A teacher, a lawyer, and a doctor all say North Carolina needs a new leader in the state’s highest elected position for education policy, and are laying claims to why they should be at the helm.
GOP candidates Mark Johnson, Rosemary Fernandez Stein, and J. Wesley Sills are vying for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in the Republican primary on March 15.
The superintendent oversees the state Department of Public Instruction, which carries out state and federal education policies. Republicans hold a majority on the State Board of Education.
Henry Pankey, a former principal from Durham, is challenging incumbent Superintendent June Atkinson, who is seeking a fourth term, in the Democratic primary.
One common thread among the Republican candidates is that they agree public schools should put more emphasis on teaching than testing.
“North Carolina parents, students, and teachers deserve a state superintendent who will focus more on supporting teaching instead of testing,” said Johnson, a lawyer who is a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.
Johnson said one of his top priorities would include “reforming a system of overtesting created by June Atkinson,” who, he said, is “unwilling to upset the status quo.”
“We need someone who listens to good local school leaders. They know what kind of training teachers need in the classrooms,” said Johnson. He began his career as a public school teacher, and wants to make North Carolina schools “remarkable.”
In helping to close the achievement gap, and as part of her six-step plan, Stein, a pediatrician from Snow Camp, said she would scrap the state’s “one-size-fits-all” Common Core standard.
She would replace it with “classical education where children will again receive reading instruction using phonics. And we will return to teaching classical math,” she said.
Sills said he believes in the mission of public education, and would work tirelessly to eliminate the endless bureaucratic policies that do not promote student learning.
He said he would establish policies that make common sense.
“Every 11th grader takes the ACT whether they want to go to college or not. That’s bad policy. Give the ACT to students who actually want to go to college,” said Sills.
Sills, a Harnett County high school social science teacher, said Common Core is not all bad, and it’s already being re-tooled.
“Sixty-percent of it is going to stay, and 40 percent will be re-tooled,” he said. “The way we learned math is the way we need to go back to.”
“In order to get your message out to voters, it takes money,” said Johnson.
Johnson has more than $100,000 cash on hand, while Stein or Sills report less than $10,000 each. Stein and Sills say they are not concerned about fundraising at this time.
Stein said she would work to implement a new plan to prepare children to be school-ready, meaning the child has been taught to sit still, pay attention, and respect authority.
“Our children must arrive to first grade ready to begin the learning process,” said Stein.
Stein comes from a family of educators, and speaks French, Spanish, and English fluently.
She said she intends to return North Carolina to an immersion-based English as a Second Language program to maximize the potential of children who arrive at schools without English fluency.
Johnson said it’s important that students are ready for the 21st century.
“While other Republican candidates are campaigning against Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s efforts to increase access to technology in the classroom, I agree with Dan Forest, and strongly support increasing smart, measured access to technology in our classrooms,” he said.
Stein said that technology is great, however, it does not replace basic instruction.
Sills agrees. “I’m not anti-technology. “Technology is a tool. It’s just a tool. It does not replace good old fashioned teaching,” said Sills.
Sills said technology is a money maker, and his concern is whether the North Carolina taxpayer will foot the bill for technology expense “that’s not necessary in the classroom.”
“Technology is so cheap and so good, it will help our students succeed,” said Johnson.
Johnson, Stein and Sills support vocational training classes in public schools.
“I support vocational [education] all the way,” said Sills. “Not every kid should go to college. Not every kid can go to college.”
All three candidates agree parental involvement is important.
“Studies demonstrate that children do better in school when their parents are engaged,” said Stein.
Sills was inspired by his mother, who taught kindergarten for 31 years. He graduated from UNC-Wilmington with a degree in political science, and spent much of his professional life working on yachts and sailing the world. He and his wife Laurie have a newborn daughter.
Johnson and his wife Rachel have a 3-year-old daughter.
Stein is married to a family doctor and they have a 16 year-old-daughter.