James Barrett for NC Superintendent

NCAE questionnaire


The Political Action Committee of the North Carolina Association of Educators

        2020 Superintendent of Public Instruction                                          

Candidate Questionnaire

**Questionnaires are for internal NCAE purposes only and will not be distributed to the public.

Please mail or E-mail completed questionnaires by January 10, 2016 to: Kevin Rogers, NCAE Government Relations 700 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh NC 27601 Phone: 919-832-3000, ext. 216 E-mail: kevin.rogers@ncae.org ** NCAE WILL NOT CONSIDER A RECOMMENDATION OF ANY CANDIDATE WHO DOES NOT COMPLETE THIS SIGNED QUESTIONNAIRE IN ITS ENTIRETY.            
  1. As superintendent, what would be your top priorities for public education and why?

1) Eliminate the testing regime stressing out students and teachers and painting a narrative of failure with the public. I would work immediately, collaboratively with all stakeholders, to change from high-stakes to lower-stakes tests that give useful measures of learning and guidance for adjusting instruction. This likely means focusing assessments on standards-based grading—a major change project that would make a positive difference for everyone.  We know students and teachers need assessments. We should be smart enough by now to use teacher assessments to understand the policy implications, because the current system is not giving us accurate data and is hated by all who are involved in executing the process.

2) Focus on state-level policies that can restore respect for the teacher profession. For example, I will work with the State Board of Education to put into policy work that we’ve done in Chapel Hill-Carrboro that restores protections for teachers from at-will firing and supports teachers’ free speech. I would also find the money in DPI’s budget to offer paid parental leave immediately, to model what districts should do for all educators.

3) Focus on school safety, with an immediate budget push on physical security (for example, quick locks on interior doors) and emotional safety, with proper levels of mental health funding as we face a multifaceted student mental health crisis. I would also focus DPI on providing excellent training to all districts on using school resource officers in a positive manner including in support of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s School-Justice Partnerships, and on other ways we can improve safety.

  • How have you shown your support for public schools in previous elected positions or personal activities?

As a school board member, I have a track record of supporting schools, students, and teachers through meaningful policy work, through a deep commitment to listening—meeting with anyone who asks to share their point of view—and in showing up to be engaged alongside our professionals in the work, not for my glory, but to more deeply understand the impact of board decisions on the actual work in schools. Before getting elected, I was a founding member of the education committee of Justice United, an interfaith social justice organization, dedicated to effective advocacy for the needs of our students and teachers. I spent years tutoring students in math, and have also shown my support financially as much as possible for causes that benefit students and teachers. I’ve also joined as many educator organizations as possible, to continue to expand my understanding of the issues facing our schools. Additionally, as a lifelong Democrat, I have spent several decades actively campaigning for and financially supporting pro-education local, state, and national candidates.

  • Please explain how, as superintendent, you would specifically build respect for the education profession in order to help attract and retain the highest quality educators?

__Alongside vocal, visible advocacy, the superintendent can make the most difference through a deep knowledge of how to use policy creatively to effect change. There is significant policy work that the state board can implement based on the superintendent’s proposals to build respect, including stating clearly educators’ First Amendment rights so that no one feels they need to choose between their job and speaking out, even on education issues. We also can extend appeal and right to be given a reason for non-renewal to all districts, thus restoring some of what was lost when career status was removed.  Of course pay is a component of respect in the eyes of stakeholders; my training and experience in effective advocacy with other elected officials will guide me in being a fierce advocate for improving pay for all educators to a level that supports a livable wage for all, including being competitive with professions that require similar credentials for teachers and provides growth over a career.  This requires both using connections to legislators behind the scenes as well as rallying public pressure in every district where legislators fail in their votes to support their educators, making the case for how student learning grows when the state can attract, retain, and support great teachers in every district. I also strongly support a state bond to renovate older buildings and provide professional spaces for educators to work in.  As noted above, I will also set the example within DPI on paid parental/family leave to encourage districts and the state to address for teacher retention. In all these areas, the superintendent must be focused on those high-impact actions that change policy and influence both the public and elected officials. This isn’t about feel-good but ineffective classroom photo ops, but about effectively building the narrative how the current disrespect in pay and working conditions hurts educators, students, and North Carolina’s future. 

  • What will you do as superintendent to ensure that public education is a budget priority and that state government provides adequate funding for high-quality public schools for all children?

