Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — This year’s election for North Carolina superintendent of public instruction can be boiled down to a simple concept: insider vs. outsider.
The insider is incumbent June Atkinson, 63, a Democrat who became state superintendent following a narrow, contentious, 2004 electoral victory that took months of wrangling to settle.
The former business teacher has a doctorate in educational leadership and policy from North Carolina State University. She first joined the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in 1976 and has remained there since, working as a consultant and as director of business education, career and technical education, and instructional services.
Atkinson’s second term started in controversy, as Gov. Bev Perdue appointed William Harrison the chairman of the State Board of Education and named him CEO of the state’s public schools. Atkinson sued, saying the North Carolina Constitution made the superintendent the state’s top education policymaker. Atkinson won her lawsuit, but Harrison stayed as Board of Education chairman. She has asked the General Assembly to clarify the roles of the two jobs, if necessary by an amendment to the constitution.
Outsider John Tedesco, a Republican, was elected to the Wake County school board in 2009. The board’s then-new conservative majority made many changes, the most controversial being a sweeping new school choice program. Now a liberal majority is working to undo this system.
That choice program ended a student assignment formula that some educational experts had lauded for preventing schools from having high concentrations of children in poverty but faced significant opposition from many parents who chafed at the frequent reassignment of their children and wanted their kids to attend schools close to home.
The board also replaced a longtime superintendent with Tony Tata, a retired military official who had limited experience as an educator but whose exposure to public administration came in the administration of a hard-charging reformer, Washington, D.C., school Superintendent Michelle Rhee. The liberal majority elected in 2011 fired Tata in late September after a divisive debate over the direction of the school district.
Tedesco, 37, has been a fundraiser and municipal and nonprofit administrator, but he is not a teacher, and he hasn’t studied education.
“I have been in various leadership positions overseeing and leading large organizations to accomplish goals,” Atkinson said. “I’ve received over 14 national and state awards for my commitment to education and the leadership that I’ve exerted in making change in public education. My opponent does not have that experience. I have worked through my time in education with parents all over the state.”
Atkinson, saying she had traveled to all of the state’s 115 school districts and to many charter schools, argued that Tedesco “has been in the small cocoon of Wake County.”
Tedesco sees things differently.
“If we were electing teacher of the year, someone who was going to focus on taking 24 children and teaching them how to read, the alphabet or some numbers, I would elect my opponent hands down,” Tedesco said. “She’s a wonderful lady, a nice educator. She’d be a great teacher.
“But we’re electing somebody to be the administrator of a department of 800 adults, of a department that spends over $300 million and impacts billions of dollars,” Tedesco said. “We’re electing a leader who knows how to navigate complex administration and who knows how to navigate the political realm of dealing with our General Assembly, our local school boards, our local leaders, the governor’s office. That’s a very different skill set.”
Tedesco, who observed that the Wake County school system has a $1.4 billion annual budget and 18,000 employees, said that his management experience has prepared him to be superintendent.
Atkinson noted that her department’s budget contains significant “pass-through” dollars that are spent by local districts, not her agency.
The state’s high school graduation rate has risen annually since 2006, when it was 68.3 percent. This year, slightly more than 80 percent of seniors graduated, a record.
Atkinson takes pride in this and in improved reading scores, but she said more must be done to improve both measures.
She also is proud of her ability to reach across the aisle. The superintendent, who met with Laura Bush when she was first lady, said she has had good relationships with federal education officials of both parties.
Closer to home, Atkinson said that Republican legislative leaders listen to her “because I do my homework, and I believe that they see me as a person who really is interested ... in the education of all of our students.”
Tedesco feels that too many students are not graduating and not reading on grade level and that taxpayers are not getting results commensurate with education spending.
“If you think ... that we have to look a little harder, challenge the status quo, put a higher focus on the fact that we take care of other people’s children with other people’s money, and we have to be better stewards of both in North Carolina, then you need to elect someone like me who’s willing to push and push for our children and our taxpayers,” he said.
A survey released Oct. 1 by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Atkinson with a 44-34 lead over Tedesco, with 22 percent undecided.
Matthew E. Milliken is a contributor to Carolina Journal.