Name as it appears on the ballot: Keith A. Sutton

Age: 50

Party affiliation: Democrat

Campaign website:

Occupation & employer: Consultant, FocusED, LLC

Years lived in North Carolina: 50

1) Please tell us what in your record as a public official or private citizen demonstrates your ability to be an effective Superintendent? Please be specific. 

I am now in my tenth year as a member of the Wake County Board of Education. I was first appointed in 2009 and have been re-elected three times. However, this fact alone does not demonstrate my effectiveness. The fact that I am considered a leader among my peers also demonstrates my ability to be effective in office. This past December, I was elected by a majority of my peers to again lead the Wake County Board of Education as Chair. I was also elected to serve in this position in 2013. I have also served as Vice Chair in 2012 and 2019. I have led this board through tumultuous times and accomplished much such as a successful bond referendum, a comprehensive review of school safety, and the hiring of a successful superintendent.

On a state and national level, I have served as President of the North Carolina Caucus of Black School Board Members and as a steering committee member of the Council of Urban Boards of Education. I currently serve as Vice Chair of the North Carolina Black Alliance, an intergovernmental network of African American legislators, county commissioners, school board members and municipal elected officials that are committed to addressing broad issues of inequality and fairness.

Leadership matters, and the fact that I am often seen as a leader among leaders demonstrates my ability not just to lead, but to get things done and move others toward progress.

2) Superintendent Mark Johnson is now running for lieutenant governor. Generally, what do you think of his term as Superintendent? Do you approve or disapprove of the way he has handled the job? Why or why not? 

Superintendent Johnson and the State Board of Education have done some things well over the last few years. Among them include supporting a spirit of innovation by initiating several pilot programs and supporting those efforts with funding. One such example is the Advanced Teaching Roles Pilot. They have sought to provide a more comprehensive framework for supporting the needs of all students by developing the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). They have also sought to be more responsive to the needs of LEAs by providing data to districts sooner to help with decision making and planning.

Overall, I do not think that his term as State Superintendent has been a successful one. I strongly disapprove of the way that he has handled the job and think there are opportunities for improvement in areas such as:

A more intentional focus on equity, including clear definitions of meaningful equity and recommendations for LEAs to operationalize equity.

A more intentional focus on the needs of rural education. According to a recent report from the NC Public School Forum, North Carolina is second only to Texas as the state with the largest population of rural students.

Providing operational and central office support to smaller district with fewer resources, particularly in areas like talent acquisition and management, capital planning, and developing school attendance zones.

3) Please tell us the three most pressing issues the next Superintendent will face, and how, if elected, you plan to address those issues. 

Priority 1 – Work with the General Assembly to provide the appropriate level of investment in public education to ensure success for all North Carolina students.

Meet with the leadership of both the House and Senate to open the lines of communication and develop and a working relationship.

Using the recently released Leandro report from WestEd, look for areas of agreement and cooperation that we can use as a starting point to build a working foundation. 

Priority 2 – Overhaul the state’s strategy and approach for turning around and improving the state’s lowest performing schools.

Recognize and acknowledge, as a state, that race and poverty have a profound impact on student achievement and success.

Eliminate the Innovation School District (ISD) as a strategy for school improvement, recognizing that charter management companies are not the solution to this challenge.

Priority 3 – Evaluate the organizational structure and capacity of the Department of Public Instruction and engage in a restructuring that will be more responsive and improve service delivery and support.

Assess the current organizational structure and determine the number of vacant positions.

Initiate a strategic hiring process that is aligned with short- and long- term goals and operational efficiency.

4) Over the last six months, there has been considerable debate (and legal battles) over Superintendent Johnson’s decision to award a K–3 reading program to Istation, though it was not the highest-ranked program by a committee of educators. Later, Johnson gave Istation an emergency contract, which the state canceled, then issued an identical one. Based on what you know, what do you think of the way the Superintendent handled this situation? How would you have handled it differently, if at all? 

