James Barrett for NC Superintendent

North Carolina Teachers United questionnaire

What credentials do you believe make you qualified to be our next State Superintendent? *

The work and support our schools need from the state superintendent’s leadership of the Department of Public Instruction require skills and experience in three areas: leadership/management of a large department, so that all districts receive support—and, currently, to rebuild a department deeply damaged under the current leadership; deep knowledge of school policy, to support the State Board of Education in developing creative policies that support and respect teachers; and a strong record of effective advocacy, with elected officials and stakeholders, to improve public schools.

Uniquely among the Democratic candidates, I have the skills and experience needed in all three of these areas. I’ve served eight years, including two as chair during a time of superintendent turnover, on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board. I learned and practiced effective advocacy outside of the board as a founding member of the education committee of Justice United, an interfaith advocacy organization, and then on the board advocating for our needs with other elected officials. As a policy nerd, I have both a broad and deep knowledge of local and state policies that affect our schools, and a public record on the school board of thinking creatively to use those policies to support and respect educators. And in my day job in IT, I’ve spent decades leading major change management and business transformation efforts, managing large teams and budgets. Of course, schools should not be run like a business, but this experience is an invaluable and crucial part of leading DPI—and the lack of experience in this shows all too clearly in the current officeholder. Those who tell you otherwise simply don’t understand the multiple roles of state superintendent.

I grew up in North Carolina and am a proud product of our public schools, and the son of a career teacher; my wife and our two children all also went through our public schools. Along with my education work, I understand this state and know its political history well, and continually work to learn about the parts of the state that differ from where I live. Most recently, for example, I enrolled in the N. C. Rural Center’s leadership program known as REDI.  It was a great opportunity to learn how community development in our rural areas is focused on opportunities instead of challenges, as well as network with leaders from across the state.  As state superintendent, I will work tirelessly to do what I’ve always done: listen to teachers, students, and parents to fully understand and support what they need from our schools (I publish my phone number everywhere to be available to all constituents, as well as seeking out all voices of those affected by our policies), restore respect to teachers, and ensure that DPI provides the support needed to each and every district across our great state.

What is your highest degree of education and where did you receive your degrees? *

I received a B.S. from The College of William and Mary with a double major in Mathematics and Computer Science.

What are your top three priorities for our public schools should you be elected? *

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 huge change project that would make a positive difference for everyone.

2) Focus on state-level policies that can restore respect for the teacher profession. I will work with the State Board of Education to put into policy work 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 educators.

3) Focus on school safety, with an immediate budget push on physical security (e.g., quick locks on interior doors) and emotional safety, with proper levels of mental health funding as we face a multifaceted mental health crisis among students. I would also focus DPI on providing excellent training to the state on using school resource officers in a positive manner, and other ways we can improve safety.

What is your work experience? (Please list the positions you have held) *

24 years at IBM, leading IT and systemic change projects of up to $500m annual spend, web development, managing high-performing teams of up to 100 people.

5 years at Lenovo, leading transformational and organizational change efforts across all server sellers.

8 years on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education, including 2 as chair, leading policy development, overseeing budgets that must always be balanced, driving voter approval of bonds to renovate our older school buildings while also increasing capacity, leading a superintendent search and supervising the superintendent, and providing community values and voice into district efforts.

What professional organizations, if any, do you belong to? *

NCAE associate member; NC Association of Teacher Assistants associate member; member/supporter of a number of pro-public education policy groups (such as NC Public School Forum, NC Justice Center, Public Schools First); lifelong Democratic Party member and active supporter of/campaigner for many pro-public education legislators; NAACP life member; IEEE Computing Society member.

How much money has your campaign raised as of December 16th, 2019? *


How do you plan to ensure that high poverty schools have the opportunity to be great schools? *

First, we need to remove the stigma that the current school grades are causing because they largely reflect the poverty that schools cannot control, by focusing instead entirely on what schools can influence: how much each student grows over the course of the year in school.  This should encourage families and teachers to believe that students can succeed in all schools and reverse some of the recruitment challenges these schools face.

Second, we need to focus resources on the needs of students, including some easy fixes like removing the cap on funding for students with disabilities.  We know that students who live in low-income families have greater needs to be able to access education—in order to be successful for all students, schools need to be able to provide those resources and thus remove barriers to education.  This includes time with caring educators; therefore, we need more teachers in these schools.  We also need to increase resources available to all schools, especially providing adequate support staff (counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists) for students to succeed.  I am the most experienced advocate with funders in the race for state superintendent and will continue to fight for the resources we need. 

Where possible, I will spread creative ideas that do not require extra funding—for example, I am proud of the work that Chapel Hill-Carrboro has done with co-located mental health services, in which we bring in professionals to assist students on-site without costing the district any money.  But that model isn’t replicable in areas where mental health professionals are in short supply.  Increasing resources also means paying teachers enough to ensure a strong supply of high-quality teachers across the state.  I am not opposed to changing salary scales (or more creatively, the work year to increase both compensation and time available for planning, professional learning by teachers in high-needs schools) so that teaching in high-need schools receive the respect and compensation they should, as an incentive to get our best teachers in these schools.

