Name as it appears on the ballot: Michael Maher
Party affiliation: Democratic Party
Campaign website: maherfornc.com/
Occupation & employer: Recently Unemployed (Assistant Dean, NC State until 12/31/19)
Years lived in North Carolina: 27
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 believe the state superintendent should be someone with comprehensive knowledge and experience in the field of education. This background should include classroom teaching, leadership, administration and program development, and policy experience. The job of superintendent is a mix of all of these components since the Superintendent is both an agency head and a policy advocate.
I am the one candidate in the race with experience in each of these areas. I have teaching experience as a high school teacher having taught in both Kernersville and Raleigh. I was a teacher educator at a small Historically Black College (Saint Augustine’s) and large public university (NC State). Additionally, I have been a leader and administrator as an assistant dean in the NC State College of Education.
I am the past-president of the NC Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators (NCACTE), past-chair of the Advisory Council of State Representatives, and a member of the board of directors of the American Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators, each of these advocacy organizations is focused on state and national policy. As part of my work with these organizations, within North Carolina, I have worked with members of the general assembly on legislation related to teaching and teacher preparation. I also currently serve as the vice chair of the NC Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission, the commission charged with sending policy recommendations to the state board of education on teacher licensing and teacher education.
I believe this is a critical time for public education in our state. Our current superintendent has been plagued by controversy for nearly a year due to his lack of transparency. I believe it is time to restore integrity and accountability to the state superintendent’s office with a trusted leader. Although the state superintendent’s race is a partisan one, I believe we need a candidate who is focused on the job, who is focused on solutions and one who has the most experience working collaboratively, across the aisle, and past party labels. We need a superintendent who leads with integrity, who has a record of accomplishment, and who is most qualified for the job. I believe the last two decades have demonstrated that I am that person.
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?
For nearly 3 years, Mr. Johnson’s tenure and impact could be described as uneventful. Due to Mr. Johnson’s lack of relevant experience, he began his term with an 18 month “listening tour”. One year ago, Mr. Johnson rolled out his first policy proposal, an effort to “make North Carolina the best place to teach and learn”….in 2030. In effect, his first key policy plan would fall short for an entire generation of children. Children in elementary school today will graduate before this policy is fully implemented. From that point forward the last year has been plagued by controversy, beginning with the NC Virtual Public School teacher salary issues and most recently with the iStation scandal. Much of what we have seen over the past 4 years has been absent and ineffective leadership.
3) Please tell us the three most pressing issues the next Superintendent will face, and how, if elected, you plan to address those issues.
My campaign is focused on three priorities: Equity, Excellence, and Innovation.
Equity begins with addressing systemic inequity to ensure that academic failure or success is not predictable based on race or socioeconomic status. This plan will include policy change and accountability reform that begins with the elimination of school report cards, which assign a letter grade of A-F to a given school based primarily on a limited number of standardized assessments. I propose transitioning from the report card system to a public accountability dashboard, which moves beyond test scores to measures of equity, including access to courses and programs; suspension rates; principal experience; school safety; social emotional learning; and chronic absenteeism. The data we collect will be used to highlight strengths and identify opportunities and areas of need, so we can focus our resources to improve teaching and learning for all children. Improvements in our system of transparency and accountability are critical to restoring trust in our public school system. Families need to be confident that our public schools are serving their children.
Excellence is our commitment to restoring North Carolina as a leader in public education through policies and programs that serve the needs of all children. Policies focused on excellence call for full funding of our educational system, competitive salaries for all of those who work in education, improved working conditions for educators, and concrete actions to improve our most pressing challenges, including early childhood literacy. I am committed to taking the necessary steps to improve public education in North Carolina by utilizing my experience and working with others to restore the respect for public education and public educators in our state.
Innovation calls for change in the system and opportunities for children and educators in our public schools. We must find better strategies for supporting our underperforming districts in North Carolina, while simultaneously building on successful pilot programs throughout our state. Innovation in practice provides more autonomy for teachers in professional development and license renewal and incorporates the use of microcredentials for further customization. The Department of Public Instruction must support entrepreneurial activities for teachers and students and forge a closer partnership with ApprenticeshipNC to support and build upon existing apprenticeship opportunities for students throughout our state. Innovation includes supporting teachers in new ways, such as the Advanced Teaching Roles pilots, as a state, we must identify promising practices and ways in which teachers can advance in their career and increasing their impact while remaining in the classroom.
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?
The entire process suffered from a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the State Superintendent. The superintendent is tasked with many decisions and will not have an opportunity to engage in all of the relevant details for each. The superintendent must be able to trust those tasked with providing guidance.
In my role as the assistant Dean I surrounded myself with highly competent and capable professionals. We discussed policies and initiatives regularly and debated the merits and downsides of each. When a decision was made it was done with the collective wisdom of the group and in the best interest of all those impacted.
I would have handled this situation in the same manner I have throughout my administrative career. Learn as much as I possibly can on the topic, listen to those with expertise, follow the established process (in this case recommending committee) and trust the professional judgment of those tasked with providing a recommendation.
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?
As state superintendent, I would begin by reestablishing a productive relationship with the State Board of Education. Working together, the superintendent and the SBE can establish statewide priorities and advocate together. I would also draw upon existing relationships within the General Assembly and local districts to further build support for our priorities.
