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North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson doesn’t necessarily think anyone is out to dismantle public education in the state. But if they were, she says there are certain things they would do. And some of them are happening right now. 

“I do believe that most of the people in the General Assembly believe in public education,” she said. “However, I find it troubling some of the trends that I see happening.” 

I sat down with Superintendent Atkinson recently to get her take on many things, including the governor’s proposed budget, Common Core, and the Republican-led legislature’s actions on education.

During our talk, she identified several trends she thinks are hurting public schools.

She says minimizing leadership hurts the public schools. She noted a few ways this could happen, including cutting the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and cutting central office staff, both of which are proposed under the governor’s budget. Under the governor’s plan, local school administrative central offices would get a 2 percent cut, and DPI would get a 10 percent cut. That’s on top of the 10 percent cut lawmakers gave DPI last year.

“One way is to squeeze the resources so that you render the people doing the best job that they can ineffective because they’re job is too big.”

She says squeezing school resources also hurts public schools. Atkinson says she hears all the time from parents that they are sending their children to private school or homeschooling them because they want a low teacher/student ratio. 

“One way is to squeeze the resources so that you render the people doing the best job that they can ineffective because their job is too big,” she said. “Too many students. Too many challenges in the classroom.” 

Not being able to compare results between schools also hurts public schools. She notes the voucher (also known as opportunity scholarships) program now before the state Supreme Court.

The voucher program provides money to certain students to attend private school. But private schools don’t receive letter grades and some don’t administer proficiency exams, two ways that the state tracks the quality of public schools. 

“You don’t have a consistent measure in order for parents to make the best decision,” Atkinson said. 

Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget

The day I met with Superintendent Atkinson was the same day the governor released his proposed budget, and she did see a number of positive signs in his education budget, including money for textbooks, digital learning resources, and instructional materials. 

“I hear as I travel throughout North Carolina… that really is a big issue,” she said. “They need resources to do a great job of teaching kids.”

She was also pleased that the governor included money to raise starting teacher pay to $35,000, and put more teachers into the classroom. 

“I do think that all of those are steps in the right direction,” she said. “But we need resources to be able to continue on the journey.” 

“[W]e need resources to continue the journey.” She notes that during the last 10 years, the state has managed to increase the percent of students taking advanced placement courses, achieved the highest graduation rate in its history, and reached its lowest dropout rate ever.

She notes that during the last 10 years, the state has managed to increase the percent of students taking advanced placement courses, achieved the highest graduation rate in its history, and reached its lowest dropout rate ever. And those are just some of the ways in which the state has improved. More resources are needed from the state to keep achieving these kinds of successes.

“We are reaping the benefits of investments made 10 years ago, nine years ago, eight years ago,” she said. 

On the cuts to DPI, Atkinson said the governor’s proposed reductions don’t make sense. 

She notes that under DPI’s leadership North Carolina was one of the first states in the nation to develop a comprehensive system to improve struggling schools, which has helped increase graduation rates, and one of the first in the nation to have a comprehensive teacher evaluation system. And those are just two of the examples she gave.

“In some respects, having a reduction is … to punish success,” she said. 

She went on to say that DPI was supposed to lose many positions in the department over the last five years, but managed to save many of them with federal Race to the Top funds. But those funds end in August, and the department will lose more than 120 positions. 

Common Core

Atkinson is disturbed by the debate over Common Core state standards in North Carolina. 

“I’m troubled by people saying that we just need to get rid of the standards,” she said. “Especially when that thrust is based on erroneous information, such as Obama made us do it.”

She said the issue has been painted as one of federal overreach, which she says is far from the truth. The federal government didn’t make North Carolina do anything. The State Board of Education — a state Constitutional body, she points out — adopted them. 

“I find it very very hypocritical for some people to say, for other states to say, we need to get rid of the Common Core,” she said. “My recommendation would be why don’t you stick to your own state, because this is a state right’s issue.”

This is a state right’s issue. 

The General Assembly created a commission last session — the Academic Standards Review Commission — to recommend to the State Board of Education a replacement for Common Core. Two big complaints voiced at the commission have been that the standards are confusing and not developmentally appropriate. 

On the issue of confusion, Atkinson said that it is up to state education officials and staff to help put the standards in language parents can understand. But the standards weren’t written with parents in mind. They were written for professionals to understand. 

And Atkinson doesn’t buy the argument that the standards aren’t developmentally appropriate. 

She said that they are a broad benchmark. It’s up to educators on the ground to see where a student is in his or her learning trajectory. 

“Anytime you adopt standards, what you are doing, you are adopting standards that the typical student at this age level would be able to attain. And it’s up to the teacher in the classroom to discern when students are ready for those standards,” she said. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.