___New school board members often struggle with understanding the dual roles of governance and advocacy.  This means balancing the fiduciary responsibilities of governance with our instinct to fight the system that we honed while campaigning.  I’ve been through that transition and value both roles in the work as an elected official.  Budgets are an area in which we need elected officials to be the effective advocates (it is harder for staff, including local superintendents, to speak out). That means using all possible working relationships with the General Assembly, but also using the bully pulpit of the office to spotlight legislators who fail to live up to their verbal support for public education when it comes time for hard votes.  I would not be opposed to holding rallies with educators and public education supporters in the hometowns of such legislators—the state superintendent can draw a crowd by making that strong of a statement and bring media attention to what’s really happening in our schools. (And in the run-up to the next election, I will continue to support and campaign for pro-public education candidates up and down the ballot and across the state, because the most effective step to adequate funding is flipping control of the legislature.)

  • Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed by Congress, states will now have to include at least one measure of student or school supports as an element of the state accountability plan. If you could choose one indicator, what non-academic indicator would you use as part of the overall state accountability plan and why?

__As we were developing NC’s ESSA plan a couple of years ago, I advocated as a school board member for using some measure of mental health as our non-academic criteria.  State board members didn’t take that suggestion up, but I will make sure we consider an amendment here.  We continue to see alarming increases in mental health issues harming students across the state from a wide variety of factors. If we want change, we must include measuring where we are in each district/school.  I especially like this because it should not be yet another measurement that just shows us the level of poverty in the classroom but rather actually measures the work we want to see in each school and highlights where improvements are needed. And as the superintendent, I would use DPI to share ways districts can address these pressures—the idea isn’t just to measure but to support districts in fixing problem areas—such as co-locating mental health services as we’ve done in CHCCS (bringing in mental health professionals to assist students on-site without costing the district any money). 

  • Will you support or oppose additional sustainable funding for teacher assistants in grades K-3 and why?

SUPPORT_YES!______                                    OPPOSE__________

__Literacy, Literacy, Literacy.  We all know how important that is in that period of a child’s development, and TAs are crucial to supporting teachers in reaching each student with specific content in smaller groups, etc.  TAs do so much to support our students and teachers, helping to build positive relationships, reduce some of the burden of administrative tasks for educators, and of course make a difference in the small-but-big quality of work issues for teachers, such as helping in schools where a shortage of program enhancement teachers means that regular classroom teachers can’t even get bathroom breaks.

  • If elected, would you support or oppose the reinstatement of due process for all teachers in North Carolina and how would you work with the General Assembly to reinstate that right?

SUPPORT_yes___                                 OPPOSE_______

__As I stated before, I think we have some creative policy work that can help mitigate this effort by the General Assembly to de-professionalize the education profession, but I still support reinstatement because property rights can’t be reversed by later administrations/state boards.  How? Through a community effort of advocacy, including ensuring that all those with power over the situation (especially our governor) fully grasp the priority of this work.  We have a clear record of before-and-after data now that we can use to show the impact on teachers and students of the state’s changes.  It certainly hasn’t improved anything, so we will make a case that “unfixing” what wasn’t broken is appropriate._

  •  Do you believe the state’s current tax structure provides adequate resources to ensure equal access to a high-quality public education for all students and what, if any, changes would you propose?

__We know from the WestEd report that the gap to fund our schools is billions of dollars per year.  But we also know that the current tax structure has given $3 billion per year to individuals and corporations that don’t need the tax cuts and are not making a difference in our economy.  Also, if we expended the same effort on public education as a portion of our state’s GDP as South Carolina does, there would be billions more available for public schools.  I would start by going back to the 2013 tax rates, giving almost all of that returned revenue stream to public education to pay for raises, restoration of TAs, mental health support at recommended levels, and textbook funding.  While capital funding is not supposed to be a state responsibility, their unwillingness to provide operating expenses at a constitutional level has forced local districts to make up some of the difference and thus underfund capital maintenance efforts for the last decade.  I strongly support a large bond (the first in over 20 years at the state level for K-12 public schools) that will address a portion of the needs that exist in our older building for renovations.

  • With all these proposed changes and recommendations, what will you do as superintendent to ensure that there is no further erosion of health care and retirement benefits for educators and what enhancements would you propose?

