Reopening schools is the top priority of Catherine Truitt, the Republican candidate for state superintendent. 

Truitt also wants to defend the Opportunity Scholarship program, but her Democratic opponent, Jen Mangrum, argues learning must take a back seat to teacher safety. Opportunity Scholarships provide low-income students up to $4,200 per year to help pay tuition at the private school of their choice. About 12,285 students received the scholarship in 2019.  

Mangrum bashes the program as a threat to public schools and a parasite on funding. 

Whoever wins in November will have the authority to manage the state’s $10 billion education budget, hundreds of contracts, and oversight of senior staffing decisions. 

On September 24 Truitt and Mangrum faced off in a debate hosted by the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership and Spectrum News NC. 

Both candidates agreed virtual schooling has left some students behind. But their reactions couldn’t have been more different. 

Truitt says children have paid the price for Gov. Roy Cooper’s shutdowns. She bashed the governor for worsening inequities in education and criticized him for imposing a “one-size-fits-all” statewide approach. 

“Absolutely they’re falling behind,” Truitt said of students. “We are upholding one form of safety over another when we deny students the ability to return to school. As far as metrics go, what I’d say is that initially this all became about flattening the curve, and then it became ‘let’s have zero cases.’ The goalpost keeps moving.”

Mangrum argues health is more important than learning. She described classrooms as “unsafe,” saying she’ll follow the metrics to either reopen or shut schools in the event of a second wave. 

She praised Cooper while slamming Mark Johnson, the current Republican state superintendent, for being “MIA.”

“The state law that describes a teacher’s job description puts welfare as No. 1. Academics are No. 4,” Mangrum said. “Academics are important, but the first thing is their health and safety and that of their grandparents. Yes, some have fallen behind. We’re going to have to accelerate next year.”

Both candidates supported wearing masks at school. Truitt distanced herself from Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest, who has criticized face coverings. 

Mangrum opposes the state’s Opportunity Scholarships as the worst voucher program in the country. She blamed the program and inadequate public school funding for failing schools. 

“Not only is it the worst one,” Mangrum said of Opportunity Scholarships, “[but] our students are getting curriculum that says man and dinosaur walked together, that slavery isn’t that bad. They have no accountability, no transparency, yet they’re [private schools] taking dollars away from our kids.”

Truitt called the description “disingenuous.”

“The Opportunity Scholarship program is an opportunity for some families who’re low income to escape from neighborhood … schools that have been failing for generations,” Truitt said. “I don’t understand how someone can claim that we’re dismantling public education when we’re providing more funding than ever.”

Both candidates support higher education spending and teacher raises. But Mangrum argued that more money is the solution to education’s problems. Truitt pointed to more local flexibility. 

“We’re at a crossroads in education right now that has been accelerated by COVID,” Truitt said. “COVID has shed light on many things that were already wrong with our system. … We cannot continue to do the same thing over and over and expect different results.”

The nonprofit N.C. Institute of Political Leadership trains future public servants to serve in elected or appointed office in North Carolina. Its Hometown Debate series, produced in partnership with Spectrum News, focuses on political races in election years and policy issues in non-election years. The Truitt-Mangrum debate was the second of this election’s Hometown Debate series, and was held at Meredith College in Raleigh. On Oct. 4, a labor commissioner debate will feature Democrat Jessica Holmes and Republican state Rep. Josh Dobson. The final debate is scheduled Oct. 11, with incumbent state Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, facing his Democratic opponent Ronnie Chatterji.

None will have studio audiences, because of COVID-19 concerns.

Portions of all the debates are being aired the Sunday after they take place on the Spectrum News program “In Focus With Loretta Boniti.” The series sponsors are AARP-North Carolina, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, Humana, the North Carolina Sheriffs Association, and the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.