They may get overlooked in the frenzy of a presidential election year, but five people are seeking North Carolina’s top education job.
A press release from Republican Mark Johnson noting that he once taught at West Charlotte High piqued my interest. None of the candidates lives in the Charlotte region, though Johnson and incumbent Superintendent June Atkinson have taught in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The power of the position is limited. While the superintendent runs the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which is responsible for about 1.5 million students and almost 2,700 district and charter schools, she reports to an appointed Board of Education. State legislators control education spending and make most of the rules.
But the state superintendent, a post that pays just under $125,000 a year, is an important voice for education and acts as a liaison between the public, employees and lawmakers.
And the candidates are an interesting bunch. So before we all get caught up in the bustle of 2016, I thought I’d share a quick sketch of the candidates and links to learn more.
Atkinson seeking 4th term
Atkinson, a longtime educator, has held the superintendent’s job since 2005. She’s a Democrat who has kept winning despite the state’s tendency to elect Republicans, and she’ll try for a fourth term this year.
In the 1970s, Atkinson taught business at Myers Park High; she also taught classes at Central Piedmont Community College. Business, career and technical education was her focus for most of her 35-year career before she took on the state’s top job. She was the 2015 president of the national Council of Chief State School Officers.
When Atkinson announced her re-election plans, she emphasized the state’s rising graduation rate, which hit a record 86 percent last year.
Pankey offers Democratic challenge
Henry Pankey, a retired principal and author who lives in Durham, will face Atkinson in the Democratic primary.
In April, Scott Sexton of the Winston-Salem Journal ran an amusing column about Pankey’s handwritten campaign announcement: “It touted as one of his qualifications a children’s book he wrote titled ‘The Eagle Who Thought He Was a Hip-Hop Funky Chicken.’”
But Sexton concluded that Pankey’s qualifications merit a serious look. In the late 1990s, Durham’s Southern High School made big gains when Pankey was principal, and he was named the district’s principal of the year. In 2012, after a retirement and a return to Parkland High, he was named state Assistant Principal of the Year.
Pankey’s campaign website (www.henryjpankey.com) touts his membership in the N.C. Association of Educators and offers fairly generic platforms (“Teachers have a right to teach, and students have a right to learn.”).
Johnson says he’s reMARKable
Johnson, a lawyer serving on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board, is one of three Republicans seeking the post.
He was a Teach for America corps member at West Charlotte from 2006 to 2008, teaching science and working with the school’s Freshman Academy. Afterward he went to law school and now serves as corporate counsel for Inmar technology company.
Besides playing on his first name to tout “reMARKable schools,” his campaign website (www.remarkableschoolsnc.com) says his top priorities will be undoing the state’s “monster system of testing,” creating a better professional development system and making smart use of educational technology.
His December announcement took aim at Atkinson, blaming her for the state’s testing mess, and his GOP opponents: “If you want students to know how to use a yacht or an abacus, then vote for my opponents.”
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Sills charted unusual course
J. Wesley Sills, a Harnett County high school teacher seeking the Republican nomination, took a circuitous route to a career in education.
According to his website (www.jwesleysills.org), he was offered a Teaching Fellows scholarship but instead majored in political science. He took education courses but got his first job as an insurance agent.
“In 2006, I threw caution, and my job, into the wind and joined a sailboat in South America that needed crew for a trip to the Galapagos Islands,” he writes, going on to detail three years spent yachting, diving and traveling the world. He returned when his mother got sick, he writes, and started teaching in 2012. He earned his license this summer, “thus fulfilling a dream from 15 years earlier.”
He says his first act if elected will be working to end “the endless, cumbersome policies and directives coming down from DPI,” along with “countless forms and constant testing.” He also calls for an emphasis on basic education, saying “we have hid behind political correctness far too long in an effort to not offend different subgroups of students.”
Stein brings global background
Dr. Rosemary Fernandez Stein, a Burlington pediatrician who rounds out the GOP ticket, comes from a family of educators in the Dominican Republic. Growing up there, in New York City and in Montreal, she became fluent in Spanish, English and French.
One of Stein’s platforms is ending North Carolina’s English-as-a-second-language program and immersing immigrant children in English-only lessons, saying that the current program “is one of the primary reasons why Hispanic children have such a high dropout rate.” She also wants language immersion offered to help English speakers learn other languages.
She also wants to drop the Common Core curriculum and replace it with phonics-based reading and “classical education” developed by the Greeks and Romans.
She and her husband, also a doctor, created the International Family Clinic, a pediatric practice in Burlington. Her campaign website (http://drrosemarystein.org) says she and her husband helped write an anti-Affordable Care Act commercial that aired on Fox News. According to The (Burlington) Times-News, Stein also created an after-school program to offer tutoring and religious education, and the couple’s daughter attends a private Christian school.