Commentary

Of school “choice” and Superintendent “listening tours”: The weekend’s best op-ed column

June Atkinson

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction, June Atkinson

In case you to miss it over the weekend, be sure to check out the Sunday column by Ned Barnett of Raleigh’s News & Observer, in which he reports on the aftermath of voters’ perplexing and possibly disastrous decision last November in the state school Superintendent’s race. As Barnett explores in an interview with ousted Superintendent June Atkinson, North Carolina may be on the verge of heading down a road it will later regret:

“The pain of her [Atkinson’s] 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.

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 here’s the conclusion:

“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.”

The bottom line: In some ways, it’s not surprising that Atkinson lost in an election in which so many North Carolinians voted for change. Indeed, it can be argued that she should have stepped aside in favor of a progressive public schools supporter who would have brought some new blood to the election campaign and a job she occupied for a very long time. That said, the notion that North Carolina’s most visible public schools leader is now a young man with scant ideas and experience is a potential disaster waiting to happen. As with some other dreadful election results now starting to hit the fan at the state and national levels, it will take the concerted engagement of caring and thinking people to keep things from veering completely off the rails during the next four years.

One Comment


  1. Alice Hart

    January 9, 2017 at 10:05 am

    As a 36 year veteran teacher and administrator in public schools and the lead plaintiff in the Voucher Law suit against the State, I am devastated by the election of an unqualified State Superintendent of Public Instruction. In my years of traveling to many states, I was frequently greeted by others who were in awe of the extraordinary public school system in North Carolina. That is no longer the case. Our reputation is severely tarnished by the lack of regard for teachers and our public schools.

    The Voucher Law is severely flawed. There is little or no accountability for the expenditure of millions of dollars. We have no way of knowing if the children who need our help are being served in many of the private schools receiving funds. I acknowledge that there are fine private schools who provide remarkable opportunities for their students. I am also aware that many do not and we have no way of evaluating the use of our dollars.

    Charter schools have a mixed record. Some charters have an excellent record as do the ones in the Asheville area, others are sorely lacking. I am especially concerned when charters are put in the hands of for profit companies. Many of our citizens are unaware of the dangers that the decisions portend.

    I have spent the last six years as a volunteer in my grandson’s elementary school. His teachers are among the best one could find anywhere. Their morale, however, is damaged with each new attack by our legislature. I have been appalled by Governor McCrory’s claims about all he has done for teachers. He should have worked where I have and witnessed the lack of supplies, including textbooks. He should have seen veteran teacher receive little or no raise. He should have seen the faces of teachers who had planned to pursue advanced degrees stopped in their tracks when realizing they could no longer receive recognition or compensation. Compensation was critical for several reasons, including recognition for their efforts and scholarship, opportunities for advancement, and a means by which they could repay the costs of graduate school. The loss of this opportunity sent a message to aspiring teachers-“We don’t value you.”

    If the citizens of our State do not step up and hold the legislature accountable, we will lose one of the most important elements of a strong Democracy. Public schools are the life blood. Tragically, June Atkinson and her team have developed models for turning around so called failing schools that will now be put aside to fund more vouchers. Given the resources, these schools could today be flagships of public school reforms and accountable to the tax payers in our State. I will not stop writing or talking about public education and I hope others will do the same. Thank you Policy Watch

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