by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) is worried.
Election day is less than a week away, and Jen Mangrum, the NCAE-endorsed candidate for superintendent of public instruction, cannot shake her young, scrappy, and hungry Republican challenger, Catherine Truitt.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Mangrum maintained a 6-to-1 fundraising advantage thanks to hefty contributions from the North Carolina Democratic Party, Lillian’s List, and the NCAE PAC. Notable individual donors included former governor James Hunt, documentary filmmaker Barb Lee, retired executive director of the National Education Association John Wilson, and Silicon Valley megadonor Karla Jurvetson. In addition to enjoying support from nearly every government school advocacy organization in the state, Mangrum received endorsements from all of the state’s major newspapers, as well as from the pro-abortion Emily’s List, the Sierra Club, and scores of wealthy and influential Democrats.
And yet, the race is neck and neck.
Over the last three months, polls conducted by the Civitas Institute show a dead heat between the two candidates. In August, Truitt and Mangrum were tied at 35% each, with 31% of likely voters undecided. In September, they were tied at 38% each and 22% remained undecided. In October, Mangrum had a 45% to 42% advantage over Truitt with 13% still undecided.1 Despite Mangrum’s small lead in the October poll, it is within the margin of error. In other words, it’s anyone’s ballgame.
Because Mangrum’s campaign has been unable to translate its considerable advantages into support, a few bloggers with close ties to the NCAE have inundated social media with articles and posts that don’t question Truitt’s impressive credentials as much as try to raise doubts about the nature of her campaign donations.2
No, there are no campaign finance irregularities to speak of. Instead, they take issue with contributions to Truitt’s campaign from individuals who champion testing, accountability, and school choice. It’s no secret that Truitt favors holding schools accountable for results and offering educational options for families when they fail to deliver satisfactory results. And that stance has attracted donors who share those values. It sets her apart from Jen Mangrum, who is content to carry water for the NCAE and undertake its campaign to gut accountability measures and eradicate school choice programs that benefit low-income students, learners with special needs, and children of color.
And the union bloggers object to the fact that some of Truitt’s donors reside in other states. (Gasp!) Certainly, if the NCAE truly believed that out-of-state donations were objectionable, then they would immediately rescind their endorsement of Gov. Roy Cooper, whose out-of-state contributions far eclipse Republican challenger Dan Forest. According to VoteSmart.org, 15% of Cooper’s donations came from out-of-state donors compared to 5% for Forest. There’s even a video of Cooper attending a March fundraiser in Tampa, Florida. Strings attached?
Of course, I am a grumpy realist. The superintendent of public instruction race is a down-ballot contest with no incumbent, splashy controversy, or celebrity candidate. Even if the race had sizzle or stature, the median voter will have insufficient knowledge of the candidates’ platforms or their few details about their respective plans for carrying out the duties of the office.
Instead, those who approve of state and federal Republican candidates likely support Truitt, and those who approve of Democratic candidates likely support Mangrum. Unaffiliated voters will back one of the candidates based on their preconceptions of what the political parties believe about public education. Others will choose the first name listed. A few may even select a candidate because they have an affinity for their name. Regrettably, many will choose to withhold their vote.
The sad realities of voting aside, the superintendent of public instruction race is critical because the challenges facing the next state superintendent, particularly the devastating learning loss produced by coronavirus mitigation measures, are so daunting.
1. Margin of error was ±4.0% for the August poll; ±3.96% for September; and ±4.37% for October (percentages may not sum to 100% due to rounding).
2. In the interest of full disclosure, I have donated to Catherine Truitt’s campaign.