Mar 20, 2024 - Election

NC's consequential election to lead public schools is highly politicized

Photo illustration of Mo Green and Michele Morrow.

Mo Green (left) and Michele Morrow. Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: Courtesy of both campaigns

The race to lead North Carolina's public schools, which educate 1.3 million students, is gearing up to be one of the most watched and politically charged nationally.

Why it matters: Especially since the pandemic, classrooms have been increasingly used as political battlegrounds, from debates over book bans to critical race theory.

  • The state superintendent race is heating up months after state lawmakers expanded the voucher program, which uses public dollars for private education.

Between the lines: Michele Morrow, who upset the incumbent superintendent Catherine Truitt in the Republican primary this month, is drawing national attention for her past online comments. She was also at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the News & Observer reported.

  • Between 2019 and 2020, Morrow posted multiple times on social media about executing Democratic officials, including Gov. Roy Cooper, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, CNN reported.
  • "We cannot have this type of violent rhetoric in our schools," her opponent, Democrat Mo Green, told Axios.

Reality check: North Carolina's superintendent of public instruction can influence politics, but it's more of an executive role.

  • The legislature passes laws, while the state board of education (appointed by the governor) enacts policies that align with those statutes.

The big picture: The state superintendent is the "face of public schools in North Carolina," says Walter Hart, a professor at UNC Charlotte's Cato College of Education and former district superintendent.

  • The state superintendent heads the Department of Public Instruction β€” a large, complex organization that administers about $11 billion annually. They're expected to make appearances and speak with the press.
  • State statute outlines a host of responsibilities for the superintendent, from producing reports for the governor to acting as secretary to the board of education.
  • "The superintendent's going to have to make reasoned decisions and recommendations," Hart says, "and is going to have to consider multiple viewpoints."

Yes, but: The only qualifications to run are the candidate has to be at least 21 years old and eligible to vote.

  • One additional credential: "​​The state superintendent should support and value public education," Hart says.

State of play: Morrow is a nurse and mother from Wake County who homeschools her kids. She ousted Truitt with about 4% more votes, even though Truitt raised $289,239 more than Morrow.

  • Green, the former superintendent of Guilford County Schools, won by a landslide against the two other Democrats in the primary.

More about the candidates:

Green previously was the general counsel for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

  • He left his post in Guilford to serve as executive director of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, which has invested $627 million in North Carolina. One of its priorities is public education.
  • Green is running on increased funding for public schools and higher pay for educators and all other employees. He said he will accomplish that by advocating to the General Assembly, adjusting existing spending and seeking outside funding sources, such as grants and federal dollars.
  • He wants to ramp up the science of reading, an approach to literature focused more on vocabulary, comprehension and phonics than reading aloud or using pictures to memorize words.

Morrow describes herself as an advocate for educational reform. She told Axios she fought for the Parents' Bill of Rights. The legislation increases parents' involvement in their children's education and bans educators from formally teaching K-3 students about sexual orientation and gender identity.

  • Morrow is a proponent of school choice. She unsuccessfully ran for Wake County school board.
  • She criticized Truitt for asking lawmakers to delay the Parents' Bill of Rights implementation. Truitt said that districts had too many questions about the new laws at the time.
  • Morrow said while traveling around the state, she's heard people say Truitt, principals and school board members are unresponsive to concerns about safety and academics.
  • "It's very clear that the people of North Carolina are ready for some change," Morrow said. "They want to get back to the basics of education and focus on math and reading and science."
  • Asked about Jan. 6, Morrow said, "I won this campaign because of my focus on scholastics ... we want to focus on math, reading and science. And I think that's what North Carolina businesses expect for us to do."

What's next: The general election is Nov. 5.

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