How we see N.C. superintendent primary races

The Observer editorial board

N.C. schools superintendent June Atkinson talks about public school letter grades in 2015.
N.C. schools superintendent June Atkinson talks about public school letter grades in 2015. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The 2016 race for N.C. superintendent of public instruction was supposed to be a wide open affair, with candidates from both parties raising their hands following the expected departure of June Atkinson.

But then Atkinson didn’t depart.

The three-term state superintendent surprised many in the education community last year by announcing she would run again. She’ll be opposed in the Democratic primary by Durham educator Henry Pankey.

In the Republican primary, Forsyth County school board member Mark Johnson, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher, is running against Alamance County physician Rosemary Stein and Harnett County teacher J. Wesley Sills.

Atkinson is the solid choice in the Democratic primary. As state superintendent, she’s offered a consistent voice for public education and educators, and she’s helped lead innovative efforts that have helped some low-performing schools through leadership coaching and instructional coaching. Those successes, while small so far, can and should be built upon.

We also like that Atkinson put Republican lawmakers on the spot recently by calling for them to pay teachers what they deserve with a 10 percent salary increase. If anything, that kind of boldness was overdue from the state superintendent, because it further pressures Republicans to explain why teachers don’t deserve pay that’s more in line with the U.S. average.

Pankey has history of turning around troubled schools. He began his career as a substitute teacher in New York City before rising to principal there. He moved to Durham in 1998 and helped lead school turnarounds there and in Forsyth County, where he was named the N.C. assistant principal of the year in 2012. Pankey, however, struggles to explain how he can precisely apply those successes statewide.

In the Republican primary, Stein brings an unusual background for a superintendent candidate. She comes from a family of educators, has worked for children both in her medical practice and on education boards and task forces, and has written books on parenting.

But she offers limited classroom and public school experience, and her candidacy seems more focused on education theory – she wants a return to phonics in N.C. schools, for example – than on the many issues facing public schools in the state.

Similarly, Sills’ experience is too narrow for the job. He has a clear passion for teaching but lacks the administrative experience the state superintendent job requires.

Johnson shows a clearer grasp of the issues facing districts and classrooms, in part from his experience as a teacher at West Charlotte High School. He wants to reduce testing and increase technology in classrooms, and his call for “bureaucrats” to have less influence in local schools should appeal to conservatives.

A note: In his primary campaign, Johnson has too often crossed the line from aggressive to abrasive by distorting Stein’s statements and policy positions. That might be a red flag for voters who don’t want the superintendent’s bully pulpit to be more bully than pulpit.

Johnson does have the more appropriate experience for the job, however. We recommend him in the Republican primary.