Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — There was no disguising harsh sentiments between candidates for state superintendent of public instruction at a public forum in Raleigh Monday night when incumbent Democrat June Atkinson and Republican challenger John Tedesco clashed over a 90-minute span.
Atkinson made direct attacks and allusions to Tedesco’s role on the deeply divided Wake County Board of Education. She criticized what she viewed as his inability to be a team player; she said he lacked experience in making important decisions that didn’t work out, and said he has “a cloud of chaos surrounding him.”
Tedesco responded that Atkinson is ineffective in working with a governor from her own party and the leadership in the General Assembly, failed to improve statewide graduation results quickly enough, meddles in local politics, and exemplifies a moribund bureaucracy of central planners that prevents North Carolina from moving forward to a 21st century model of education.
Atkinson attempted throughout the debate to paint herself as the more experienced, trustworthy candidate.
At one point, Tedesco discussed his work as president and CEO of the nonprofit North Carolina Center for Education Reform and its statewide mission to replace failed policies in the state education machinery. Atkinson retorted, “There is a huge difference between being a member of a board and a state superintendent” responsible for carrying out state laws and State Board of Education policies.
Atkinson repeatedly boasted of her collaborative efforts while making thinly veiled references to Tedesco’s sometimes lightning-rod involvement on the politically divided Wake County school board.
“It is very important to recognize in education it is a team sport and someone needs to have respect of the team to move the state forward and have more accomplishments,” she said.
But in blunting the attack, Tedesco said even the liberal newspaper Independent Weekly said he is “statesmanlike” and has been willing to reach across the aisle to Democrats to solve prickly issues such as student school assignments.
In contrast to Gov. Bev Perdue’s lack of confidence in Atkinson, he said, he would enjoy a close working relationship and ideology with a prospective Republican majority in both houses of the General Assembly and a likely GOP Gov. Pat McCrory.
Both candidates support early childhood education, summer reading programs, higher teacher pay, and giving aid to elementary school teachers through training and diagnostic tools to identify students who are falling behind.
Both favor teacher evaluations linked to pay for performance, but said any system must be fair, have teacher involvement, and multiple measures over time.
Atkinson said North Carolina “is far ahead of other states in developing a system of teacher effectiveness” through her leadership in getting $400 million in federal Race to the Top funding. Tedesco said teachers statewide tell him they are concerned about the way the state is formatting teacher evaluations, one in eight is leaving the field because of dissatisfaction with teaching conditions, “and they are looking for someone to champion their efforts.”
Tedesco mentioned his limited-government philosophy, especially on a federal level, several times.
“Washington doesn’t know what all of our children need” and as he talks to folks around the state “in Murphy or Manteo to Goldsboro, they don’t think Raleigh knows what our children need for education,” he said.
“I believe the role of federal education is to support schools and states to do that work that would be very hard to do as far as funding is concerned,” such as nutrition programs that pay for school breakfasts and lunches for children in poverty, Atkinson said.
She said it is her stance and the stance of the state Department of Public Instruction to grant as much flexibility as possible to local governance.
“It is a shame that our local boards of education in some cases do not recognize that flexibility,” Atkinson said.
Likewise, Atkinson put the burden on local school boards for not helping to prepare teachers for the common core standards.
“I’m so disappointed that in some of our school districts, the local board of education has not given the necessary level of support and professional development that is necessary for the teachers in that school to implement the common core,” she said.
Tedesco said the initiative would cost teachers many more hours of paperwork. The State Teacher Quality Yearbook gave North Carolina a D+ for its quality and retention of teachers in 2011. Teachers leave not because of pay but what they have to deal with in the classroom, he said.
Atkinson said through her leadership more than 6,000 teachers already participated in workshops and some 100 more sessions are scheduled this year. While there have been “bumps in the road as we implement these standards on a widespread basis,” she said, “those standards are important to us” and provide substantial data.
“There’s a lot of concern right now that our teachers are being set up for failure and our children are being set up for failure” through the common core standards and the need to jump through still more hoops erected by Raleigh and Washington, Tedesco said. It’s going to “show very clearly where our standards have been lacking against national standards,” and will exhibit “linear Swiss cheese gaps in the knowledge base of children.”
And while Atkinson said the state does not try to mandate to local districts, she has co-hosted fund raisers with Perdue and given money to Wake County school board candidates who opposed parental choice in education and fired Superintendent Tony Tata, Tedesco said.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he said.
In the same vein, teachers are unhappy with the exhaustive requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Tedesco said, even though it had a benefit of spotlighting, rather than masking, how demographic subgroups perform.
“I don’t believe that the law should be reauthorized,” Tedesco said.
“It pushed us to a culture of teaching to the test that is not acceptable in a 21st century education,” he said. Instead of instructing children to be critical thinkers engaged in creativity and individuality, the act pushes creation of “little, standardized automatons.”
“I believe it’s time for Congress to reauthorize No Child Left Behind,” said Atkinson, who is one of five nationally selected educators redrafting the act’s language. The act’s drawbacks include an “unrealistic type of accountability system” and too much focus on multiple-choice testing.
North Carolina has received a waiver from the “all-or-nothing” accountability measures, Atkinson said. The waiver will allow the state to hide failures and keep children trapped in failing schools, Tedesco said.
Tedesco waffled on questions about for-profit charter schools, tax credits, and tuition vouchers.
He said he was not prepared to make a decision on whether for-profit charter schools should be allowed or outlawed. Any statute would need to have attendant regulations and monitoring, he said.
“I do think we need to look more broadly as to how the dollars follow a child,” Tedesco said when asked about using tax credits or tuition vouchers for private schools. “I’ll listen, and I’ll engage,” and work with the General Assembly and education leaders on any such initiatives, while ensuring the best interests of public schools at the same time.
Atkinson labeled North Carolina’s experience with for-profit charters “dismal failures.”
“I am opposed to tax credits or vouchers for parents to send their children to private school. While I respect a parent’s right to be able to send a child to private school or to home school, it is not in the best interest of the 1.5 million young children I represent,” Atkinson said. She said she was puzzled by Tedesco’s response to that question because he has supported credits and vouchers on “numerous occasions” in the past.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.