3 Republicans, 2 Democrats run for NC schools chief

The incumbent

Democrat June Atkinson is running for a fourth term.

The challengers

Henry J. Pankey is opposing Atkinson in the Democratic primary. Mark Johnson, J. Wesley Sills and Dr. Rosemary Stein are competing in the Republican primary.

About the office

The superintendent runs the state Department of Public Instruction, which carries out state education policies, 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

Republican candidates approach the race from different perspectives. Johnson is a local board of education member, Sills is a teacher, and Stein is a pediatrician.

Johnson says his priorities are to reduce testing, to have DPI support local districts’ initiatives, and to use technology to personalize education.

“Testing is something we’re hearing real complaints about, from students being over-stressed, teachers not having enough time to teach in the classroom, they’re so focused on testing,” he said.

Local school leaders with ideas should get more support from DPI, Johnson says. “Good local leaders know what their schools need,” he said.

Sills wants to reduce testing and teacher paperwork, increase expectations of students and conduct a “housecleaning” at DPI.

Sills, who says he’d be a fighter for teachers and would work with the State Board of Education, the legislature, the governor and DPI to develop policies that will help students.

Drawing on his own experiences, Sills says he has had seniors in his class who did not know how to use decimals or write a strong sentence.

“We ought to go back to putting students first and go back to student-centered instruction, and give teachers the resources to do that,” he said.

Stein wants schools to stop using Common Core standards and adopt a classical curriculum. She would use the office to encourage parents to engage in their children’s education, she says.

In most cases, local school districts make decisions on curriculum. Stein says she would use her influence to get districts to adopt “an absolutely fantastic curriculum to develop those children to be thinkers.”

She praised the curriculum used at Thales Academy, a private school, and at Roger Bacon Academy, a charter school in Wilmington.

Stein says Common Core is not developmentally appropriate because it asks young children to analyze written passages before they’re ready.

Atkinson, who has held the office since 2005, wants to “uplift teachers in the classroom” with improved salaries and working conditions, increase reading achievement of third-grade students, and change the testing system.

The improved working conditions would include professional development and support for the school technology plan.

She wants summer reading camps, which help improve student literacy, expanded to include children preparing to enter first grade.

“Ultimately, it will have a good payoff for the state,” she said.

Pankey, a high school assistant principal, is running as a school turnaround expert with a plan to improve low-performing schools.

“I’ve done it,” said Pankey, who was recognized in the late 1990s for improvements at Durham’s Southern High School.

“I have very, very strong feelings about the education of children and how children are treated,” he said. “The shortest distance between poor and middle class is a good education.”

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 Board of Education in 2014.

Family: Wife, Rachel, and one daughter.

Website: www.reMARKableschoolsNC.com

J. Wesley Sills

Age: 34

Education: UNC Wilmington. Classes at Fayetteville State University, University of Phoenix and N.C. State University to earn his secondary education license.

Professional experience: High school social studies teacher, former yacht crewman.

Political resume: Chairman of the Harnett County GOP, 2015.

Family: Wife, Laurie; infant daughter.

Website: www.jwesleysills.org

Rosemary Stein

Age: 51

Education: Bachelor’s and medical degree, Universidad Nacional Pedro Henriquez Urena in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Professional experience: Owns International Family Clinic, a pediatrics practice in Burlington.

Political resume: Former member, Alamance Community College board of trustees.

Family: Husband, David; 16-year-old daughter.

Website: www.drrosemarystein.com

June Atkinson

Age: 67

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

Professional experience: State superintendent since 2005; administrator at DPI since 1976; former teacher in Charlotte and Virginia.

Political resume: Seeking fourth term in office.

Family: Husband, William Gurley.

Website: www.drjuneatkinson.com

Henry J. Pankey

Age: 64

Education: UNC School of the Arts; master’s, University of Maryland; graduate diploma, Brooklyn College.

Professional experience: Assistant principal, Glenn High School in Kernersville. Has worked in schools since 1978. Former principal, Southern High School in Durham.

Political resume: First run for office.

Family: Wife, Aleyah; children ages 30, 22 and 15.

Website: www.henryjpankey.com