The candidates for state superintendent of public instruction promise that their background and expertise can make the most of a job with no power or management duties.
Democratic incumbent June Atkinson and Republican Richard Morgan come at the job from different perspectives.
Atkinson is a former teacher who retired from the state Department of Public Instruction as director of instructional services. She uses the superintendent's office to talk to the public about ways to improve education.
“I brought to the forefront of many people that we must improve our graduation rate,” she said.
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Morgan, a former co-speaker of the state House, said his long career in politics makes him the best candidate to serve as a liaison to legislators, who decide how much state money to devote to education.
“The value of having put together at least 18 budgets makes me uniquely qualified,” he said.
Though the title “state superintendent” gives the impression that the holder plays some management role, the office is little more than a soapbox. The state superintendent has no legal authority to run the state Department of Public Instruction.
In recent history, the state's governors have been the drivers on major education matters.
The governor appoints most of the State Board of Education members.
The board hired J.B. Buxton, a former aide to Gov. Mike Easley, as its deputy superintendent. Buxton, who lost to Atkinson in the 2004 Democratic primary, runs the department.
Atkinson serves as an education ambassador, speaking at forums and visiting schools. She said she's worked to rally business support for schools and students.
She has traveled the state to talk about the importance of preparing students to succeed in the global economy and making courses relevant to life outside the classroom.
Morgan said he would bring a different approach to the job because he knows legislators, legislative staff and the budget process.
For two years, Morgan shared leadership duties with former Democratic speaker Jim Black, but became the center of a GOP feud that resulted in his expulsion from the state party's executive committee. He lost in a primary in 2006.
Black resigned office in disgrace and is serving time in federal prison for corruption. House Democrats have tried to distance themselves from an episode that holds bad memories.
Morgan's history could make for a complicated relationship with legislators should he come back as a petitioner for education rather than a power broker.
Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, the leader of House Republicans, refused to talk about Morgan.
Rep. Linda Johnson, a Kannapolis Republican who is vice chairwoman of the House subcommittee on education spending, said Morgan would help the deliberations.
“Legislatively, he knows how things are handled,” she said.
Atkinson talks not about the legislators, but about the schools she visits and the principals and teachers she meets.
She wants the state to set a timetable that would lead to all students finishing high school.
“We need to set benchmarks to fulfill the mission,” she said, “or our chances of having a higher graduation rate will be overlooked.”
Atkinson is participating in the state's public financing system for campaigns, agreeing to limit her campaign fundraising and spending.
Campaign finance reports show Morgan raised $2,600 for the race through the end of June, and loaned his campaign $100,000. Atkinson had raised about $149,000.