Based on my information, I believed that the current State Superintendent should have managed the Istation situation very differently. I believe he should have managed that process through collaboration with the local superintendents from around the state. They had better knowledge in terms of what is happening at the district level and how any decision would impact teaching and learning in the schools. 

What I would have done differently as State Superintendent would have been to ask the General Assembly to delay implementation of the new diagnostic tool, which is what many of the state’s superintendents wanted. Understanding that abandoning the mClass reading tool at such short notice would have caused a number of issues, a one-year delay would have seemed to be a reasonable request. 

As State Superintendent, I would have supported this request given a number of concerns, the most significant of those being:

Best practice suggests that assessments for young children should be administered in a one-on-one setting by the child’s teacher and in short segments over a period of several days or weeks. An assessment that relies solely on technology, such as Istation, does not provide teachers with information that supports students’ early literacy skills and will negatively impact the most academically fragile;

As the state approved tool for the past several years, mCLASS was interwoven with other services and could not be immediately replaced. In addition, the previous use of Istation in some districts such as Wake County did not reveal any measurable advantage.

5) Teacher pay has long been a hot-button issue in North Carolina, including in the recent budget standoff. Teacher salaries have risen in recent years, though critics have argued that they have not risen enough. There has recently been talk of a teacher strike in protest, even though such strikes are illegal. Whether or not such actions take place, what’s your position on teacher pay? As Superintendent, how would you see to recruit and retain the best possible teachers for the state’s schools?

Teacher pay in North Carolina needs to be increased. My vision for teacher salaries is that North Carolina will match or exceed the national average in the next four years. According to figures released this year by DPI, the average teacher salary in North Carolina is $53,975, which is $2,741 more than last year. NEA estimates that the national average teacher salary is $61,730. My vision includes a 4-year plan that will raise the average teacher salary in North Carolina to $64,000. This would get us just beyond the national average, with a slight increase to adjust for inflation over that time. This plan would require an increase of at least $2,500/year for four years. This multi-year commitment from the NC General Assembly would raise teacher salaries in North Carolina from nearly $54,000 to almost $64,000.

My plan for bolstering the recruitment and retention of teachers, especially teachers of color includes the following:

Developing and maintaining meaningful partnerships with schools of education at historically minority serving institutions.

Identify early opportunities to recruit promising students with an interest in a career in education and nurture/develop that interest through high school and into college.

Identify and eliminate barriers of entry to the profession for teacher candidates of color such as bias in entrance exams, low starting salaries, and student debt.

Identify and develop effective pipelines of teachers of color and characteristics of those pipelines such as effective onboarding and orientation, promising support strategies and networks and relevant professional development.

Identify effective recruitment and retention tools such as performance incentives, bonuses and loan forgiveness programs that target male educators of color and educators of color that are willing to work in rural communities. 

6) A Superior Court judge recently ruled that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide students with a “sound, basic education.” The judge’s ruling cited a consultant’s report arguing that the state’s per-pupil funding has fallen over the last decade, adjusted for inflation. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you believe state schools need additional resources to meet this constitutional requirement? 

Yes, I do agree that state per-pupil spending has declined over recent years. I do believe that our public schools need substantial funding to meet this constitutional requirement and that sentiment has been echoed in the recent WestEd report. 

7) Test scores show significant disparities in achievement between schools and school districts. Why do you think some schools perform better than others? As Superintendent, how would you work to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools?

As state superintendent, I oppose the takeover of the lowest performing public schools by for-profit charter operators. What we need is an overhaul of the state’s strategy and approach for improving the state’s lowest performing schools. My first steps on this issue would include:

Recognition and acknowledgement, as a state, that race and poverty have a profound impact on student achievement and success.

Elimination of the Innovation School District (ISD) as a strategy for school improvement, recognizing that charter management companies are not the solution to this challenge.

Talented and experienced professionals with public education experience are needed to improve the lowest performing public schools. As state superintendent, I would implement a three-pronged strategy that would include the following:

Experienced teachers and principals – Experienced and proven educators that have worked in these environments and have a track-record of school improvement are critical to this work.

