RALEIGH — Conservative John Tedesco’s fight to end forced busing as a member of the Wake County school board made national news. In his three years on the board, he’s helped slash nearly $100 million from his district’s budget, replaced 56 school administrators with eight and implemented merit-based pay for teachers. But special-education teacher Richard Alexander says he can do better than that if elected state superintendent.
Alexander, a Republican from Monroe, said he would like to shrink the size of the state Department of Public Instruction by between 40 and 60 percent, and ultimately he’d like to eliminate his own job.
Alexander challenged Tedesco to a runoff after earning 24 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for the office of State Superintendent May 8. Tedesco got 28 percent of the vote. The runoff election will be July 17. The winner will face Democratic incumbent June Atkinson in November.
Can Alexander fire himself?
Alexander said he’d like to fire a good chunk of the 800 employees at the North Carolina Department of Instruction, and when he’s done with that he’d like to fire himself.
North Carolina is one of 38 states that has adopted federal common core curriculum and testing, Alexander said, so all of the curriculum and test writers at DPI are redundant. After eliminating those and other administrative positions, Alexander would like to grant local boards of education the power to write non-core curriculum that works for their districts.
Next, he’d like to outsource things like teacher certification and licensing, lawn maintenance, and janitorial service to private businesses.
Finally, he would support a constitutional amendment that would do away with his own position. In place of an elected superintendent, he’d like to see a governor-appointed secretary of education position created.
Tedesco criticized the idea of eliminating the elected position of superintendent, comparing it to Gov. Bev Perdue’s attempt to appoint an “education czar.”
“I want be able to hold accountable the person in charge of my kids’ education,” Tedesco said. “When you have an independent, elected superintendent, they can actually stand up and call out our state school board or our governor when they set an agenda that’s not right for our kids and not have to worry about getting fired.”
But Alexander said the hypothetical secretary of education would not have policymaking authority.
“That position would be to be the liaison between the 115 school districts and charter schools and the governor, to gather information and keep the governor informed about what’s going on, seeing as the governor has the ultimate responsibility for education in North Carolina,” Alexander said.
The education agenda would be set mostly by the local boards of education, with the state board of education setting general policy, he said.
Tedesco also criticized Alexander’s plan to cut DPI’s $350 million budget by at least 40 percent, calling it unrealistic.
“I’ve cut a little over $100 million in waste in Wake County, and I would do the same thing at DPI, but you have to do it smart,” Tedesco said.
He said it wasn’t wise to cut state curriculum writers, arguing without them students would be left solely at the hands of the federal government.
“I want our curriculum people to evaluate, monitor, and watch every little thing they try and sneak into our curriculum,” he said.
While Alexander is no supporter of the U.S. Department of Education, he said it writes North Carolina’s core curriculum. This makes our state curriculum writers duplicative, in his view.
Still, Tedesco argued, DPI needs to be strengthened, not weakened, so it can serve as a “serve as a strong firewall to encroaching federal agendas.”
Tedesco also said that DPI’s budget “is just the tip of the iceberg.” A better place to focus budget-cutting energies, Tedesco suggested, would be the “hundreds of millions of dollars” of fraud and waste in federal programs that DPI implements, including afterschool programs.
For his part, Alexander said he’d do more than cut fraud and waste. He’d eliminate the programs altogether.
“It’s going to be very painful, but we need to stop taking their [federal] money,” Alexander said. “Every time we take the federal dollars, we end up having to spend more of our own, because their programs always have strings attached, and they become unfunded mandates.”
“They’ll say we’re going to pay for this program for two years, but you’ve got to carry it for four,” he continued. “Every dime we take from the federal government costs us twice as much to implement.”
Alexander called Tedesco’s desire to strengthen DPI and the position of state superintendent “not conservative.”
“I believe in less government and more community and more citizen control,” he said. “I believe the best government is the lowest level of government.”
Sara Burrows is a contributor to Carolina Journal.