North Carolina voters will decide whether the state superintendent of public instruction for the next four years should be an educator.
Democratic incumbent June Atkinson, 64, argues that her education degrees, her career as a teacher and state school administrator, and her two terms as state schools superintendent make her the right choice for the job. But her Republican challenger, Wake County school board member John Tedesco, 37, argues that what’s needed is a superintendent who represents taxpayers and families, and not someone who’s worked in the “Raleigh education establishment since 1976.”
At stake is the job of running the state Department of Public Instruction, which enforces the education decisions made by the General Assembly and the State Board of Education. It’s a position that oversees how policies are carried out for the state’s 1.5 million public school students and how education dollars are allocated among the 115 school districts.
Atkinson says Tedesco, whose career includes working for nonprofit groups and running a small New Jersey town, is “inexperienced” in leading an education organization.
“Would you put your children on a plane from North Carolina to California with a pilot who didn’t have any educational background on that plane?” Atkinson said.
Tedesco quips that he’d vote for Atkinson – if she were running for Teacher of the Year. “My job is not to teach 24 students in a particular subject,” he said. “My job is to save thousands of teacher jobs.”
Struggle for power
It’s been a struggle at times for Atkinson to exercise the power of her position.
Atkinson defeated Bill Fletcher, a Wake school board member, in 2004. But Fletcher filed a lawsuit over disputed ballots. The General Assembly, led at the time by the Democrats, exercised a rarely used constitutional power to pick Atkinson in August 2005.
Atkinson was re-elected in 2008, but soon faced a challenge from Gov. Bev Perdue, a fellow Democrat who wanted to have more control over education. Perdue and the State Board stripped Atkinson of her power and gave it to Bill Harrison, chairman of the State Board of Education.
Atkinson sued, winning the court case that confirmed her state constitutional authority as chief administrative officer overseeing public instruction. Atkinson said she and Harrison enjoy a good working relationship.
Atkinson said she’s proud of what’s taken place since she’s been superintendent, including:
• The state’s high school graduation rate rising from 68.3 percent in 2006 to 80.4 percent for 2012;
• Her efforts to prevent the closing of one of three residential schools for blind and deaf students by getting groups such as Wake County schools to lease space in the buildings;
• The rise in student test scores and the drop in the number of low-performing schools.
Atkinson also points to a recent study by Harvard University that listed North Carolina as one of six states that “made the most achievement gains for every incremental dollar spent over the past two decades.”
“As my husband and family will tell you, I persevere,” she said.
In the past two years, Atkinson has found herself fighting the Republican-led Legislature over cuts to education funding. Despite the disagreements, Atkinson said that she works well with the Republican legislative leadership.
But Tedesco said that Atkinson would be “marginalized” with Republicans expected to retain control of the Legislature and leading in the polls to win the governor’s seat. Tedesco said he shares the same education vision as Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders.
“I will have their respect,” Tedesco said. “We will work well together. We will accomplish the agenda.”
Lightning rod for controversy
Tedesco rose to prominence after winning office in 2009 to help form a Republican majority on the Wake school board.
He has been a lightning rod for supporters and critics of the board’s actions to move away from busing students for socioeconomic diversity. He was hailed by some as being a voice for families frustrated by student reassignment, but also was lampooned on national TV by satirist Stephen Colbert with a monologue focused on “disintegration.”
Last year, Democrats regained the majority on the school board. Tedesco blames the outcome on President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign using the election as a warm-up for 2012 and on local liberal groups who helped make it the most expensive campaign in Wake school board history.
Atkinson said that in her travels, she often would be asked by people about what was going on in Wake, where protests by groups such as the NAACP sparked national media coverage.
“I’m sorry that we’ve got a board member who has been creating chaos,” Atkinson said of Tedesco. “We need to have people who can cooperate and collaborate.”
Tedesco acknowledges that the attention that Wake schools have received is a “double-edged sword.” He said many people have only heard sound bites and don’t know about his efforts to reduce student suspensions and to provide more opportunities in rigorous classes for minority and low-income students.
Tedesco points out that Wake was able to cut its budget without laying off teachers, give school employees bonuses and expand pre-kindergarten classrooms.
“I’m not going to be a person who has the stock answer of more money, more money,” Tedesco said. “I’ve seen what we’ve done in the largest school system in the state – that we can realign dollars into the classroom where it needs to belong.”
Tedesco also said that while the rise in the graduation rate is good news, too many students still are not graduating. Of those who are, Tedesco says more than two-thirds are taking remedial classes when they enter college.
If elected, Tedesco says a priority is to increase the state’s graduation rate and have graduates ready to go to college or to start a career. He pointed to a new high school Wake hopes to open in 2014 that would provide students with technical skills in areas such as heating and cooling systems, electronics and plumbing.
Going for broke
Reports show that Atkinson has a major financial lead even though she is participating in the state’s public financing system for campaigns, which limits her fundraising and spending. Campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections show Tedesco had raised $41,683 through the end of June. Atkinson had received $128,725.
Tedesco said he’s put his life savings into the campaign as he, his wife and stepson get by on slightly more than $50,000 a year from her salary and his school board stipend. During an interview, Tedesco logged into his bank account on his smartphone to show how low the balance was in his savings account.
“I made this race a life investment because I believe in it so much,” he said.
Tedesco was named president of the N.C. Center for Education Reform, a new group formed in 2011, but says he has not taken a salary from it this year while he’s running for superintendent.
“I fundamentally believe in campaigns being run on the grass-roots level,” he said. “I don’t believe in government paying for my campaign.”