Opinion: Daily Journal

Challenges and opportunities ahead for new state superintendent Truitt 

Catherine Truitt, N.C. superintendent-elect, speaks during a Sept. 16, 2020, legislative news conference. (WRAL screen shot)
Catherine Truitt, N.C. superintendent-elect, speaks during a Sept. 16, 2020, legislative news conference. (WRAL screen shot)

The results are in, and voters selected Republican Catherine Truitt, chancellor of Western Governors University N.C., to be North Carolina’s new superintendent of public instruction. She defeated her Democratic opponent, UNC-Greensboro education professor Jen Mangrum, by around 148,000 votes. 

Truitt will replace Republican Mark Johnson, a one-term superintendent who failed to win the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. Johnson had a rocky tenure as state superintendent. His term was punctuated by recurring conflicts with the appointed members of the State Board of Education and various missteps and missed opportunities during his four-year stint. Truitt and Mangrum repudiated Johnson with equal enthusiasm, even as they conveyed very different visions for carrying out the duties of the office. 

Like her predecessors, Truitt will be responsible for leading the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, serving as secretary and chief administrative officer of the State Board of Education, and in the words of the N.C. Supreme Court, “directly administering the operations of the public school system.”   

These days, directly administering the operations of the public school system involves navigating problems associated with coronavirus mitigation measures, particularly the destructive effects of school building closures on student learning and mental health. 

Pollsters didn’t get much right on Election Day, but they were correct the state superintendent race would be close. Over the past three months, surveys conducted by the Civitas Institute showed a dead heat between the two candidates. In August, Truitt and Mangrum were tied at 35% each, and around 31% of likely voters were undecided. In September, they were tied at 38% each, while 22% remained undecided. In October, Mangrum had a 45% to 42% advantage over Truitt, but 13% had not committed to either candidate.  Mangrum’s small lead in the October poll was still within the margin of error. In the end, the undecided voters broke for Truitt, who received 51.4% of the vote. 

In addition, pollsters accurately characterized variations in candidate support by region. The October Civitas Institute poll showed Mangrum maintained leads in the Greenville, Asheville, Triad, and Triangle media markets, while Truitt was strong in the Charlotte and Wilmington areas. On Election Day, Mangrum performed well in urban and suburban counties and in a large cluster of counties in the northeast. Truitt dominated western North Carolina, predictably losing progressive outliers Buncombe and Watauga counties. She also secured majorities throughout the Charlotte region, the southeast, and the Outer Banks.  

So, which counties deserve thank you cards from Team Truitt? Start with Davidson, Randolph, Union, Iredell, Gaston, Catawba, Rowan, and Lincoln counties outside Charlotte. Add Johnston County in the Triangle and Brunswick County in the southeast. Caldwell, Wilkes, Surry, and Burke also came up big. 

On the other side, this outcome is a tough pill to swallow for Democrats. According to VoteSmart.org, Mangrum maintained a 6-to-1 fundraising advantage thanks to hefty contributions from the state Democratic Party, pro-abortion Emily’s List, the Sierra Club, and the N.C. Association of Educators PAC. In addition to donations, NCAE members bolstered Mangrum’s campaign through phone banking, poll work, and social media advocacy. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, NCAE bloggers hammered Truitt for accepting campaign contributions from individuals who champion testing, accountability, and school choice, that is, contributions from those who share her vision. Amusingly, they also complained that Truitt accepted contributions from out-of-state donors. Groups of Mangrum enthusiasts and teacher union devotees took their silly grievances seriously. No one else did. 

So, what’s next? Truitt’s first order of business will be to ensure that the Department of Public Instruction is prepared to address ongoing challenges from COVID-19. The cloister-with-computer strategy selected by many school boards has done more harm than good, as learning loss puts underprivileged children further behind and mental health issues proliferate. While the state superintendent doesnt have the authority to reopen schools unilaterally, she will be in a position to lobby Gov. Roy Cooper to advance that goal. 

Moreover, the next legislative session begins in January. Truitt should meet with Republican and Democratic lawmakers to discuss her legislative priorities and long-term goals as state superintendent. Their ability to follow through on those ideas will depend on the magnitude of state revenue shortfalls and federal assistance packages approved by Congress. Fortunately, a number of Truitt’s priorities don’t require new investments, just better use of existing resources.  

Finally, Truitt must listen to parents and work with lawmakers to empower them. I strongly disagree with the authors of a recent open letter to the next state superintendent of public instruction published by EducationNC. Four award-winning public school educators write, “Listen closely to those who are nearest to our children: North Carolina’s dedicated teachers and principals.” They should know better. Those who are nearest to our children are not their teachers and principals but their parents. You can’t have a child-centered policy without a parent-centered philosophy. 

I am pleased about the outcome of the election, and it’s made me uncharacteristically optimistic about the future of public education in North Carolina. Catherine Truitt, North Carolina’s new superintendent of public instruction, is well suited to confront the enormous difficulties that lie ahead. 

Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.