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Atkinson ‘sticks to her knitting’ – good for us

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

Maybe N.C. Republican leaders think we can’t read. Why else would they keep saying – and doing – snarky and outrageous things that will inevitably end up in a newspaper headline?

This week, GOP House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam took center stage. In response to N.C. schools Superintendent June Atkinson’s criticism of a new state voucher law that gives private schools thousands in taxpayer dollars but does not hold them to state education accountability standards, he retorted: “She should stick to her own knitting.”

Let’s put aside for a moment the sexist overtones of that saying when applied to a woman. Surely Stam wasn’t really telling the state schools’ superintendent to mind her own business about a state education issue? That is her business, and Atkinson is acting in the public’s interest by bringing up the matter publicly.

Stam has touted the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Act as one of his signature achievements. The law allows families that meet income guidelines – up to about $60,000 for a family of four – $4,200 a year in taxpayer money to send their children to private schools. The state budget included $10 million for vouchers beginning in the 2013-14 school year. The following year, $40 million is to be included.

Atkinson, a Democrat, contended in a wide-ranging talk with reporters on Monday that the voucher bill takes away money badly needed for public schools. And she complained that if lawmakers wanted to divert public dollars to private schools, those schools should at least be held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools – including the same test requirements.

Atkinson said she would like to see students at private and public schools take the same tests so parents can compare scores. She also said private schools should receive performance grades based on student achievement, just as public schools will. That means that private schools receiving taxpayer-funded vouchers should be judged on the same A-F grading scale lawmakers have instituted for public schools.

The law does require testing in private schools that receive voucher money, but schools can choose which national tests to administer and don’t have to report scores unless they enroll more than 25 students with vouchers.

“The public needs a consistent measure of reading achievement in particular,” Atkinson said, and the information would be important to parents making decisions on where to send their children.

You don’t have to agree with Atkinson about the ideology behind the voucher program to acknowledge the wisdom of having adequate accountability for the use of taxpayer dollars in these facilities. In fact, that’s a philosophy that conservatives often publicly trumpet. It would have been nice to have Stam address the concerns Atkinson raised instead of trying to shut her down by essentially telling her to go play in her own playpen.

Indeed, as a legislative leader charged with upholding the state’s constitutional mandate of providing a sound education to all children, Stam should want adequate safeguards and oversight in place. The law does not have that.

Yes, the bill provides for reporting of test data – though not necessarily tests comparable to or better than state mandated tests. It also calls for reporting of graduation rates, learning gains and losses. But there are no standards outlined for performance or consequences noted for not meeting standards.

What the law does is open the door for the use of taxpayer money in institutions where public accountability will be difficult to achieve, the potential for fraud and waste will be high and mediocre or poor education outcomes can be effectively masked. Amazingly, only “the staff member with the highest decision-making authority” at these voucher-receiving private schools needs to undergo a criminal background check.

Stam’s disdain shows up often

This isn’t the first time that Stam has turned his nose up in public disdain about something or someone he doesn’t agree with legislatively.

In 2011, when Republicans controlled the legislature but not the governor’s post, Stam and colleagues failed in their attempt to override a veto by then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, of a voter ID law. Undaunted, House leader Stam invoked a parliamentary procedure to keep the bill alive until the short session ending in the summer of 2012. When then House Minority Leader Joe Hackney asked House members not to allow Stam to keep the veto override alive forever, saying the voter ID issue had been settled, Stam shot back: “It’s not settled until it’s settled right.”

Stam has been at the center of a lot of the legislature’s most divisive and controversial legislation over the last few years. Last year, he championed Amendment One, the constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage in North Carolina, marriages which were already illegal in the state. The bill he authored was so broad that it also outlawed gay civil unions, and cast doubt on laws involving domestic violence, wills and visitation rights. In an astounding admission days before the vote on Amendment One, Stam said he had wanted to focus more narrowly on banning gay marriage but the Alliance Defense Fund, a national Christian legal advocacy group that likens same-sex marriage to polygamy and incest, “overruled” that and moved him to bar other marriage-like partnerships too. An outside advocacy group gets to “overrule” a state lawmaker? Really?

This year, Stam has been at the forefront of state restrictions on access to abortions. And unlike some of his Republican colleagues he has not been shy about his intent. Instead of just cloaking the sneakily unveiled proposals in the language of keeping women safe that other lawmakers used, Stam fessed up to a TV reporter that he wanted to limit access to abortions “as severely as possible” in the state. Stam was also the force behind legislation mandating that students in seventh grade be taught that abortion causes preterm births and miscarriages later in life. That’s at odds with the view from most health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. They do not consider prior abortions to be a risk factor for preterm births and miscarriages, let alone a cause.

June Atkinson is right to use her bully pulpit as N.C. schools superintendent to air concerns about state changes affecting education. She is “sticking to her own knitting,” Rep. Stam. I, for one, hope she continues to do so. These days, her voice on these issues is needed more than ever.

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