PA-PAC Questionnaire for NC Superintendent of Public Instruction
Candidate Name:_____James Barrett_________________________________
Address: ___________PO Box 16782, Chapel Hill, NC 27516_____
1. What experience do you bring to this office that make you the best candidate for the job? (250 word limit)
Uniquely among the candidates in this race, I bring a combination of skills and experience that align with the work the state superintendent must do well: leadership/management of a large department, so that all districts receive support; deep knowledge of school policy, to support the State Board of Education in developing creative policies that support teachers; and a strong record of effective advocacy, with elected officials and stakeholders, to improve public schools.
As the son of a career teacher, product of N.C. public schools, and parent of two children who’ve gone through elementary-high in our public schools, I have long worked to help our schools provide a great education for all. I just finished eight years on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, including two as chair. I ran for the board after serving as a founding member of the education committee of Justice United, an interfaith advocacy organization. My day job in IT has given me powerful experience as a manager of people and large budgets, and my role is “business transformation”— I work with thousands of stakeholders to drive positive systemic change and deliver innovative results. I don’t believe we should run schools like a business, but my management experience is a crucial and unique piece of my candidacy. Lack of professional leadership experience is one of the current superintendent’s biggest stumbling blocks.
I’ll be a superintendent who listens, focuses on restoring respect to all educators, and guides the department back to being able to give districts powerful support.
2. List your top three priorities and, beside each, the first two steps you would take to get your priorities enacted. 200 word limit
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.
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 (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 the state on using school resource officers in a positive manner, and other ways we can improve safety.
3. Will you fight for a moratorium on charters, for greater accountability and for avenues for charters to come under school board control? Why or why not? (200 word limit)
Yes and yes. Since the cap was lifted, we have seen an acceleration of charters that are segregated by race, less innovative, and doing more rote implementation of ideas that benefit for-profit charter management organizations. The moratorium is a step to give us breathing room to set regulations that ensure that any charters actually serve the public good. In addition, I will insist that as plans for new charters come forward, they actually meet what we want to see in public schools—that they have a credible plan to serve all students and reflect the demographics of their community.
Changing the authorizer model in North Carolina to be focused on local school board control is something I proposed several months ago; having charters accountable to elected officials is important, and this would greatly increase the ability to align charters with the local needs within school districts and regions. The state superintendent answers to all students in this state—traditional and charter—and as long as charter schools remain part of the landscape, the superintendent must work diligently to ensure accountability from these schools, which take public funds by promising innovation and results for students in exchange for operational freedom.
4. Describe an experience as an elected official or a volunteer on a board where you took initiative to change a policy or service or initiate a new policy or service. Were you successful or not, and why. (200 word limit)
When I learned our district policy forced teachers to take vacation time when school buildings close for inclement weather, I pushed back. We say teachers are professionals, but this doesn’t treat them as such. Being a professional means you are expected to achieve outcomes over long periods; for teachers, expectations include instructional time in front of students plus putting in time for grading, planning, professional development, contacting parents, etc. Teachers must get all that done whether school buildings are open or closed—why wouldn’t we trust these professionals to do so even when we’re not watching them? For years, I pushed administration publicly and privately to solve this creatively, worked with NCAE representatives to devise acceptable alternative policies, and ensured I had the three other votes needed to pass a policy change. In my last school board meeting, we passed a policy clarifying that administration won’t track teachers’ work hours or location, trusting them to accomplish the work. We will even encourage hourly employees to get credit for PD efforts done from home so they don’t miss paychecks, either. Policies should reflect our values. And I love to ensure we are showing how we value all employees through policy work.
5. Describe your experience as a supervisor: how many people were you supervising? How would you describe your “style” of supervision? (100 Word limit)
I’ve led departments—with hiring/firing power—of up to 100 people, and led programs/managed budgets of up to 2,500 FTEs working to support hundreds of thousands of stakeholders. My “style” varies based on the situation, but I view the work of leadership as removing barriers so a high-performing team can accomplish the work. That includes setting a vision, acquiring resources, mitigating risks, smoothing over change efforts with other organizations, etc. While being able to do the work of people you supervise is sometimes necessary, leaders are more effective when they focus on developing their team, not micromanaging/doing the work themselves.
6. What is your plan for bolstering DPI services to low wealth, rural districts? (200 word limit)
First we must listen to the needs in those districts. Any plan that attempts to push a single solution onto all 87 rural districts will fail, just like Mark Johnson’s iPad scheme. Second, we must ensure that DPI is capable of delivering support. That means restoring the division that provided this support by either advocating for the support to be restored or making painful cuts in areas that don’t deliver as direct a value to our schools. Finally, a bit of “inside baseball”: DPI needs to ensure that we have the processes in place to handle requests from districts and keep districts from feeling like they are falling through the cracks. All of this work requires skills I have acquired in my experience as a professional leader of extremely large projects and high-performing teams and as an elected official. I am committed to ensuring that our rural districts succeed, not least because I developed great relationships with rural leaders across the state in the NC Rural Center’s leadership training earlier this year. We have many opportunities we must seize to succeed in partnership with community colleges and local community assets.
