respond?
I’m worried about it in the sense that I’m constantly worried about how our students and youth are being made to feel. I think that some of the more extreme voices are very loud, and so I think that that can impact how large we think those groups are. I genuinely believe that the majority of North Carolinians care about their kids and want to do the right thing. When we look at suicide rates, when we look at mental health rates, when it comes to LGBTQ youth, we are not doing right by them.
I think we appeal to those parents and let them know that their kids need them and I think that we also need to draw more on the voices of parents who do support their kids, who maybe were uncomfortable when their kid first came out and figured it out. ‘How did you figure it out? Who did you talk to? Did you consult your pastor? Did you consult your friend’s teacher? Did you have that conversation with the kid themselves?’ and say, ‘Look, I don’t understand this. Can you tell me more about why you feel this way?’
Just making sure that we’re asking questions when we’re uncomfortable and when we’re not sure, because the answers are there and people want to talk about it.
What are some of your other top priorities this year heading into session?
We need nonpartisan, independent redistricting in North Carolina. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what party you’re from, we should not get to draw our own maps. When we institute that—whether it’s the session or not, I think we’re on our way there—it’s not going to be a magic bullet that solves everything, but gerrymandering does impact who is able to even run for these offices. It also impacts the perception that voters have of who their elected officials are and that’s important.
Not only do we want to increase access and maintain good access to the ballot as a voter, I want to increase access to the office. I want to see more people running for office and feeling like they can run for office.
The environment is incredibly important to me. I have the best district in North Carolina. It is Western North Carolina and it’s absolutely gorgeous. So many North Carolinians use us as a tourist destination, and that’s fantastic, but people also live here year round. We want to make sure that we are looking at the long term with climate resiliency and making sure that we are doing what we can to prevent those landslides, flooding, and wildfires that we do have issues with in Western North Carolina.
Those are the things that are driving people away from other states to North Carolina and so we need to make sure that we’re taking care of it here as well.
And then Medicaid expansion, it feels like we’re so close. It needs to get done, and so as soon as we can get that done, the sooner we can make sure that we’re putting money and funding into those rural healthcare systems that are losing doctor’s offices and healthcare centers across the state. They’re dropping like flies, especially in those rural areas.
In Buncombe County, we also have major issues with affordable housing, and so we’ve got to figure out a way that we at the state level can support those local communities and make sure that they’ve got places for people of all incomes to live.
North Carolina is one of the few states in the south where abortion is still legal. But there have been talks among state Republicans about introducing a 12 week ban. Where do you stand on that issue and how are you thinking about reproductive rights this year?
I got to stand with my Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate to introduce our joint bill from both chambers to codify Roe with Casey protections in North Carolina. That absolutely has to happen. Any rollback from where we are now is unacceptable. Abortion is healthcare and purportedly North Carolina is first in freedom, so I believe that includes the freedom to make decisions about your own body and the freedom to choose when, whether, and how to have children.
In Buncombe County, we are the closest access point for abortion for other states surrounding us as well, and so we’ve already seen a massive increase. And so not just are North Carolinians depending on us, but southerners are depending on us. They really are.
I’m going to return to education. Over the last two years, seemingly every week there’s been a confrontation at a school board meeting or harassment of administrators. A lot of this has been the work of activists, primarily on the right wing, who’ve pushed efforts to limit what teachers can teach or what can be discussed, and to give parents more control over their child’s education. What impact does that have on educators?
I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t want more parent involvement. From my time in the classroom and speaking with other teachers, we want parents to be involved. We want them to come in and hear about what we’re teaching in the class. We want their feedback. It makes things so much easier to have that partnership. When I was a student back in elementary school and middle school, it used to be that if you would go home and complain to your mom about a teacher, your mom’s response would be, ‘Well, what did you do? Why did you make the teacher do that?’
And it doesn’t feel like that anymore. I think that’s more the media and that’s more messaging than what it actually looks like on the ground. But we’re being told now that it’s parents against teachers and it’s absolutely not.
I would ask parents to show up to meet the teacher night, show up to the open house. We have those events for a reason, because we want you to come in, we want it to be an open classroom, but also respect that educators are professional, are trained professionals, and know what we’re doing.
The vast majority of teachers are in it for the right reasons and are absolutely doing their best, so if you’ve got an issue, maybe instead of going straight to a school board meeting and shouting at them, talk to the teacher about it, talk to the kid about it.
It’s not teachers versus parents. It’s teachers and parents versus ignorance.
My last few questions are on the lighter side. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Pay attention. I love my dad. He has a ton of advice and I think at one point, it might have been in high school, I made a comment to him about how I can’t keep track of all of his advice, and so I had him boil it down to me, and that’s what he boiled it down to. It was ‘pay attention, keep your eyes open, pay attention to who’s in the room, who’s talking, who isn’t talking. Pay attention to the mood. If you’re reading an article in the paper, pay attention to who wrote it, when it was written, what the sources are.’
What do you do in your spare time? What are your hobbies?
I love plants, house plants. I love my dog. I’ve got a Boxer Bulldog mix, and because I’m staying with my parents when I’m in session, she gets to come down with me when I come down to Raleigh and keeps me company in the car. I really like being outdoors. I love to read. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to read lately, but when I do, I absolutely love to read and hang out with my husband.
If you could eliminate one thing from your daily routine, what would it be and why?
The commute. I’m not even talking about the Buncombe County to Raleigh commute, but the 15 minutes on Wade Avenue from my parents’ house in Cary to the legislative building [in Raleigh]. I love people. I hate drivers. I don’t know what happens to people when they get behind the wheel that they turn into something else. So that’s a little difficult. I have found the classical music station, and so I put that on as soon as I get in and I just make it happen.
Is there anything else about you that you want people to know?
I’m a lifelong learner. I don’t know everything, but I would like to know everything. I’m just fascinated by all kinds of things. I love the range of topics that we get to deal with as legislators, and I’m open. I think it’s incredibly important to have representatives who can take in new information and sometimes change their mind. I think that we live in a society where people changing their minds on things is discouraged and that worries me. I think it’s an important trait to be able to look at something from a different perspective, to be able to listen to somebody’s point of view and say, ‘I didn’t think about it that way,’ or ‘I’ve never heard that before. I’m going to rethink how I’m looking at this issue.’
I think that’s incredibly important and that’s a value of my own that I’m really proud of.