Two weeks after being rejected by the Senate to serve as state superintendent, Robert Taylor defended his record of improving schools and said his nomination was manipulated into a political issue by Sen. Chris McDaniel as a part of his campaign for lieutenant governor.

Robert Taylor Credit: Mississippi Department of Education

Taylor lost out on the job to lead Mississippi’s public schools when the Senate rejected his nomination last month. Had he been confirmed, he would have been the second Black person to serve as state superintendent. Those who opposed his nomination took issue with his track record turning around schools, his status as an outsider, and the selection process itself. Immediately after the nomination failed, Senate Democrats said it was because of race.

“The person that we’re talking about, Dr. Taylor, is a native son,” Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said in a press conference after the vote. “He’s a Mississippian, who went to North Carolina and worked in their system, that system rated is higher than Mississippi, and he came home to serve. He’s a great and impressive son of Mississippi, and we rejected him for no reason other than the fact that God made him Black.”

Taylor was most recently a deputy state superintendent for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction before moving back to Mississippi to begin his tenure as state superintendent in January. A native of Laurel, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and his masters and doctorate in North Carolina. 

Earlier in the confirmation process, questions were raised about Taylor writing for a Black student publication at USM, The Unheard Word, while he was in college. In an interview he gave in 2020 when the university celebrated the 30th anniversary of The Unheard Word, he said he wrote for the publication because it “… in my opinion, recognized that The University of Southern Mississippi was in the most racist state in the Union … ” In an interview with Mississippi Today, Taylor said he felt this way in college and his worldview has since been broadened by living in other places.   

 Sen. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, chaired the education nominations subcommittee and said Taylor’s writing for the publication was not something he remembered people talking about a lot. 

“Really I don’t think that was a huge part of what happened, but you’d have to ask other senators who voted no,” Johnson said. 

Taylor said his conversations with senators focused on education issues, but that when his involvement with The Unheard Word came up, he was straightforward with them and said it didn’t seem to be a concern for people.

 “I like to think (race) didn’t play a role, but I do believe that politics had everything to do with it,” Taylor said. 

McDaniel, the Republican senator from Ellisville, made comments on Facebook before and after the confirmation vote calling Taylor a supporter of critical race theory, affirmative action, and the removal of historical monuments, among other things.

 “(Taylor) has all the makings of someone who has sold out to this woke culture,” McDaniel said on Facebook after the vote. “The step the Senate made today was to in some respects push back against the woke culture, to push back against liberalism in the institutions.” 

Taylor rejected these claims and said he’s never spoken publicly on any of these issues. 

“The only thing a person could say about Robert Taylor is that he is a registered Democrat in the state of North Carolina,” Taylor said. “That is it.” 

Taylor said McDaniel wanted to use his nomination as a part of his campaign for lieutenant governor, to put pressure on senators with primary opponents who had previously told Taylor they would support him and later changed their votes. 

“I represent the conservatives in the state of Mississippi,” McDaniel told Mississippi Today. “I wasn’t attempting to put pressure on anyone in a primary race. I was doing the same thing I’ve done for the past 16 years, and that’s to fight for my conservative values and principles the best way I know how.”  

Taylor reiterated that while he would like to believe he was not rejected because he is Black, the accusations made against him make it look that way. 

“Any senator that voted no, I would like to think it was not because I am Black, but they need to understand what the appearance looks like to people in the field,” he said. “When I am accosted about something I said thirty-five years ago, a view of why I did something thirty-five years ago, and all these things are said about me to make it appear as though I’m a particular type of person, people are going to look at that and believe that it’s race-based. If that’s the case or not, you’d have to ask those individual senators.”

Senators also expressed frustration with the hiring process, saying that the state Board of Education was not transparent, and that Taylor had not worked as an educator in Mississippi. Individuals familiar with the confirmation process said many local superintendents asked the state Board of Education to select a Mississippi educator and were frustrated by the pick. 

A review of the hiring process by the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) found that of the 26 candidates who applied for the position, nine were employed in Mississippi and 17 were employed in another state. A source close to the hiring process said that of the four finalists, three were working in Mississippi. 

Taylor, who prior to this appointment worked in North Carolina schools since 1992, said he did not get the impression that local superintendents wanted someone different when he met them. 

“What I saw was superintendents looking forward to working with someone who had actually done the work that they had done,” he said. “You’re always going to have those that look for something different, and I absolutely respect that, but they were very gracious with me when I met with superintendents.” 

Carey Wright, the previous state superintendent, had worked in district-level leadership positions but never served as a local superintendent before becoming the leader of Mississippi’s public education system. 

Concerns were also raised about whether the district Taylor led for 10 years improved enough under his tenure. Some senators said they were dissatisfied with his record. 

Taylor led the Bladen County School District from 2011 to 2021, but data is only available for some of those years on the North Carolina School Report Cards website. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of C-rated schools in the district rose from four to seven. D-rated schools fell from eight to three between 2015 and 2018, before jumping back up to six in 2019. The graduation rate for that period also rose from 77.3% to 91.6%, surpassing the state average during that period. 

Taylor said the North Carolina accountability model, or the system that gives out letter grades, is significantly different from the system in Mississippi. North Carolina’s system is much more reliant on proficiency, or how many students hit a certain benchmark, he said, while Mississippi’s puts more weight in how much districts grow students from one year to the next. 

“I’m very proud of the track record that I had, we were never a failing district,” Taylor said. “That accountability system is very different than what you see in Mississippi and a person would need to look at that in context.” 

Taylor had publicly discussed his goal of providing direct support to low-performing districts and had visited all but one of them in his first two months on the job to learn about their needs. He said he had hoped to hire coaches for administrators and create regional support teams that would work with those districts in a variety of areas, a method he said had been successful in North Carolina. 

“I’ve seen a state superintendent visit my district once in my 15 years in the classroom, and that was three weeks ago when Dr. Taylor came to Rosedale,” Shana Bolden, a teacher in the West Bolivar School District, said in a Teach Plus Mississippi press release. “I think the search should include public input before a decision is made. There should also be a way for teachers to have a voice in the process, since whoever is hired directly impacts us and our students.”

In terms of next steps, Taylor is currently looking for opportunities that would be a good fit for him, both in Mississippi and elsewhere. 

“I certainly want to work in a place where someone welcomes my ability to work with an educational system and state for improvement,” he said. “There’s never a place I’ve been that didn’t improve. I’ve never worked in a place that was replete with resources that made the work easy. My work has always been uphill in challenging situations and I know that’s where I’m needed.” 

He added his rejection will likely make this position harder for the state Board of Education to fill moving forward and that he does not expect any candidate will be willing to move here before being confirmed by the Legislature. 

“(Senators) have to recognize the position they’ve put the (Mississippi Department of Education) in and the state of Mississippi because the rest of the nation has looked at what happened, and I’ve had people from all over the country reach out and share how horrible they thought this was,” he said. “It puts a stain on the state.” 

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.