7. How can DPI assist districts that are attempting to reduce discriminatory outcomes in suspensions of children of color? (200 word limit)
First, relationships are key to learning. Changing the narrative from “get these bad kids out of my classroom” to “what can we do to help all students learn” is a necessary first step. Second, DPI should provide training and encourage policies that support restorative practices to each and every teacher. Restorative practices focus on helping students learn from their mistakes, restoring relationships in all directions, and providing a framework that can even be used proactively to help all students develop emotionally. Third, we must fully fund mental health needs in schools so that professional support is available when/where students need it; DPI and the state superintendent must advocate forcefully for this as a prerequisite to all learning. Fourth, we need districts to understand the importance of supporting Chief Justice Beasley’s efforts to codify relationships with school resource officers so that our SROs are thoroughly trained in how to work with students (including those with disabilities) and so that administrators understand the difference between discipline and law enforcement work. Finally, we need public tracking of these efforts in every school. We all need to understand the impact of decisions educators are making today on the future of our students of color.
8. What is your plan for bolstering the recruitment and retention of teachers of color? (200 word limit)
An interesting idea in the Leandro report is to centralize our recruitment efforts across the state so that we don’t waste resources “competing” between schools. This has the potential to multiply the ideas I share below, and thus is important to consider.
1) Money matters. We need more teachers of color across the state, period, and all teachers should be paid more. But we especially need teachers of color working in high-need schools and receiving pay to match. 2) We need to shift recruitment from “we had a table at an HBCU” to specific targeting of top talent we want in our schools. 3) Based on what I’ve seen locally, I am a strong supporter of TA to Teach initiatives. 4) The Teaching Fellows program needs to be restored fully and at HBCUs. 5) Teaching cadets/early college can be successful in attracting the next generation to teaching and can help focus the career possibilities for students of color. 6) Retention is key; new teachers need strong job-embedded support and training, and all teachers of color could use affinity groups to allow staff to support one another.
Using these ideas, my district saw a 50% increase in hiring of African-American teachers.
9. What is your current involvement in and personal work regarding using a race equity lens in making decisions? If you are or have been a school board member, please offer an example from board decision-making. If not, please offer an example from a personal or professional experience. (200 word limit)
It was a controversial decision for several reasons, but my vote to expand a Mandarin Dual Language program was done specifically because of a race-equity lens. The program is not diverse today, having failed to enroll many African American or Hispanic students. But our administration presented a plan that, without spending any additional money (the same allocations that other schools get), would create more supports for students who need help to learn Mandarin, would prioritize lottery selections based on neighborhood, and do serious marketing for students where their families live, so that our lottery pool—and thus enrollees—would be diverse. Expanding the program opened twice as many seats to students who would benefit from dual-language instruction (research shows this exercises a student’s brain, making it a stronger “muscle”). And doing it without spending our limited funds was an easy decision. Ensuring that the benefits would go to low-income neighborhoods first was the key to following through on the racial equity lens in the decision. Opposition to the plan came almost solely from white parents unhappy about losing connection to one school, further confirming my belief that my decision was benefiting the underrepresented students who most needed our support.
10. Lightning round: For each item, answer yes or no and include one sentence explaining your answer.
Do you support:
a. Opportunity Scholarships (vouchers)? No. Public funding should be spent on public goods, and without accountability nor openness for all, these vouchers are clearly designed for only a private good.
b. The Innovative School District? No. This is a failed model in other states and delivers no value for students; I do support increased support from DPI to schools that remain under local control, as our previous efforts were successfully implementing.
c. The two NC Virtual Charters? No. This is a failed model in other states and delivers no value for students; what public schools have now—NC Virtual Public School—provides helpful options for some students, but privately farming this out at an entire school level is offensive to students, parents, and teachers.
- Please describe your educational background, noting any degrees and honors you have earned. (skip if included on resume) see resume
- Do you have children? If so, where do they, or did they, attend school? Both of our children attended Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools from first through twelfth grades (our younger child will graduate this year)—the same district that I grew up in, my mother taught in, and for which I served on the school board.
- Please describe your adult employment history (skip if included on resume) see resume
- Please list civic engagement activities, including service on boards, volunteer activities, elected positions, etc. (Skip if included on resume) see resume