It's been a long decade for public education in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock) NC Public Education Protest
It's been a long decade for public education in North Carolina. (Image via Shutterstock)

A North Carolina educator says the state superintendent candidate goes too easy on a legislature that’s wreaked havoc on public schools. 

Don’t believe the hype.  Catherine Truitt would represent the second coming of Mark Johnson.

In her recent endorsement interview with The Observer Editorial Board, the Republican candidate for state superintendent offered scathing criticism of current Republican state superintendent Mark Johnson.  

While video of the interview has not yet been released, News and Observer education reporter Keung Hui noted Truitt said that Johnson was “someone who did not expect to get elected and someone without the executive experience necessary to do a good job in this role.”  Truitt also reportedly referred to Johnson as “someone who didn’t know how to listen to other people, didn’t know how to accept help, didn’t know how to lead.”

Vying to become just the second Republican elected to the office of state superintendent in the last century, Truitt has good reason to distance herself from the deeply unpopular Johnson.  But would a Superintendent Truitt really represent an improvement over Superintendent Johnson?

Truitt’s criticisms of Johnson are actually on point.  Johnson’s lack of experience and inability to listen to actual education professionals have played a big part in his disastrous tenure as superintendent.  However, arguably his largest failing has been his unwillingness to be an effective advocate for K-12 education where it matters most.

North Carolina school districts receive the vast majority of their funding from the General Assembly, and state legislators craft policy that impacts our schools in many ways.

Since riding the Tea Party wave to supermajorities in both the House and Senate in the 2010 general election, Republican lawmakers have passed six corporate tax cuts and slashed income taxes repeatedly, disproportionately benefiting North Carolina’s wealthiest individuals.  

GOP NC Superintendent candidate Catherine Truitt (Image via Truitt’s campaign)

According to Alexandra Sirota with the progressive NC Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center, cumulative revenue losses since the tax changes began in 2014 is estimated at $14 billion.  

The loss of that revenue has meant lost opportunity for North Carolina’s public schools in areas like early childhood education, equity gaps, and recruitment and retention of excellent teachers.  

Over the past decade, Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly have passed a laundry list of laws which have weakened traditional public schools.  They have removed the cap on charter schools, put in place a punitive, standardized-test focused campaign to improve K-3 reading results which has failed to improve anything and have stripped master’s pay and career status.  

When he was elected in 2016, many public school supporters suspected Johnson would turn out to be a “yes man” for Republican leaders Phil Berger and Tim Moore.  Those fears turned out to be well founded.  

Over the course of his superintendency, Mark Johnson has routinely rubber-stamped every damaging education policy that has come out of the General Assembly.  

In early 2018, he famously referred to $35,000 starting teacher pay as “good money.”  When thousands of educators filled the streets of Raleigh to call for more resources for public schools in May of that year, Johnson was conspicuously absent and publicly criticized the move.  He opposed a similar march the following year as well.

Catherine Truitt has nothing to say about Mark Johnson’s shortcomings as an advocate with the General Assembly.  Her history as it relates to advocacy efforts reveals why.

In 2016, Truitt was serving as Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s senior education advisor when a group of public school employees walked from Durham to Raleigh in an effort to meet with McCrory, express concerns about the state of their schools, and call for use of state surplus funds to provide lacking resources.  McCrory refused to speak with them.

In a subsequent letter to The News and Observer, Truitt dutifully defended McCrory’s record on education, accused the educators of engaging in “irresponsible publicity” and derisively suggested they needed to “set a positive example for [their] students.”  

As a candidate for superintendent, Truitt has shown a similar desire to dismiss concerns of educators and maintain a partisan defense of Republicans on education policy.  

In response to an EdNC question about how she would work with state lawmakers as superintendent, Truitt spoke about the importance of “honest conversations.” But she also admonished her opponent, Jennifer Mangrum, for assigning a grade of ‘F’ to state legislators on education policy, suggesting it was insulting and amounted to an inappropriate public criticism.  She added: “Unlike others, I have not and will not ever personally attack them or their character.”  

Pointing out the failure of a decade of prioritizing tax cuts over public schools isn’t a personal attack, it’s an honest conversation.  It’s the kind of real talk that has been missing from DPI for the last four years under a superintendent who is completely disconnected from the realities we face in our public schools.  

It’s also what we can expect from Mangrum, a career educator and member of the North Carolina Association of Educators who marched side-by-side with educators in Raleigh on both May 16, 2018 and May 1, 2019.

For Catherine Truitt to characterize that conversation as inappropriate and insulting is a clear sign that—like Mark Johnson—her primary allegiance is to party, not to students and certainly not to educators.

After a decade that has felt more like a century to those of us who work in public schools, Nov. 3 brings tremendous opportunity to reshape the landscape when it comes to those in positions of power over K-12 education.  

As we begin the next chapter in North Carolina, it’s crucial that we have a superintendent with steel in her spine who supports educators in advocating for change and is herself willing to stand up and speak truthfully about the needs of our public schools.  

The last thing we need is another Mark Johnson.