News: CJ Exclusives

Republicans See Chance in 2012 to End Democrats’ Dominance of DPI

Incumbent Atkinson could face primary from her own party

Step aside, Bev Perdue and Pat McCrory. One of the most competitive Council of State races in 2012 already is shaping up to be for state schools superintendent.

The filing deadline for next year’s primary is three months away, but seven candidates from both parties either have announced their candidacies or expressed interest in entering the race to become head of the Department of Public Instruction. So far, no other executive-level office in North Carolina has attracted that much interest.

North Carolina is one of 14 states that elects its top education official, and one of eight that conducts partisan races. A Republican victory in 2012 would mark the first time since the state Constitution of 1971 took effect that a GOP candidate would have won the office.

Three Republicans have thrown their hats into the ring. David Scholl, a Union County school board member who announced his candidacy Tuesday, is the most recent contender to leap into the fray.

So far, Scholl’s two competitors are Cary public-school teacher Ray Martin and special-education teacher Richard Alexander of Monroe. Wake County school board member John Tedesco, also a Republican, said he would decide after the New Year whether to enter the race.

For her part, two-term incumbent Democrat June Atkinson has said she will decide soon whether to seek a third term in office. If she runs, she could face a primary from her party. Reps. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, and Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, have expressed interest in the office.

Republicans compete

Republicans are emphasizing three themes: Local control of education, vocational training in high school, and more nontraditional education options.

Scholl, a businessman who has served on the Union County school board since 2008, said that restoring local control would be among his main goals. “The state is pushing a one-size fits all mandate on everything in the state,” he said, “and I don’t think it fits and works as well as if they loosened up on the mandates.”

He’s also concerned that schools aren’t doing enough to prepare high-school graduates for careers. “A little over two-thirds of our students do not go into a four-year college, and a number of them are heading out to their first career right out of school,” he said. “We don’t seem to prepare them like we did in the past.”

Martin said that the state is failing to meet the constitution’s guarantee of the right to an education, and public schools are focusing too much on sending all students to post-secondary education.

“We’ve failed kids,” he said. “The ones that we do pass onto universities, they’re still looking for jobs. So let’s start looking at jobs first rather than looking at what scholarship we’re going to give them or what school they’re going to go to.”

Alexander said he teaches in Lancaster, S.C., partly because he wanted the freedom “to speak freely and not worry about repercussions” in his job while running for state schools superintendent. He lives in Union County.

Alexander emphasized reducing bureaucratic bloat in DPI. “We could dramatically reduce the budget of the education department and put that money into the classroom,” he said. “And by putting it into the classroom, I mean more vocational programs that are geared toward the students in local areas.”

On the school choice front, Alexander said he favors “anything that helps kids prepare for their future without having to jump through hoops to satisfy the federal government.”

Atkinson under fire

Atkinson recently caught flak from the left-wing group Progress N.C. for not speaking out against Republican budget cuts enough.

“Right now, June Atkinson is failing teachers and students, by not standing up to lawmakers who continue to hide behind false rhetoric after they slashed school budgets,” said Gerrick Brenner, Progress N.C.’s executive director.

Speaking to reporters, Atkinson defended her conduct. “Any time that I have been interviewed during the budget situation, I have worked with legislators to point out to them that we cannot continue to stretch the resources of public education any tighter than we are now,” she said.

Scholl declined to criticize Atkinson directly, but said he would take a “conservative, business-minded approach” to the office if elected. Alexander said that Atkinson should use her bully pulpit more often in defense of good teachers.

On the other hand, Martin gave Atkinson an “A- to B+” and described himself as “very close” friends with her.

“We go to the same church together,” he said. “I’ve talked to her for 20 years. I encouraged her when she did run for state office.”

At the same time, he questioned Atkinson’s focus. “I think she’s done a good job in what she has done, but I don’t think the vision is there any more,” he said.

Scholl sees 2012 as a ripe opportunity for a Republican to capture an office dominated by Democrats.

“If you’re happy with where we are today, then why change? But I’m not happy with where we are today. I am asking for folks to change, and I’m asking that I can help lead that change,” he said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.