Effective public policies – Flexible and supportive local and state policies are needed in order to create the conditions for innovation and success.

Community and family engagement – Strong and supportive communities and families will be critical in nurturing and developing a culture of success.

8) Research suggests that schools in North Carolina are becoming more racially and economically segregated, which has significant adverse effects for low-income children and children of color. In addition, according to a 2018 report from the N.C. Justice Center, “In 72 percent of the counties with at least one charter school, charter schools increase the degree of racial segregation in the district.” What steps, if any, do you believe the state should take to address these issues? 

In order to address these issues, the state should consider a moratorium on charters. This would allow for a process to conduct a more thorough review of their anticipated impact on the communities they plan to serve. Part of that review process would include:

an impact statement from the LEA where the charter school plans to serve;

an option for the impacted LEA to assume control of the charter if they so choose.

This would eliminate LEAs from serving as a “pass through” for funding charter schools. It would also allow for greater accountability and increased support for the development of a more successful charter.

In addition, I think the state should strongly recommend that districts conduct a review of school boundary lines every 12-15 years. This would be an important step to ensure that school attendance zones remain relevant to the communities they serve and schools do not become racially or socio-economically unbalanced over time. There would need to be a function within the Department of Public Instruction that would provide support to districts in this effort. 

9) Do you believe that tax dollars should go to private schools? If so, under what circumstances? Do you support the expansion of charter schools? Why or why not? 

I do not support the use of public funds for private K-12 schools. I do not support the expansion of charter schools, and would strongly consider a moratorium on charters. Almost since their inception, charter schools in North Carolina have segregated schools and communities and siphoned off funds from traditional public schools. The future of charter schools should include a return to their original intent, which was to serve as incubators of education innovation. Successful innovations would then be scaled up in the traditional public schools.

There are several recommendations that are provided by organizations such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and supported by the NC Justice Center that as state superintendent, I would support and promote. These include:

Providing two levels of performance standards. This would include one set of standards for termination of a charter and a separate set of standards for non-renewal of a charter.

Eliminate loopholes allowing continued operation based on poorly defined performance plans.

Create clear, transparent operational performance expectations.

Close failed charters rather than attempting turnaround.    

10) As technology becomes more integrated into learning, what sort of changes would you like to see made in order to make North Carolina schools more technologically advanced?

I would like to see the state provide more support to schools that want to move toward a 1:1 device ratio for students. For example, I would initiate a focus on literacy and make sure that every student in grades K-2 has a device. Using the device as a tool for instruction, teachers are able to work with the individual learning styles of each student. As students move at their own pace, teachers are able to provide personalized instruction for each student. With a teacher assistant in each class at those grades, teachers would now have the time to work with students one on one with the support of additonal support in the room.   

Media centers would provide additional technology and media center specialists could assist teachers with lesson planning and technology utilization. 

11) Are there any other issues you would like to address that have not been included in this questionnaire? 

Yes, one issue that I think deserves attention is rural education and how the state migh better support schools in low-wealth, rural districts. According to a recent article in Education Dive, “North Carolina and Alabama are tied for second in terms of having the greatest needs among students in rural areas…”. Therefore, it is critical that we have a plan to address the needs and challenges experienced by rural communities. I have developed a Rural Education Agenda that will serve as a roadmap for bolstering DPI services to low wealth, rural districts that includes the following points:  

Provide an additional state appropriation to rural districts to address challenges such as teacher recruitment and retention.

Identify opportunities to expand and deepen investments in technology.

Enhance efforts to expand broadband access, including district- owned or leased cell towers and internet networks.

Support a continued focus on early childhood education.

Expand digital/distance learning to improve access to rigor.

Provide more targeted and focused support to Advanced Placement teachers and students.

Provide support for district collaboratives to share resources on items such as professional development, transportation, nutrition, athletics, CTE programs and other services.