Lawyer takes on June Atkinson to become NC schools superintendent

The incumbent

Democrat June Atkinson is running for her fourth term as North Carolina superintendent of public instruction.

The challenger

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board member Mark Johnson, who won the Republican primary, hopes to unseat Atkinson in November.

About the office

The superintendent runs the state Department of Public Instruction, which carries out state education policies and laws, oversees statewide testing and acts as a liaison between the state and federal governments.

Why this race matters

The superintendent is a state leader on public education and advocates for policies and practices to improve schools and student achievement. The superintendent decides how to structure the department and deploy resources to achieve state education goals. DPI employs about 1,120 people, including 350 at the three residential schools for blind or deaf children.

Where the candidates stand

Atkinson says that education in North Carolina’s public schools has been improving during her 11 years as the state’s top education official.

Atkinson points to how the state’s high school graduation rate has risen from 68.3 percent to an all-time high of 85.8 percent over the past decade. At the same time, she notes how graduation requirements have increased and more than 35 percent of high school students earned college credits before graduating.

North Carolina is also seeing gains over time in fourth-grade reading performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national test.

“I have a proven record of getting things done, of moving public education forward in our state,” Atkinson said.

Looking into the future, Atkinson said she wants to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to overhaul the state’s testing and accountability system. Atkinson said it will take someone like her with her more than 40 years of education experience and relationships with the education and business community to bring changes forward.

Johnson agrees that the state’s testing system needs to be reformed, but he says that Atkinson has only provided talk and not change during her time as superintendent. The attorney and former teacher said he’s the one who can step in to reduce the overtesting that’s causing stress for students.

Johnson contends that the Department of Public Instruction is broken and that a new leader is needed to provide schools and school systems with the support they need to educate students.

Johnson cites how USA Today gave North Carolina an F grade for doing a poor job of catching teachers who had been disciplined in other states. He also points to how a backlog at DPI getting teacher licenses processed is costing educators money since they’re not getting paid at their full salary until they obtain their license.

While Atkinson points to the rising graduation rate, Johnson counters with other statistics such as how 52 percent of students who graduated from a North Carolina high school and enrolled in a community college in the state took at least one remedial course.

“She can list off years and years of experience, but at the end of the day she’ll just bring more of the same,” Johnson said.

The Common Core math and reading standards used in the state’s public schools has been a hot topic in recent years. But neither candidate is making it a campaign issue.

June Atkinson

Age: 68

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Radford University; master’s degree, Virginia Tech; doctorate, N.C. State University

Professional experience: Administrator at DPI since 1976; former teacher in Charlotte and Virginia

Political resume: Served as N.C. superintendent of public instruction since August 2005

Family: Husband, William Gurley

Website: drjuneatkinson.com

Mark Johnson

Age: 32

Education: Bachelor's degree, Emory University in Atlanta; law degree, UNC-Chapel Hill

Professional experience: In-house lawyer for a technology firm; taught science for two years in Charlotte at West Charlotte High School with Teach for America.

Political resume: Elected to a four-year term on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education in 2014.

Family: Wife, Rachel, and one daughter

Website: remarkableschoolsnc.com