June Atkinson didn’t see it coming. Three times North Carolina voters elected her as the state superintendent of public instruction, then in November more voters wanted someone else. After 12 years of service, the last four spent as a Democrat holding off a Republican-led legislature that is critical of and skeptical about traditional public schools, she was out.
“I’m really sad about it. As in all things when you have a loss, I have cried about it,” she says, “but that doesn’t do any good. The results are still there. I'm trying my best to be in the acceptance stage.”
The pain of her defeat is compounded by the thin qualifications of the victor. Atkinson, 68, has a doctorate in educational leadership, taught for eight years and served 28 years in the Department of Public Instruction before taking charge of the agency. She lost to Republican Mark Johnson, a 33-year-old corporate lawyer and a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board. Johnson’s teaching experience consists of two years in the Teach for America program. He supports more charter schools, vouchers for private schools and the Republican rallying cry of using public education dollars to give parents “choice” in where their children go to school.
With a youthful Republican in the job, the legislature moved quickly to expand the superintendent’s powers at the expense of the State Board of Education. The board, also Republican-controlled, has sued to block the change.
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In his first meeting last week with the State Board of Education, Johnson spoke earnestly about creating a sense of urgency about improving public schools. Then he announced he would go on a year-long “listening tour” to figure out what the schools need. That doesn’t sound like an urgent response. But, as it is, the only ones Johnson will be listening to are top lawmakers whose priorities are to browbeat teachers and create public support for privatizing public education. “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 says.
North Carolina has invested heavily in its public schools over decades. Watching the per-pupil funding shrink to near the bottom of the national rankings under the state’s Republican leadership has been painful for Atkinson. Now to see public education’s leadership upended in the name of nebulous “choice” feels to her like the entire structure of public schools is in danger. “It takes decades to build a cathedral, but it takes a short time to destroy the cathedral,” she says. “I guess that’s the way I feel at the moment.”
And public education has improved despite the Republican leaders’ denigration of teachers and their failure to keep school funding on pace with population growth. Atkinson points to North Carolina’s rising graduation rates, more students taking advance placement courses and a rise in enrollment enrolled in precollege programs and an expansion of vocational training in cooperation with the state’s community colleges.
“I do believe public education has made some great strides over the past decade despite having limited resources compared to prior years,” she says.
But for all the progress made by statewide programs, Atkinson says the most impressive gains are because of the dedication of teachers, despite their low pay and the fact that more children are now living in poverty. She often visited schools and saw how teachers care deeply about their students. “With the increasing poverty in our state, I’m just astounded with how well our students do despite all the challenges they face in their lives,” she says.
Atkinson has no objection to charter schools and other school alternatives, if they’re held accountable. But the keys to making public education better isn’t expanding the options. It’s providing two basics. First, invest in quality preschool education programs. Second, pay enough to attract and retain good teachers and principals and treat them with respect.
The clamor for school choice isn’t really about choice, Atkinson says. “Choice is a euphemism,” she says. “It’s saying, ‘We will educate some children and forget about the other children.’ ”
From her visits to public schools, Atkinson knows that selective treatment is not the right approach. When groups of small children greeted her, she learned, “If you hug one child, you better be ready to hug every child.”
Over 12 years, June Atkinson tried to do just that. Now public schools have lost an advocate and guardian and public education in North Carolina is in real jeopardy as lawmakers carry out their “choice” not to support it.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com