_With the Affordable Care Act, all employees can now see what health insurance actually costs printed on our W2s.  As a private-sector employee today, I can see that my total bill (for an admittedly high level of coverage for my entire family, which every public sector employee should get just as private-sector ones do) is about at the national average for total cost of just over $23k per year, of which I pay almost $4k in premiums and very small co-pays.  Compare that to what the State Health Plan allocates for the employer contribution—a mere $6k.  Educators are not getting gold-plated benefits, especially on the health side.  I will use my voice on the Council of State to advocate for educators to ensure that nonsense like what happened with threatening the in-network status of most hospitals doesn’t occur again.  I will also push the General Assembly to increase the state’s contribution to quality health insurance to match the effort of what private employers are doing, making the case for how this ultimately improves our schools by helping to attract and retain teachers (especially in STEM fields where teachers have such strong private-sector job options), and by improving the lives of educators’ families—no small thing given that the number of educators in this state. And I am always up for discussions about improving retirement benefits, but any change there would have to be: 1) transparent, 2) designed not as a cost-savings measure, but rather as truly strengthening options for our educators, and 3) clearly better than the current offering, because just the uncertainty around this topic will have a cost associated with it.  I lived through two large changes that eliminated IBM’s pension plan that clearly were done only to save IBM the cost of contributing to a defined-benefit plan, but did not generate anywhere near the level of retirement benefits employees should have experienced under the old plan.  I will not let that happen to our educators. (Note—I am never advocating that we run schools like a business, but the superintendent needs an understanding of how to run large systems, and this is one example of where my experience on both the public and private sector sides matters.) _

  1. Do you support or oppose a Cost-of-Living-Adjustment for retired educators?

Support __YES!__________                               Oppose______________

Retirees have been losing ground in recent years and need a significant increase to catch back up with where they should have been.  My mother is a retired NC educator, so this is close to my heart.

  1.  As superintendent, what would you do to enhance school safety for not only students, but school personnel?

__There are simple things such as quick-lock mechanisms on interior doors and ensuring that all outside doors are access-controlled, and we should use state funding to get these done quickly.  I would also advocate for fully funding our mental health supports—threats from within the system are just as great as from outside today, not just in terms of gun violence but also bullying and fights.  As noted above, I also would use DPI to spread support of the School-Justice Partnerships outlining how SROs interact with our schools.  We also need DPI to provide better guidance on meaningful investments in safety – the lack of understanding free options from Sandy Hook and rather paying $5 million for our own solution, plus the CMS panic buttons that don’t work clearly shows we need stronger expertise providing assistance to spend money reasonably in this space.  On the outside, I also strongly support common-sense regulation of guns, including red-flag laws, raising the age on non-hunting firearms, and reinstating the ban on assault rifles. Without these regulations, the reality is that schools and society can do only so much, and we know the toll that violence and the fear of violence, with maybe-necessary but definitely-damaging endless lockdowns and lockdown drills, are taking on students and educators. In the meantime, I will convene ongoing discussions with experts to do whatever we can—and experts here includes the students and teachers who have organized to make a difference.

  1.  Do you support or oppose the use of tax credits, vouchers, and/or any use of public money for private K-12 schools?

      SUPPORT_______                                OPPOSE___ABSOLUTELY!____

Explain your position on privatization of public education, including accountability and reporting requirements. If you answered “opposed” to this question, would you support repealing the current voucher law?

_I don’t understand how our voucher law is constitutional—the General Assembly is charged in the NC Constitution with providing for “a” uniform system of schools.  Not two or three different systems with different funding mechanisms and accountability, and not allowing public money to be spent on private goods, including the teaching of non-science.  I believe that all public money should be used for public goods.  We require accountability measurements for public schools—so then let the voucher schools work under the same model.  We support transparency in how public money is spent under our public records and open meetings law—so then let the voucher schools provide similar transparency on how they are spending the public’s money and who is setting policies.  I believe the strength of public education is that we accept all students—our schools at their best reflect the diversity of life.  I cannot abide by private interests that exclude people based on sexual orientation, or socio-economics, or race.  There’s no evidence that voucher schools are delivering any benefit to students, while clearly harming our public schools. Yes, the law must be repealed. __

  1.  As superintendent, how would you strengthen accountability and transparency for all charter school programs and funding?

