BISMARCK — The direction of public K-12 education in North Dakota is in the hands of voters as three candidates with contrasting perspectives vie for the job of state superintendent.

Two of the candidates for the nonpartisan position will advance to the November ballot from the June 9 primary that is being conducted completely by mail due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. By Thursday morning, June 4, more than 192,000 ballots had been sent out to voters and nearly 105,000 had already been returned, according to the North Dakota Secretary State's Office.

Incumbent Kirsten Baesler is contending for a third term at the helm of the Department of Public Instruction. Ordinarily, the recipient of the North Dakota Republican Party's letter of support would have an advantage in the race, but the party opted to delay the letter this year, in part due to Baesler's Feb. 26 arrest on drunken driving charges. Baesler has received support from the party in her previous bids for the office.

Prior to Baesler's election to the position in 2012, the Flasher, N.D., native served as president of the Mandan School Board and in various teaching, supplementary and administrative roles within Bismarck Public Schools.

Baesler said during her seven and half years as state superintendent, the department has pivoted from a regulatory, punitive agency to a customer service agency for the state's 175 school districts and the families they serve. She touted an increase in graduation rates and available college courses in high schools since she started in the position.

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The 51-year-old said she's running again because there's still work to do in shaping public education to the changing economy. Baesler said she wants to ensure there's at least one teacher in each North Dakota school credentialed to teach coding, computer science and cybersecurity. She also said she would like to see more private sector internships and work-study programs available to high school students.

Brandt Dick, the superintendent and activities director of Underwood Public Schools, said he decided to start his campaign after several years of mulling runs for political office in the education field.

The Munich, N.D., native's roots lie in small, rural schools. Dick said he was one of five in his graduating class, and now he oversees a district of about 230 students. He said the professional versatility and budgeting savvy he has developed while wearing multiple hats as a small school administrator, teacher and adjunct professor of mathematics would serve him well in the elevated role.

Dick, 49, said his current job with the district north of Bismarck demands the kind of hands-on approach to management that would benefit the department.

Charles Tuttle, an Ohio native and semi-retired business man, said he's running because he thinks the department needs to break from the status quo and overhaul its curriculum standards.

The Minot resident said he used to work as a ballot measure activist and a higher-up in the credit department for retail giant The Limited, now L Brands. The 59-year-old lost an independent bid in 2018 for North Dakota's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Distance learning in the pandemic

After Gov. Doug Burgum ordered schools closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Baesler and the department approved "distance learning" plans for districts across the state, which were implemented for the rest of the school year.

Tuttle said plans, which often involved online learning, were inadequate and students "didn't learn much" after schools were closed. He added that Baesler "politicized" the rollout of distance learning plans and shouldn't have appeared at Burgum's daily press conferences.

Dick said there was good and bad in the department's handling of school closures, but he noted it was a stressful and challenging time for everyone in education. Dick said he wished school administrators had gotten more than 12 hours' notice before having to shut down school for the rest of the year.

He added that there should have been more local control in decisions to reopen schools when testing became more available statewide in mid-April. Dick said he would have lobbied for allowing schools in rural areas with few or no COVID-19 cases to reopen their facilities for the last few weeks before summer break.

Baesler said she and her department responded "swiftly and effectively" to issues brought forth by parents, teachers and administrators during the pandemic. She said her established relationships with the governor's office and other state agencies proved valuable during the strange circumstances in ensuring the best for North Dakota's students.

Common Core and curriculum standards

North Dakota schools and teachers base their English and math curricula on a set of educational standards that are derived from the nationwide Common Core State Standards Initiative.

In 2017, Baesler approved reformed Common Core-based standards that were created by a group of teachers from around the state. She said the standards serve students in the state well, and she's proud of the teacher-centric process that produced them.

Dick agreed that the standards are "not an issue" to people who work in education. He said they are just baselines from which teachers can branch out and encourage critical thinking. He added that some kind of educational standards must exist and Common Core critics often don't present any viable alternatives.

Tuttle is an emphatic opponent of Common Core, saying it is failing students by discouraging critical thinking and robbing local teachers and school boards of control. He said schools should return to emphasizing reading the classics, learning to tell time and doing basic math computations.

Being a role model

All three candidates see the role of state superintendent as important beyond making decisions on curriculum and funding. The superintendent must serve as a role model to students, they agree.

Dick said his involved approach and passion for the job, which once led him to pick up an afternoon school bus route, would resonate during his service to the office.

Both of his opponents have had trouble with the law.

Baesler pleaded guilty in March to a misdemeanor DUI charge. At the time, she said it was "an extremely poor decision," but she told Forum News Service she has "put everything in God's hands" and attended multiple therapy and counseling sessions every week in the months after the incident.

"Some may think that being fallible or making mistakes makes you incapable of being a role model," Baesler said. "The life that I’m living demonstrates that when you make mistakes, you acknowledge them. You must apologize to those you’ve hurt and try to become a better person every day... When you fail that doesn't mean you quit. You do what it takes to get better."

Tuttle denounces a 2001 finding by an Ohio court that he had sexual contact with a child, saying his ex-wife leveled the "false accusation" during bitter divorce and custody battles. Tuttle was also convicted of assaulting his ex-father-in-law when he shoved an ice cream cone into his face during a dispute. Tuttle said his ex-father-in-law struck him during the incident, but he did not press charges.

He said he already tries to be a role model everyday in line with his Christian beliefs that exhort "righteousness for righteousness' sake."