The role of state superintendent, like all Council of State offices, is somewhat mysterious to the general public. That’s a good reason why the campaigns of incumbent June Atkinson and Republican challenger John Tedesco have focused on leadership style, rather than substantive policy issues.
The North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction is much like a local superintendent. She, in this case, is the top administrator for the Department of Public Instruction, which is the central service and oversight organization for all of North Carolina’s 115 school districts.
The critical difference is that the state superintendent is elected, while local superintendents are hired by local boards.
The superintendent takes marching orders from the state Board of Education, a 13-member board of which 11 seats are appointed by the governor. The board, in turn, gets its education policy orders from the general assembly.
That’s not to say the state board and superintendent don’t have sway. The Board of Education can design and implement any program it sees fit, as long as it falls within the scope of education law set by the general assembly.
“It’s a collaborative relationship,” said Vanessa Jeter of DPI about the state superintendent and Board of Education.
In other words, both entities are bringing ideas to the table for the state board to vote on.
But at its worst, the state superintendent has been a combative role.
In 2009, Gov. Beverly Perdue tried to reduce Atkinson’s role to that of an education ambassador, by appointing a K-12 CEO that would take over the superintendent’s duties. Atkinson sued Perdue and won.
John Tedesco supports that decision. He doesn’t think the state superintendent role should be eliminated, as some of his Republican opponents did in the Republican primary earlier this year.
At the same time, Tedesco suggested in an interview with the Record, “DPI should be more of a customer service organization and less of an oversight organization.”
June Atkinson doesn’t dispute this.
“Mr. Tedesco is behind the times… our major focus is to be a leadership and service organization.”
Even if it’s hard to differentiate the candidates sometimes, Brian Lewis Political Director of the North Carolina Association of Educators said, “There are huge substantive differences.”
NCAE is essentially the teacher’s union and has endorsed Atkinson.
Lewis pointed particularly to the issue of school choice, which is a cornerstone of this year’s Republican platform.
Tedesco supports expanding choice for students, which could mean the state issuing vouchers for children to attend private schools.
“I think it’s the wrong direction to give vouchers to students to attend private school,” Atkinson said. “If we were overflowing with money it would be inconsequential, but we have very limited resources.”
“When you have a voucher system, public dollars flow into places with no accountability,” she said.
The candidates also differ in how they rate the general assembly, the body that ultimately serves as the superintendent’s boss.
“I give them a mixed review,” said Atkinson, who cited several budget cuts as well as places where legislators added money to the education budget.
Tedesco on the other hand believes the legislature is “making steps in the right direction.”
The Record also asked the candidates where they stand on a recent court decision, which mandates that the state pay for all “at-risk” children to have a pre-kindergarten education.
Atkinson said “absolutely we need to find the funds. We will reap great dividends of making that investment.”
Tedesco also acknowledged the importance of pre-K education in keeping children out of the criminal justice system. However, he said he would need to study the decision more before determining whether the state should pay for all at-risk children’s pre-K education.
Both candidates support performance pay for teachers. But while Tedesco is a strong supporter, Atkinson approaches the issue with caution.