_I’m not a lawyer, but I want the most creative lawyer we can get working as DPI’s general counsel when I take office, because I want to use every means possible to influence the process as the CSAB and State Board make decisions.  Can we, for example, update the application form to require clear statements of plans to address transportation for all students?  Can we insist on a plan for providing breakfast and lunch for students?  Can we insist on lottery plans that advantage under-represented neighborhoods in our best charter schools (as Chapel Hill-Carrboro has recently done with all magnet programs—a legal way to get diversity into lottery programs)?  On transparency, I’ve always been a strong believer in openness.  I will ensure that all charter schools are living up to their obligations around open meetings and public records law.  I’m married to a former journalist, so I strongly support sunshine as the best disinfectant in our systems.  _

  1.  Our May 1st mobilization was an important public statement by NCAE. What are your feelings around public employees generally, and public school educators specifically, exercising their right to organize and raise their collective voices?

_The current Leandro order is clear that the General Assembly has not lived up to its constitutional obligations for the past decades, especially the past nine years.  Why then should we expect the legislature’s employees (our educators) to not use every weapon in their arsenal to achieve what they deserve—living and professional wages, healthcare for all our families, strong support systems to match the needs that our students come to school with? The state currently isn’t operating schools to deliver a sound, basic education to all—the educational costs of missing some days is likely worth the tradeoff for better results in the future.  And if done correctly across communities, this actually provides an educational opportunity for students to understand how to organize effective actions for the common good.  I do strongly appreciate communities stepping up to ensure that students are fed and cared for when schools close—engaging communities early and figuring out those plans is a crucial part of ensuring public support for NCAE’s efforts.  _

  1.  As a superintendent, do you support or oppose the lowest performing public schools being taken over by for-profit charter operators (aka Achievement School District) and why?

Support______________                        Oppose_STRONGLY!___________

__While I’ll live within the law as it exists, I don’t really support for-profit charter operators, period. They always harm students by diverting resources to profit. But the ISD model is especially flawed in thinking that outsiders can somehow do something magical to change a school.  It has proven not to work and is not worth investing in any more in NC.  Instead, we need to return to the model of supporting schools with higher needs from DPI that was effective prior to 2017. _

  1.  As a superintendent, would you support or oppose legislation designed to take away an educators ability to advocate for students and public schools even if it’s required as part of a teacher evaluation and why?

Support _______________                           Oppose___Of course! __________

_No employee should be forced to give up First Amendment protections.  As noted before, I have a track record on this issue by pushing for CHCCS to adopt a clear policy in support of teacher free speech rights alongside CHCAE advocates.  It wasn’t the most well-received of policy revisions the board pushed onto administration, but with strong support from our lawyer and a clear understanding that increasing respect and support for teacher voice encourages better teachers to keep teaching, it was put into place.  I don’t believe the General Assembly should be making this type of policy regardless, but this is why we need to ensure we have strong pro-education supporters in place to avoid potential bad legislation passing._

  1.  As superintendent, how would you engage with NCAE, its leadership and members about education policy issues?

_I’ve been clear from the first time I was elected that I am accessible to all stakeholders, regardless of whether we agree or not.  I’ve always made my personal number widely available and talked to or met with anyone who asks. That won’t stop—my number is 919-590-5754, and I welcome any educator that wants to talk to give me a call.  I have been a strong supporter of NCAE’s work for a long time through your CHCAE local, but I encourage you to keep me honest when I fall short, and also to share great ideas of all sorts that we can use to improve public education in NC.  I hope we can schedule regular sessions with NCAE leadership and locals across the state to ensure an ongoing relationship that will benefit all students, and I expect NCAE not to hesitate to ask for anything I can do to assist your work in building strong, supported educators.  _

  1.   Are there any additional comments you would like to make?

_I know my endorsement request is a long shot because many teachers feel we must have a professional educator in this role.  But, uniquely among the candidates, I have an actual track record of (1) developing creative policies that respect teachers, (2) of professionally leading systemic change efforts in a way that ensures all stakeholders are satisfied with the improvements, and (3) of advocating with other governmental bodies for our public schools through community organizing. I recognize where I am not an expert and thus listen much more in decision processes than those who are sure they know what’s right, while having the executive skills to ask probing questions and improve staff recommendations to align with community values.  My wife and I and our children are proud products of North Carolina’s public schools, and we come from families of educators and strong North Carolina public school supporters. I was raised with a deep commitment to public service, and I can think of no more meaningful area in which to continue to be a public servant than our schools. I humbly ask for your endorsement, because I will be the most collaborative and yet most effective leader, ready on Day 1, for the state’s public schools and our 1.6 million students that you can get in this role. _

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