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.’”
“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.”