Republican Catherine Truitt was elected North Carolina's next Superintendent of Public Instruction. She defeated Democratic candidate Jen Mangrum by a close margin last week.
Truitt is an educator who worked as a public school teacher for ten years. She also has experience in policy, working as former Republican Governor Pat McCrory’s senior education advisor. Most recently, Truitt has been the head of Western Governors University - North Carolina, a non-profit online university.
"Education is still the surest pathway to economic success and prosperity in this country," says Truitt. "But we're not educating all students the same. We're not educating all students such that they can realize their potential and escape their circumstances in order to improve their lives."
Following her election, Truitt spoke with WUNC's Cole del Charco. The following is that conversation, edited for clarity and length.
WUNC: What will be the first initiatives you want to focus on when you take office?
Truitt: The first one has to do with student outcomes for reading and math. You know, 67 percent of students do not start high school reading and doing math proficiently. We've got some serious inequities to fix here. And a lot of the challenges with the reading portion, and then the math, is our state our teachers are not being trained to use research-backed methods of early literacy instruction. So we need to teach students to decode when they learn how to read, which is phonics. That's the first major initiative. But we also have the Leandro lawsuit to address through the West Ed Report. So, I'm really looking forward to working with our local superintendents, the Legislature and the State Board of Education to remedy the Leandro lawsuit.
WUNC: I'm sure something you've thought about is how you'll work with a majority democratic State Board of Education. As I'm sure you're aware, there have been a lot of clashes between the Republican Superintendent Mark Johnson and the Board.
Truitt: Well, I am definitely my own person, and I have worked with, not this specific State Board, but I have worked with a recent State Board of Education when I was Governor McCrory's education adviser. And I fully understand the challenges that a board has, and I can't wait to work with this Board. They are a very high-functioning board and they had actually already reached out to both candidates prior to (Nov. 3) to set up time on our calendars to get off on the right foot and start working together immediately. And I think that shows incredible foresight on their part and a willingness to want to work together to achieve great things.
WUNC: Have you thought about how much more, even a ballpark estimate, the state needs to be spending on education funding?
Truitt: The West Ed report calls for $8 billion to be spent over the eight years, but not everyone is in agreement with that. And what I would say is, stakeholders need to start singing from the same playbook as far as the data that we're using.
We have to have honest conversations about where we are in that spending. How much more are we spending on high poverty schools? Because children who are English language learners, have learning disabilities, and or low income students, of course they cost more to educate and we absolutely must give those students and their teachers what they need. The number that the West Ed report estimates is that they should be receiving 40 percent more. And, right now, we do spend 33 percent more on our low-income schools than we do on schools that are not low income.
I think it's important that we are all on the same page. For me that means looking at how much money are we giving the most vulnerable students, and those are the conversations that I look forward to having as we start to work with the legislature in how we are going to satisfy the requirements of this lawsuit.
WUNC: Your opponent was endorsed by the NCAE (North Carolina Association of Educators). The president of the NCAE actually tweeted that she was frustrated with the result. How do you plan to work with the state's largest teacher organization?
Truitt: Well, I think first of all it's important to understand that the NCAE does not represent all teachers. We don't know the number of membership from the NCAE because they do not share their membership numbers with the public - so they don't represent all teachers. I look forward to having conversations with the NCAE that are about students and how teachers can help students achieve better outcomes.
I'm not interested in having political conversations with the NCAE about a political agenda. I've said from the beginning that I -- North Carolina is about one of about seven states that elects this role, and I would prefer that this role not be elected to be quite honest. I think it further politicizes education, and I don't think the politics of education are student-centered. While I appreciate the space that the NCAE does give many teachers to congregate and have fellowship together and share ideas - that's wonderful that they can do that. But I think that what I'm interested in is supporting our superintendents the best way that I can so that teachers are supported in an apolitical way so that they have what they need that they feel valued.
One of the best things we could do to make our teachers feel more valued is to change our school accountability model, which is very demoralizing for teachers and school leaders, and for students and their parents. So, I will never turn down a meeting with anyone. I'm hoping that we can have conversations that center around teacher needs and student needs.
WUNC: A lot of districts have been starting to switch to in-person learning now, and it looks like more will be doing that in the coming months. What kind of direction do you plan to give districts for reopening?
Truitt: Ideally what I would like to do is for the Governor, to encourage the Governor to put Plan A (daily in person instruction for all students) on the table for all schools, let this be a local decision, let local superintendents, local school boards and local health officials determine what is best for their community.
And then I would want to work with the Legislature to make sure that schools have the funding that they need to open schools safely, and then work with the State Board of Education to provide that guidance, the guidance they need to safely reopen.