The Republican and Democratic candidates for state superintendent had similar positions on the causes of school re-segregation and the need to find common ground. 

On school choice, however, they couldn’t have been more different. 

Candidates vying for the job took part in a forum Friday, Feb. 7, to make the case for why they should lead the public education system. The current superintendent, Mark Johnson, is running for lieutenant governor.

N.C. Parent Teacher Association, Public Schools First N.C., the Public School Forum of North Carolina, and the N.C. League of Women Voters co-sponsored the evening candidate forum. David Crabtree, a long time news anchor for WRAL, moderated the event, held at The McKimmon Conference and Training Center at N.C. State University.

The forum was split into two segments with the Republicans starting. The two Republican candidates are Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, and Catherine Truitt, chancellor of Western Governors University North Carolina. 

The five Democratic candidates are: Keith Sutton, a former Wake County School Board member; Michael Maher, president of the N.C. Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators; Jen Mangrum, former teacher and an education professor at UNC-Greensboro; Constance Lav Johnson, former teacher and owner of City Political Magazine; and James Barrett, former Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member. 

Most candidates agreed that leading the Department of Public Instruction requires finding common ground with those who disagree with their ideas.

Finding areas of commonality is important, Sutton said. As an example, he pointed to being in agreement with Horn about doing away with the school performance grades. 

Compromise was a favorite word of several candidates, but some were more assertive in defending their ideals.

“I think some things are too important to compromise, like for our children,” Mangrum said. “There are some things worth fighting for, and education is one of them.”

Where the Democratic and Republican candidates found common ground was on the primary cause of re-segregation in North Carolina’s schools. Every candidate identified housing policies as the root cause for recent reports about re-segregating schools. 

But their answers diverged. 

Horn pointed to human nature as a factor. Someone immigrating from Poland, for instance, might look for a Polish community, Horn said. 

Other candidates blamed charter schools.

“I think it would be a mistake not to say that some charter schools are contributing to resegregation,” Maher said. 

The Democratic and Republican candidates praised the WestEd report, a critical document in the long-running education funding dispute, Leandro

Truitt and Horn largely agreed with the findings in WestEd’s report, which included a call for massive increases in public education spending. 

But more money isn’t a panacea to improve public education.

The public education funding system needs reworked, Truitt said. Horn agreed, saying the funding system should be more student-focused. 

The Democratic candidates also called for increased public education spending. 

School choice was where candidates on the left and the right diverged. 

No single schooling option fits all, Horn said. But as state superintendent, Horn said, he would advocate for public schools as a first choice. 

Wealthier families are able to send their child to private school if public school isn’t working, but low-income families don’t have that option, Truitt said. 

“The voucher system in principle creates a more equitable playing field,” Truitt said.

But the state should cap funding for the voucher program, the WGU chancellor said. 

With the Opportunity Scholarship program, low-income families can receive upward of $4,200 to help offset the cost of sending their child to a private school. The program has earned the ire of Democrats since its inception. Gov. Roy Cooper talks repeatedly about defunding the program.

Democratic candidates went farther than just a cap on vouchers. Not a single Democratic candidate supported the program, with a few going so far as to say they are unconstitutional. 

Who will ultimately square off in the state superintendent race will be decided after the March 3 primary.