As state superintendent, Catherine Truitt will oversee North Carolina’s vast public education system, which spent more than $14 billion this school year. But she won’t be doing it alone.
Truitt, a Republican, narrowly defeated Democratic candidate Jen Mangrum for the state’s top education position. Truitt won 51% of the vote.
Truitt is chancellor of Western Governors University North Carolina, a nonprofit online university catering to nontraditional students. Before that, she served as the senior education adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory.
Truitt says she’s putting together a team at the Department of Public Instruction who will put students first, while also engaging educators, business leaders, and legislators to improve educational outcomes and student performance.
In an interview with the Friday Institute, Truitt shared how she wants to tackle Leandro, the 25-year-old funding lawsuit which has shadowed K-12 education policy in North Carolina. Including the General Assembly, which is in charge of spending money, is a critical step in resolving the dispute. Truitt wants to make sure the General Assembly is part of the Leandro conversation.
Carolina Journal Associate Editor Lindsay Marchello sat down with Truitt on Nov. 12 to talk about her vision for North Carolina’s education future, and how she plans to fix the tenuous relationship between the State Board of Education and the state superintendent office.
Marchello: What was it like on election night, watching the numbers come in?
Truitt: Just like during the primary, there is a certain amount of anxiety about whether you are going to win or lose. For me, as a first-time candidate, I just wanted the campaign season to be over. My parents, who live in Ohio, came to be with me and my family. We all went out to dinner Tuesday evening, and then we spent a little time at a watch party, like 10 minutes. Then we came home and watched the results. It was an incredibly humbling experience to watch those numbers come in. I’m just so grateful for everyone who voted for me, but at the same time, I was immediately thinking about how I can represent all people in our state.
Marchello: You have said that students were at the center of your campaign. What will that look like in your administration?
Truitt: Students being at the center in my administration means that when we are making decisions about everything from what my team is going to look like to how we engage with the legislature, and what we prioritize has to start with the question of how does this benefit the student. Is this what’s right for students? So, as I am building a team and thinking about what those position titles are, I’m thinking about how this will impact the vision that I have for improving outcomes for students in our states. I can give you an example.
I want to include a creative position on my team that is about liaisoning with workforce development. One of the things I talked about in my campaign is the idea that not all kids need to graduate and immediately embark on a four-year college experience. We have to have alternative pathways to that traditional route. As part of looking into that, I learned that our career and technical education certificates are not equitable in our state. We have some wealthier districts that might have six different IT certificates that you can graduate with that are part of a bonafide career path, and then other districts are still offering only first aid. That’s not part of a real career path. We also have the state workforce and education attainment goal, which starts at K-12 and goes all the way through the university system. I want to have someone be part of my team who is wholly engaged in those two things, as well as [expecting] districts to make sure that students are getting what they need to be ready for that alternative pathway.
Marchello: You have a background in nontraditional education. How does that inform your approach to improving public education?
Truitt: In terms of my approach, I’ve been looking at the data of our student outcomes and I’m just stunned at how stagnant it’s been over the past 35 years. I’m all about looking at the innovation it’s going to take to serve all students. WGU is the definition of disruptive innovation, because it leveraged technology to offer something to people who would not have it otherwise. It’s a new audience, and it’s done in such a way that is so efficient and cost-effective that it’s changing the original model that it sought to disrupt. I want to be innovative in a way that will change the way we are doing things, and that starts with building a team that is innovative in itself and having a work structure that is innovative on its face.
Marchello: Any time you go about disrupting things, some people get nervous. How do you do that in a way to get buy-in from the establishment?
Truitt: I think you just hit on it, that’s getting buy-in. You get buy-in by communicating, communicating, communicating, and you involve the people who need to be involved. You present things so they are clear, obtainable, and non-threatening. And you keep students at the center of the conversation. I’m looking at this team that is starting to come together already and it’s all people who have a reputation for being student-centered. That’s how you build consensus.
Marchello: What are your day one priorities as state superintendent?
Truitt: I am going to have a team that is ready to go on day one. We are going to focus on early literacy, alongside the University of North Carolina system, business leaders in our state, and the State Board of Education strategic plan. These three things are going to converge, and we are going to be laser-focused on ensuring all children in our state are reading proficiently.
Marchello: With the past administration there was tension between the Department of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education. How will you go about rebuilding that relationship so you can work together and accomplish those goals?
Truitt: The State Board of Education believes that it is a new day. They have been incredibly gracious. They have brought an outside person, a North Carolinian who no longer works in the system, to help us with planning and getting to know each other, basically so we can start from a place of trust. I have had multiple conversations with board leadership and I feel supported 100% already.
Marchello: It sounds kind of like a mediation.
Truitt: It is. He is Dr. Terry Holliday, a former superintendent for Statesville-Iredell schools. He went on to become the commissioner of education in Kentucky and he’s back in North Carolina.
Marchello: One of the criticisms of outgoing Superintendent Mark Johnson’s administration was a lack of transparency. How would you approach dealing with the media and the public?
Truitt: Part of this role is to be available to the media. Part of this role is to share the story of what is going on in our state, our districts, and in our schools with the public, legislators, and other superintendents. There will be complete transparency in my administration, and I will have an open-door policy with superintendents.
Marchello: Your competitor, Jen Mangrum, expressed an interest in joining the state education board. What do you think about that?
Truitt: That is 100% up to the governor. That is his decision to make.
Marchello: Any last thoughts?
Truitt: I just want to say that our children’s education is too precious to play politics with, and I am going to try my hardest to separate politics from this role — to do what is right. The fact that we elect this position makes it difficult to eliminate politics, so let me just say that I cannot eliminate politics, but I’m going to do as much as I can to take the temperature down and keep this about students instead of politics.