Politics & Government

Democrats who want to lead NC schools are critical of vouchers, charter schools

Constance Lav Johnson (center) speaks at a forum for candidates for state superintendent of public instruction in Raleigh, N.C., on Oct. 5, 2019. From left to right are James Barrett, Amy Jablonski, Michael Maher, Jen Mangrum and Keith Sutton.
Constance Lav Johnson (center) speaks at a forum for candidates for state superintendent of public instruction in Raleigh, N.C., on Oct. 5, 2019. From left to right are James Barrett, Amy Jablonski, Michael Maher, Jen Mangrum and Keith Sutton. khui@newsobserver.com

Corrected on Oct. 7.

Leadership of North Carolina’s public schools could change dramatically depending on who voters pick next year to become the state’s school superintendent.

The six announced Democratic candidates for state superintendent of public instruction contrasted themselves Saturday with Republican Superintendent Mark Johnson and the GOP-led state legislature. The candidates complained about the level of state education funding and state educational programs that have allowed more North Carolina children to attend private schools and charter schools.

The N.C. Caucus of Black School Board Members said it invited all the announced candidates to Saturday’s forum at the Hampton Inn and Suites near Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh. No Republicans have announced yet that they’ll run next year, including Johnson who was elected in 2016.

The six Democratic candidates are Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member James Barrett, former state Department of Public Instruction division director Amy Jablonski, education consultant Constance Lav Johnson, N.C. State assistant dean Michael Maher, UNC Greensboro professor Jen Mangrum and Wake County school board member Keith Sutton.

The primary is March 3, 2020. The General Election is Nov. 3, 2020.

Here are highlights from Saturday’s forum:

School choice or privatization of education?

Republican lawmakers have touted how they’ve expanded school choice with private school vouchers and lifted the cap on charter schools. Johnson, the incumbent, has spoken at events promoting charter schools.

Barrett said segregation is a huge problem that comes from school choice programs so he’d require charter schools applicants to have a plan showing how they wouldn’t further segregation. He’d also push for allowing local school boards to have the authority to approve their own charter schools.

Jablonski said any place that gets public money for education should provide public access. She said charter schools that don’t provide transportation or meals to students aren’t providing public access.

Johnson was the least critical of charter schools, saying people should remember they’re also public schools. She suggested helping charters that are struggling to find locations by putting them on the campuses of traditional public schools.

Maher said he’s not an opponent of charter schools but feels the state has approved some it shouldn’t have while renewing some that should have been closed. He was more critical of voucher programs that help subsidize the cost of attending private schools.

“I have a huge problem with using public dollars for private entities,” Maher said. “Our state constitution calls for a public system of education not a taxpayer-funded private system.”

Teacher Cindy Kusilek works with students in her third-grade class at Franklin Academy Charter School on Feb. 22, 2013, in Wake Forest. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Mangrum says vouchers are “scary” because parents are using the money to attend private schools where the curriculum is not based on science or fact. She said she’s “anti-charter” because she said it causes resegregation and takes money away from traditional public schools.

“Charter schools are a place for families to escape,” Mangrum said. “They’re white flight. They’re resegregating our schools all over again.”

Sutton said charter schools are here to stay but he’s against them in the current form because of “resegregating” traditional public schools and taking funding. He’s against vouchers, saying they’re venues for families to get a privileged education.

Candidates criticize Superintendent Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson became the first Republican elected as North Carolina superintendent in around a century. State lawmakers gave him more power over the day-to-day operations of the state’s public schools than his predecessors.

Mark Johnson
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson speaks at a school choice rally held at the N.C. Museum of History on Jan. 23, 2018. Hundreds attended the rally where Johnson was one of the featured speakers. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

The six Democrats were uniformly critical of Johnson, saying they’d work to improve the strained relationship between the superintendent’s office and the State Board of Education.

“If we continue with the superintendent that we have and the General Assembly that we have, then we’re going to have more charters, more vouchers and more privatization,” Mangrum said.

Jablonski accused Johnson of pushing politics over education at DPI. She cited how Johnson had picked Istation to be the new program for testing the reading skills of K-3 students despite the recommendations of a committee she led to continue using the mClass program.

Calling for more state education funding

Republican lawmakers have promoted how state education funding is at record levels. But Democrats say funding isn’t enough, especially when adjusted for inflation compared to pre-recession levels of the late 2000s.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system has the highest local funding in the state, helping to raise the total overall to around $12,000 per student, which is the national average. Barrett said the state should be providing more money so state income taxes, not local property taxes, are used so much to fund education.

“Each and every one of our districts in the entire state should be getting $12,000 from the state,” Barrett said. “It should not be up to the local property taxpayers to make up that difference.”

Sutton said the state needs to do more to equalize funding between the affluent and less affluent school districts. He said it’s unacceptable how Education Week recently ranked North Carolina 37th in the nation in public education and 48th in school spending.

“It should not matter where a child is growing up, what zip code they live in,” Sutton said. “That shouldn’t determine whether they get a high-quality education.

North Carolina’s school performance grades

One of the changes the GOP-led legislature made was to require every public school to get an annual A through F letter grade that’s primarily based on how many of their students are passing state exams.

Sutton said nearly every school with a D and F grade is in poor and minority communities. He says state leaders need to address the issues of race and poverty to help raise student achievement.

“The leadership of our General Assembly has failed to acknowledge that race and poverty have a direct impact on student outcome and student achievement,” Sutton said.

Maher says the state needs to eliminate the school performance grades because they’re only measures of poverty at schools. He said it should be replaced with a system that includes “measures that matter,” such as equity measures showing whether a school is disproportionately suspending some groups and if it’s providing students equal access to academic opportunities.

Military security in schools?

Johnson raised eyebrows when she appeared to suggest having the military provide security at schools. There had been some talk after the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, about stationing the National Guard at schools.

“I believe that police do a great job, they try their best,” Johnson said. “I’m concerned that they’re only trained for two weeks before they receive a gun. Our military, they’re trained for years, and I believe that the government is responsible for protecting our children.”

After the forum, Johnson said she wasn’t specifically advocating that soldiers be put on school campuses. But she said that having stronger security, such as metal detectors and armed police at every school, would make students feel safer.

‘Proud gay woman’ running for office

All six candidates say they are the most qualified to oversee the education of North Carolina’s 1.5 million public school students.

But Jablonski says it would send a strong message if the state elected a gay woman who can relate to those who feel marginalized.

“I am an out and proud gay woman running for statewide office in a state that has not protected my community in its own discrimination laws,” Jablonski said.

(Story originally incorrectly said that if Jablonski won she’s be the first openly gay official elected to statewide office in North Carolina.)

North Carolina made national headlines for the “bathroom bill” that put restrictions on which restrooms transgender people could use as well as limits on local anti-discrimination ordinances.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.