News: Quick Takes

Atkinson, in interview, takes aim at school choice

Former superintendent goes after charter schools and vouchers, saying administrators rather than parents should hold educators accountable

Former state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, at a January 2016 legislative hearing. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)
Former state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, at a January 2016 legislative hearing. (CJ photo by Barry Smith)

June Atkinson is taking an open stand against Republican legislators and their school-choice agenda.

Atkinson worked hard for 12 years to keep a nonpartisan image during her time as North Carolina’s superintendent of schools. Now that her office at the Department of Public Instruction belongs to a Republican, the former education leader is moving Left.  

In a column published Sunday in the Raleigh News and Observer, Atkinson, 68, told editorial page editor Ned Barnett her loss to 33-year-old challenger Mark Johnson was a great shock, not only because of her opponent’s lack of age and experience but also because of his stance on issues such as charter schools and voucher programs for low-income and disabled students.

Superintendent Johnson, a lawyer and former member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board, openly supports school choice, calling charter schools and voucher plans good options to help low-income families and students.

The new superintendent has said all low-performing public schools — including charters — should be held to account by the state legislature and the Department of Public Instruction. He said, “While [school choice] options can continue, we must improve all traditional public schools.”

But Atkinson worries that — given a Republican-ruled State Board of Education and a contested new law that would give Johnson more power over the SBE — private interests will overtake traditional public schools.

Lawmakers are spinning stories about the failure of traditional public education and coercing teachers in to create public support for school choice, Atkinson told the N&O.

“That’s the purpose — to make people lose confidence [in public schools] and then they say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a choice?’ ” Atkinson said.

Atkinson’s former efforts to work with members on both sides of the aisle are obliterated by her very public step to the Left, said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“It is unfortunate that Atkinson’s post-election activities have included working with the mainstream media to insult Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, vilify members of the General Assembly, and disparage those who champion educational options for families,” Stoops said.

“Atkinson’s eagerness to enforce state accountability for private schools reflects her mistaken belief that most parents are incapable of determining the quality and suitability of schools for their children,” he added. “It is a belief ingrained through decades of working in and, more recently, leading North Carolina’s massive public school bureaucracy.”

Atkinson worked at DPI for 28 years before becoming state superintendent.

“It takes decades to build a cathedral, but it takes a short time to destroy the cathedral,” she told the N&O. “I guess that’s the way I feel at the moment.”

The former DPI head said she doesn’t have a problem with charter schools and other school choice programs, as long as the state holds them accountable.

But the answer to better public education isn’t found in expanding options for parents, she added. It’s found in the basics: quality preschool programs, and good paychecks — and more respect — for teachers and principals.

“Choice is a euphemism,” she said. “It’s saying, ‘We will educate some children and forget about the other children.’ ”

Atkinson’s perspective is harmfully skewed, Stoops said, pointing back to families as the entity that should be most respected within the state’s education system.

“While Atkinson and her ideological allies prefer a system of accountability that imposes a state-based testing regime and elaborate regulatory mechanisms on schools, most families would prefer that their choice serve as the primary arbiter of excellence,” Stoops concluded.