WINSTON-SALEM — Candidates in the race for state superintendent of public instruction are painting the election as a choice between change and experience.
Mark Johnson, a Winston-Salem lawyer and member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education, is a newcomer to statewide politics. He beat two challengers to win the Republican primary earlier this year and faces Democrat June Atkinson, running for her fourth term at the helm of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
“More of the same is not the only option for students and educators,” Johnson said, who has campaigned heavily against the “status quo.”
Johnson said he first ran for the Forsyth County school board in 2014 in hopes of making a difference in struggling local schools, an area of interest since teaching for two years in a Charlotte high school through the Teach for America program.
Johnson said he quickly realized that many obstacles to improving Forsyth County schools were statewide issues, over which the local school board had little control. After fewer than two years on the Forsyth County school board, Johnson announced plans to run for state superintendent.
“What’s most at stake,” he said, “is whether we’re going to have my opponent, who’s going to continue the status quo, or someone who’s going to bring in a fresh perspective and make the change needed to improve public education.”
Since announcing, Johnson has taken issue with what he sees as a lack of support for teachers and schools coming from the department and a failure to respond quickly to such issues as the state’s academic standards and over-testing.
Johnson has his work cut out for him, taking on a three-term incumbent Democrat who survived previous political waves that swept Republicans into offices across the state and is already known statewide.
“I’m the only candidate in the race that has any experience in running a complex organization, such as the department (of public instruction),” Atkinson said. “I’m the only candidate that’s had any experience and success in working with the General Assembly to influence education law. I’m the only candidate who’s worked closely with the State Board of Education, and I’m the only candidate who’s traveled in all 115 school districts in the state.”
Atkinson has spent her career in education, including nearly eight years in public high school classrooms and time teaching at the community college level. She said she has the necessary understanding to relate to teachers, the understanding of the time and work required to make statewide changes and important relationships with the legislators who ultimately make most of the state’s education policy.
Johnson questions, though, what that experience has actually done for teachers and students. Johnson said he’ll focus on getting more support in schools to make sure teachers are connecting with students and making diplomas more meaningful.
The graduation rate has climbed from 68 percent when Atkinson was elected to a record-high of nearly 86 percent for the 2015-16 school year. Johnson takes aim at the feather in Atkinson’s cap, though, questioning what those diplomas mean when the percent of students passing statewide exams falls far below that mark and fewer than 60 percent of high school juniors score well enough on the ACT for admission to the UNC system.
Atkinson said she’ll continue to work on overhauling the state’s testing and accountability system, implementing a new digital learning initiative and pushing back against increasing regulation coming from the General Assembly.
On testing, regulatory laws, teacher pay and professional development, Atkinson and Johnson seem to agree change is needed, though they split on what those alternatives should be.
On House Bill 2, which requires schools to enforce controversial restroom rules as they pertain to transgender students, the candidates diverge. Johnson refused to take a stance on the law, saying the courts will decide the issues and he’ll “focus on making public education in North Carolina improved.”
Atkinson said HB 2 has “discriminatory components” and the state can do better.
“That law has not helped North Carolina,” she said.
“Our schools were dealing with the issues facing them without the intervention of the General Assembly.”