© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After GOP upset, what's next in NC superintendent race?

Maurice "Mo" Green (left) and Michele Morrow.
Campaign websites
Maurice "Mo" Green (left) and Michele Morrow.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Well, I called it wrong when I wrote that the race for North Carolina superintendent was likely to be between incumbent Republican Catherine Truitt and Democrat Maurice “Mo” Green.

Both of them had a huge edge in fund-raising and endorsements from the kind of people who normally shape races. And the Democratic primary went as expected, with Green taking 66% of the vote in a three-way race.

But Truitt lost to Michele Morrow, whose only previous political experience was an unsuccessful run for Wake County school board. Morrow, who home-schools her children and has never worked in education, took 52% of the Republican primary vote. She topped Truitt by almost 37,000 votes.

Apparently the voters who turned out for Donald Trump and Mark Robinson concluded that Morrow would better represent their values on education. After all, this is someone who went to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to rally for Trump and who has posted “Make Academics Great Again,” “End the Woke Nonsense” and “Take Back Our Schools” on social media.

In Mecklenburg County, where Truitt got donations from such big names as retired banker Hugh McColl and philanthropist Anna Spangler Nelson, Truitt carried 52% of Republican primary voters.

Morrow, meanwhile, was endorsed by Cabarrus County school board member Laura Blackwell and Catawba County school board members Michelle Teague, Tim Settlemeyer and Don Sigmon. All are known locally as conservative Republicans, and Morrow carried those counties with 59% and 55%, respectively.

What happens next?

North Carolina’s state superintendent has a high profile but limited authority. The superintendent oversees the Department of Public Instruction, but the General Assembly makes the policy decisions.

Truitt has spent her term pushing for changes in reading instruction, school performance ratings, career preparation, and teacher pay and licensure. Lawmakers have embraced the science-of-reading program and career prep, but the performance grades and teacher pipeline programs are moving slowly, if at all. It’s unclear whether having Morrow or Green in the office will make any difference.

The superintendent does serve as a voice for public education — and even support for public education is not a given in these times. The rift over that basic theme played out in last week’s state Board of Education meeting. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper described strong public schools as the foundation of a strong state and lauded the state’s successes. “I think bottom line is, North Carolina public schools rock. They do,” Cooper said, to applause.

Republican Lt. Gov. (and gubernatorial candidate) Mark Robinson countered: that “If we forget about the fact that we need to give parents the right to have absolute control over their children’s educational destiny, we are failing here. I’ve heard a lot about the public education system. I’m concerned about the students and parents inside of that system.”

Robinson is a supporter of the voucher system that provides public money to help families pay private school tuition, while Cooper wants to halt the voucher expansion and channel more money to public schools. I should probably swear off predictions, but I think it’s safe to say Green’s tone would resemble Cooper’s, while Morrow’s would be closer to Robinson’s.

NC Chamber sounds an alarm

The day after the primary, the North Carolina Chamber sent an alert saying Truitt’s primary defeat, along with other Republican primary races, signals “a startling warning of the looming threats to North Carolina’s business climate” (hat tip to EdNC for reporting on that memo).

The chamber decried the triumph of “populist candidates” who “do not share our vision for North Carolina.”

The chamber’s conclusion: “When both parties move to the opposite ends of the political spectrum, it erodes the quiet, bipartisan work necessary to move our state forward. Moderating voices in each caucus will be replaced with partisan ideologues that cause division and create controversy. This not only creates a more volatile environment for our state, but also makes it more difficult for complex, challenging issues to be resolved. In the coming months, it is imperative that the business community prepare for this new climate and ensure that it is engaged and active in our political process, lest we be left behind.”

Learn more about November’s race

I had described a Green-Truitt contest as a chance for independents and moderates to explore two candidates they might find appealing. I suspect a Morrow-Green race is going to be more like the presidential contest: There’s no middle ground, and most voters are likely to find one of the candidates unacceptable.

Still, I hope to flesh out their styles and platforms in the coming weeks. Green is fairly well known in the Charlotte region, at least for those who remember his time as a leader in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the 2000s and the attempt by some board members to bring him back as superintendent in 2015. (He instead left the Guilford County superintendency to lead the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.).

To get up to speed on Morrow, check out (Raleigh) News & Observer reporter T. Keung Hui’s profile, EdNC Editor Mebane Rash’s piece and WRAL’s analysis of her win. I especially enjoyed Morrow’s January interview with Jeff Tiberii on WUNC’s Due South (click to the 45-minute mark to go straight to Morrow). That’s partly because we could hear her in her own voice … and partly because I smiled when I heard her predict she’d take 80% of the primary vote. Evidently neither one of us had a clear crystal ball for that race.

Education Education
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.