DPI needs to play a significant part in helping these schools. The current superintendent recently dismantled the division that was doing really good work in this area, and the next superintendent needs to understand and provide strategic leadership of a large department to make decisions that take care of the students who need the most help.  Some of this help likely includes securing culturally relevant curricular materials, because we know in America that poverty and race are intertwined, so we can’t only have race-neutral solutions to this challenge.  Alongside this, DPI must play a role in increasing the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, as we know from research how much this matters to student success.

What strategies to you plan on using to achieve race equity in N.C. public schools? *

As part of strategic leadership, the superintendent must ensure that everything DPI does considers the impact of racial equity.  This likely starts with ensuring that all DPI staff and state board members go through modern anti-racism training (I’ve done REI a number of times and others, but there are multiple high-quality providers across our state or even our great equity directors in districts around the state who could help make this happen), and then use a racial equity impact assessment tool in all decision making.  We should welcome any legislators who want to participate with us as well—there are opportunities for great relationships from this work even though it is challenging to address the deep problems of our society.

We also need to include disaggregated data in more discussions, because we know humans respond to measurements.  For example, we know we don’t have enough teachers of color.  But until we see on a regular basis which districts are having the greatest challenges (and which can be learned from), we won’t have those conversations in every district.  The state superintendent has a quarterly meeting with local superintendents.  This is a great opportunity to look at our racial scorecard data across the state and discuss how we together eliminate racial predictability of achievement, discipline disparities, access to rigorous courses, graduation rates, etc.

Some specific areas that DPI can assist districts in include: training on multiple topics that need to be addressed locally; leading conversations about implementing restorative practices across the state, to change mindsets about behavior from punishment-focused (which excludes students from education) to relationships and opportunities to learn. Also, recruitment and retention of teachers of color is critically important to the success of our students of color, and while I appreciate that our governor is convening the DRIVE task force, this should have been addressed proactively by DPI.  As the next state superintendent, I will be front and center in showing my support to this critical work, so that we use the resources of DPI and HR departments across the state to succeed together.

What is your vision for teacher salaries and how will you make that vision a reality? *

The gap between what N.C. teachers make compared with other college-educated workers (20%) is about the same as the N.C. teacher pay average to the national teacher average.  I think a reasonable vision would be to get us up to the national average and thus close the gap with other professionals at the same time.  I believe the focus needs to be on raising pay for ALL teachers, not through bonuses or differentiated pay schemes that help only some teachers.  We had a track record in the 1990s of increasing pay steadily but surely over an extended period of time to become the #23 state in the nation.  I will advocate with the General Assembly to get that done again, including using my favorite advocacy methods to focus on particular members, if that’s what it takes to mobilize the public education supporters who exist in even the darkest red districts.  To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin from the climactic speech in The American President, “I consider it a threat to the future of our state, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m going to convince North Carolinians that I’m right, and I’m going to get the raises.”

Do you support the use of public money for private schools in the form of vouchers, opportunity scholarships, and/or tax credits? *

No.  Public funding should be spent on public goods, and without accountability or openness for all, these vouchers are clearly designed for only a private good. It’s long past time to get rid of them.

Has the charter school experiment worked in N.C. and what do you believe should be the future of these schools? *

Overall, no.  There are some charter schools delivering what’s needed for students, and we need to be thoughtful about how we move forward to ensure that where there is quality education occurring, we do not disrupt students’ lives and education as we focus on delivering high quality for each and every student in North Carolina.  Having local school boards act as authorizers for charter schools is a model that has shown better success in other states in ensuring that charter schools meet local needs, deliver quality, and are accountable to the public.  Until we get there, I will creatively use my powers as state superintendent to ensure that charters are delivering a public good for all students by design of their lotteries and with transportation and meal options.  The “general and uniform system of free public schools” of NC has a singular mission to provide a high-quality education for all North Carolinians (regardless of whether a school is traditional or charter), and to the degree that charters want to participate in that public mission (vs. private profits), we will help all students succeed.

Do you support the implementation of Opportunity Culture/Advanced Roles? Why or why not? *

Full disclosure—my wife works for Public Impact, which created the idea of Opportunity Culture and supports schools as they make the transition to this model. She spends many of her days interviewing Opportunity Culture teachers across N.C. and the country, and her nights at the dinner table “discussing” with me the positives and challenges of advanced roles models. 

Where the model has been implemented well by talented leaders committed to the work, the results are outstanding and deserve to be supported.  Making significant structural changes like a shift to advanced roles models can present challenges, such as in maintaining momentum after principal turnover or in efforts that didn’t go “all in.”

I like that the model is cost-neutral—we can provide great opportunities for terrific lead teachers to make a difference for more students and get paid much more without increasing the overall costs (note this does not in any way obviate the basic need in North Carolina for everybody’s pay to go up, as covered in the question above).  I like that in this model, the team teachers working with a multi-classroom leader get significant on-the-job support that they actually need (unlike a lot of sit-and-get PD ) so that (as one teacher my wife has interviewed shared) a teacher can go from being on a performance plan to being teacher of the year in a single year. 

We know that the best teachers have a greater impact on students than the average.  Opportunity Culture at its core is about how great teachers can deeply impact as many classrooms as possible, so that more students (and the next generation of teachers) can benefit—both in learning and social-emotional support.  It keeps great teachers who want to advance from having no path other than into administration, away from students. It requires some change in mindsets (teamwork isn’t happening in every classroom in N.C.), but it has strong teacher support (according to surveys) and where it is happening well, is a beautiful thing for students. 

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