The Surprising Contenders for State Superintendent Offices This Year

Two races feature candidates who’ve never taught in or led schools
By Libby Stanford — June 17, 2024 8 min read
North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler announces the gathering of a task force to look into future options the state has for the assessment of students during a press conference May 8, 2015, at the state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D.
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Candidates with no experience teaching in or leading schools are at the center of two state superintendent races this fall as culture war debates linger in K-12 politics.

In North Carolina, Michele Morrow, a nurse and homeschooling advocate who has called for the public execution of Democrats, including President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, won the state’s Republican primary over the current superintendent, Catherine Truitt, a former teacher. In November, Morrow will face Democrat Mo Green, the former superintendent of the Guilford County school district and the former executive director of a philanthropic foundation.

In North Dakota, the country’s longest-serving state superintendent, Kirsten Baesler, is up against Jason Heitkamp, a truck driver and former Republican state senator. Although the state superintendent race is nonpartisan, Baesler sought out and lost the North Dakota Republican Party’s endorsement, which she had secured in previous years, to another candidate, Jim Bartlett, a farmer, university professor, and homeschooling advocate who wanted to require that schools teach the Ten Commandments. Bartlett did not draw enough votes to make it through the primary election earlier this month.

Both races, two of the four state superintendent races on ballots this fall, present a well-defined choice for voters—a person with experience teaching in and leading K-12 schools or an outsider with a potentially new take on education policy.

They also reveal the lingering impact of culture war issues on K-12 education since school board debates over COVID-19 precautions gave way to broader debates over how teachers should teach about race, sexuality, and gender identity; diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in schools; and schools’ policies toward transgender students.

“Over the past 12 years, I’ve seen a significant shift from our voters in superintendents’ [elections] being really deeply focused on the technical expertise of who this leader should be,” Baesler, who was first elected to her post in November 2012, told Education Week. “Now it has moved to a different arena where they are less focused and there seems to be less desire of having a superintendent candidate who is experienced and has that confident content and technical expertise into more culture wars—the social wars that are consuming much of the conversation our nation is having around education.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt speaks Aug. 24, 2021, in Raleigh, N.C. Truitt lost narrowly Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in the Republican primary to Michele Morrow, a homeschooling parent and education activist who has accused public schools of indoctrinating students with left-leaning views on race and gender.

A divisive candidate stages an upset in North Carolina’s race

Morrow, the Republican state superintendent candidate in North Carolina, posted a series of tweets from 2019-2021 calling for the executions of prominent Democrats. In May 2020, she wrote that she would “prefer a pay per view of [Obama] in front of the firing squad.”

“We could make some money back from televising his death,” she wrote.

In December 2020, she responded to a tweet about Biden’s advice to wear masks, saying, “Never. We need to follow the Constitution’s advice and KILL all TRAITORS!!!”

The candidate has also regularly promoted baseless conspiracy theories, including a theory promoted by former President Donald Trump accusing Obama of sabotaging his Republican successor’s presidency and a slate of QAnon slogans, according to CNN.

Morrow’s campaign did not respond to a list of questions from Education Week.

On her campaign website, Morrow claims that North Carolina schools teach “one-sided lessons portraying America as a racist and oppressive nation,” that the North Carolina Association of Educators—a state affiliate of the National Education Association—“forced school closures during COVID-19,” and that “in some schools, parents are kept in the dark about medical treatments.” If elected, Morrow has said she would support eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and a state constitutional amendment to eliminate the North Carolina board of education.

Morrow characterizes her experience teaching her own children through homeschool as a major qualification for the superintendent role, in which she would oversees the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and all 115 public school districts in the state. On her website, she said she would invest in intensive math tutoring programs as a way to bring homeschool experiences to public school students.

In an interview with Education Week, Truitt said she was surprised by the outcome of the March 5 primary, in which Morrow earned 52 percent of the vote to Truitt’s 47 percent.

“In the few opportunities that I was actually sharing space with her in a panel or debate, I was shocked by her complete lack of understanding of how public schools function and what the job of state superintendent is,” Truitt said.

Green, Morrow’s Democratic opponent, said he worries that Morrow does not have public schools’ best interests at heart.

Morrow is a strong homeschooling proponent and hopes to expand school choice options. Green, meanwhile, has been critical of the Republican-dominated legislature’s recent expansion of the state’s school voucher program.