When I began my teaching career in Kernersville in 1996, I made less than $20,000 as a teacher; however I, and many of my peers, believed we were fairly compensated when benefits were taken into account. At that time I was (and continue to be) a contributing member of the state employee’s retirement system and my health benefits were covered without co-pays. More than 25 years later, many in our state still believe educators are appropriately compensated because of the perceived benefits. What they fail to recognize is that while wages have stagnated, benefits have also eroded. The erosion of benefits includes educators’ contributions to the cost of their healthcare, longer vesting period in the retirement system, the elimination of longevity pay, removal of healthcare for retirees, a lack of Cost of Living Adjustments, the loss of supplemental pay for advanced degrees, and the elimination of tenure protections. In conversations with neighbors and friends, very few are aware of the current state of benefits for educators.
As state superintendent I would contribute to this conversation by informing the public not only about our uncompetitive wages, but the reduction in benefits. This is also part of our recruitment and retention policies. Working with allies in the General Assembly and throughout the state, we must advocate for competitive wages; improved working conditions; and defined benefits for retirees, including Cost of Living Adjustments and the reinstatement of health benefits.
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, the finding of the WestEd Leandro Report is clear when it states, “the state does not currently fund its education system sufficiently to allow it to reach its own minimal targets identified in their ESSA plan.” In order to adequately fund our educational system, we require $6.86 billion dollars in short-term and ongoing funding. With continuing budget surpluses, it is time for our state to reinvest in the people of North Carolina rather than the continued push for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations.
The WestEd report identified 7 primary areas in which we need to work to ensure we meet our constitutional obligation, 1) Revising the state funding model, 2) Well prepared teachers, 3) Well prepared principals, 4) Access to early childhood education, 5) Supporting high poverty schools, 6) Accountability reform, 7) supporting district transformation. These issues have been well documented over the past two decades but we have lacked either the political will or mandate to address them.
The consent order agreed to by both the plaintiffs and defendants in the case provide us, perhaps, a once in a generation opportunity to enact large-scale, meaningful change in our public schools.
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?
We start with accountability reform as I have previously indicated. With a more robust accountability dashboard we can determine which schools are persistently underperforming and we target resources directly. To do this, I would move to align our district transformation services into a singular unit, rather than continue the current configuration with separates programs into different units. With one School/District Transformation unit we can house our federal program, Renewal School District option, Innovative School District, District Transformation Teams, and Advanced Teaching Roles Pilots. Additionally, the unit can coordinate with external programs such as the Teacher Cadets, NC Teaching Fellows, and the NC New Teacher Support Program. Through better integration and coordination, we can properly evaluate the impact of each set of transformation activities to address specific school or district needs.
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?
Racial segregation is a systemic housing policy issue likely best addressed by local municipalities, county commissioners, or the General Assembly. Thus, racial segregation is more than a charter school issue. From a local perspective, local boards of education should be responsible for policy related to school segregation within their district. From a state perspective, our school accountability system should be documenting racial disparities, which I have proposed in my accountability reform. Additionally, the superintendent can work with members of the general assembly to modify the existing charter school legislation to address the segregation issue. Policy solutions include requiring a weighted lottery for admission, direct funding of charters from county commissioners to increase the level of accountability, and using the approval and renewal process to ensure new and existing charters reflect the demographics of the communities in which they reside.
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 am vehemently opposed to the use of public dollars for private K-12 schools. These schools are not accountable for their educational outcomes and are free to discriminate against children and educators.
I believe we may have reached a saturation point with the number of charter schools now approaching 200. With this significant growth we have an obligation to ensure accountability and transparency. Strengthening accountability and transparency begins with the superintendent’s appointment to the Charter School Advisory Board and by having a superintendent who conducts his due diligence with regard to charter approval and renewal. I believe my call for accountability reform is critical to evaluating the performance of charter schools.
As state superintendent here are some specific actions I would take with regard to charter schools:
Conduct an impact analysis of charter schools in our state. We need to have clear data on which schools meet their performance criteria and which do not. We also need to see which reflect the communities in which they reside and which do not. In instances where a charter school does not reflect its community, we will call for, at the minimum, a weighted lottery and review by the Charter School Advisory Board.
Stricter regulation with regard to approval and renewal. Working with my appointee on the CSAB, recommendations will be made on the basis of meeting performance criteria and meeting the needs of the community it serves.
Working with members of the General Assembly to modify charter legislation. As we approach 200 charter schools, I believe we are at a saturation point throughout our state. It is time to conduct an analysis of the impact and recommend specific changes to the legislation. Examples would include, requiring charters to fulfill a specific or unique mission, the use of a weighted lottery, and a 3 year renewal process for new or identified “at risk” schools.
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 believe we need to incorporate technology where it is appropriate. We need to significantly limit the amount of “screen time” our K-3 children are subject to. Reforming our accountability model can help in this regard by shifting our focus away from a series of standardized assessments back toward education of the “whole child”. We do not need to move entirely away from the use of technology in elementary schools however, as there are a number of initiatives that contribute to childrens’ ability to think critically such as scratch coding. I do support 1:1 initiatives in middle and high school and favor those to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) options as they can exacerbate inequity. In my work as an assistant dean at NC State we utilized a 1:1 approach in our teacher preparation. As a state, we need to ensure we provide teachers with increased professional development if we are going to promote increased use of technology in our schools.
11) Are there any other issues you would like to address that have not been included in this questionnaire?
If I am elected superintendent, visits to schools will no longer be used to highlight the travels of the Superintendent, but rather to highlight the work of educators throughout our state. Reestablishing the respect for the profession begins with demystifying the work of educators. Too many individuals fall victim to the “apprenticeship of observation,” the notion that because they attended school, they know exactly what teaching entails. Teaching is complex work, practiced by professionals and we need to assist the public in understanding this.
As we reform our accountability model, we will identify examples of excellence throughout our state that extend beyond standardized test scores. The office of the state superintendent will work to highlight and share these stories of success. Through this process we can change the narrative for public education in our state.