“This job, in addition to being the chief administrative officer, is also chief advocacy officer for public schools,” Green said. “If you’re going to advocate for public schools, I think you ought to believe in our public schools.”

Both Green and Truitt, despite their different partisan affiliations, said they’re focused on expanding literacy instruction based on the science of reading and helping teachers improve math instruction.

Morrow has said she wants to address North Carolina’s “K-12 literacy crisis,” though her website doesn’t go into great detail about how she would do that. She supports small-group tutoring in reading and math as well as eliminating social-emotional learning and other non-academic programs, which she describes as “a waste of money.”

North Dakota superintendent says voters have deprioritized expertise

Baesler, the North Dakota superintendent, got her own surprise in March when a majority of delegates at the North Dakota Republican Party convention endorsed Bartlett, the homeschooling advocate who wants schools to teach the Christian moral code based on the Ten Commandments.

“Over the course of those last 12 years I’ve seen a decreased number of traditional Republicans attending the GOP convention,” Baesler said. “It seems to be a much more far-right leaning delegate assembly that is convening for that process.”

Ultimately, Bartlett did not secure enough votes in the June 11 primary to continue in the race, but his success at the GOP convention was a sign of how much institutional support exists for a less traditional candidate.

Bartlett said he would have eliminated the state department of education and the superintendent position, placing all power in local parents’ hands—a massive change that would require legislative approval. He also said he would advocate for requiring schools to teach the Ten Commandments and the Christian moral code.

“Imagine a classroom in a school and the parents gather and then have on the board ‘complete parental control,’” Bartlett told Education Week. “Get the teachers, the superintendents out of there because they’ve been influenced. So then the parents write down what the vision they would like for that school is, and start using the accounting to identify what they want to spend the money on for that school.”

Bartlett placed third in the four-person, nonpartisan primary, with 20 percent of the vote. Heitkamp, another K-12 outsider, earned a spot along with Baesler on the November ballot with 22 percent of the vote. Baesler received 55 percent of the vote.

Heitkamp didn’t pursue an endorsement from the North Dakota Republican Party like Baesler and Bartlett. Although he was a Republican in the state senate, he said he views himself as an independent in the nonpartisan superintendent race.

Heitkamp said he would support legislation to fully fund K-12 schools at the state level, eliminating the need for property taxes as a funding source for schools. He also wants to launch a study into teacher pensions to determine how to ensure teachers receive the full pension amount they are promised. He’s called for better physical education in schools to improve children’s health as well.

In addition, he has called for the elimination of critical race theory and DEI, which conservative politicians commonly lump together, from K-12 schools.

Heitkamp said he doesn’t think his background outside of education will be a disadvantage.

“It’s just like the sheriff,” he said. “You don’t need a peace officer’s license to be sheriff—that’s a management job. This is a management job, also.”

Baesler has traditionally run against people with extensive K-12 backgrounds. But throughout her time as superintendent, she said she has seen voters deprioritize expertise for the job in favor of stances on culture war issues.

“We must as state leaders and state schools chiefs keep the main thing the main thing, and that is, can our students read and write?” said Baesler, who has also served as president of the Chief Council of State School Officers, a national network of education chiefs. “It is becoming much more challenging for each and every one of us as state school officers to keep that main thing the main thing because there is such a distraction and a pull to try and pull us into the political crosshairs of the culture war that is going on.”

Montana and Washington state races feature educators

In addition to North Carolina and North Dakota, voters in two other states—Montana and Washington state— are also holding state superintendent elections this year. They’re among the 12 states where voters still elect their chief schools officers.

The races there are more typical of past state education chief contests, featuring candidates with experience as teachers or K-12 school leaders.

In Washington state, concerns over student mental health and academic performance following the COVID-19 pandemic dominate the election between current superintendent Chris Reykdal and opponents Reid Saaris and David Olsen, according to the Seattle Times. Both Saaris and Olsen have experience in K-12 schools as a teacher and school board members, respectively.

In Montana, Republican Susie Hedalen and Democrat Shannon O’Brien won their June 4 primaries in the race to replace Elsie Arntzen, who didn’t run for reelection to the post to seek a U.S. House seat.

Hedalen is a superintendent and former teacher who previously served as deputy state superintendent under Arntzen. O’Brien, a state senator, is a former social studies teacher, college dean, and education policy adviser to former Gov. Steve Bullock.


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