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Republican voters face unpredictable choices for superintendent

The three Republicans running for state Superintendent of Public Instruction share several common traits as candidates: Each is a newcomer to statewide politics. Each draws on his or her own life experiences in defining an approach to schooling. And each strays, here and there, from the prevailing GOP education message.

Whichever candidate wins the Republican primary next Tuesday will emerge as an underdog to incumbent Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson in the November general election. Atkinson, who has survived political tussles with both Democrats and Republicans and is seeking her fourth term, is expected to win her party’s re-nomination against Henry Pankey, a high school assistant principal.

The clamor of presidential politics has made it difficult for citizens outside of the GOP intraparty and social media networks to get to know the Republican superintendent candidates. Nevertheless, they present primary voters with a fascinating choice, in terms of both policy and personality.

Rosemary Stein, 51, is a pediatrician who has a family clinic practice with her husband in Burlington. The daughter of Dominican immigrants, she attended a public school in Queens, N.Y. This pediatrician-candidate argues that education should align with the stages of child development.

In the online interview with EdNC, Stein said she opposed Common Core because “it does not meet the development of the child.” She favors “educational choice” as a “fantastic thing.” And, she said, she wants to make public schools excellent enough to compete with homeschools and private schools.

Stein speaks favorably of “classical education” in terms of phonics and math instruction in the way she was taught in school. It’s a different message from Gov. Pat McCrory’s emphasis on job-oriented education to close the “skills gap.” And while McCrory and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest argue that the teacher-attrition issue is overblown, Stein said, “We’ve not been messaging well as a state as to all the positive things so that perhaps that’s why there is so much attrition and we’re losing a lot of teachers.”

J. Wesley Sills, a 34-year-old Harnett County social studies teacher, comes across as a plain-spoken educator and politician with a lot of opinions drawn from his classroom experiences. The “personal statement” and “policy positions” sections of his campaign website are long reads. He assigns students Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly’s books Kill Lincoln and Kill Kennedy.

In his interview with EdNC, Sills spoke forcefully as a product of and advocate for public education. He said he is “not at war” with charter schools, and indeed would like traditional public schools to have the flexibility afforded charters. Then, he added, “As Republicans and conservatives, we don’t want a lot of government bureaucracy; with charter schools, we have created one more layer of bureaucracy.”

He spoke in favor of increased rigor, but not Common Core. He said he would lobby for a return of Teaching Fellows, which the Republican-controlled General Assembly dismantled. And he supported early-grade teacher assistants as reading aides. Without mentioning state Sen. Phil Berger by name, though indirectly referring to a comment by the Senate Republican leader, Sills said, “I support having elementary assistant teachers take classes to be more of a reading coach. That way, they’re not as useless as typewriters as some politicians like to say, sadly in my own party.”

Mark Johnson, 32, grew up in Louisiana, got in-the-classroom experience in Teach for America, and graduated from the University of North Carolina law school. Two years ago, he was elected to the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board. In contrast to Sills, Johnson has a website of succinct synthesis: three campaign themes, each in one direct statement.

Johnson, who did not do an EdNC interview, lines up with Lt. Gov. Forest for expanding digital technology in classrooms. And, while Republican legislators drive education policy from Raleigh, Johnson, a school board member, advocates relying more on local leadership and responsibility, enabled with state assistance.

In addition, Johnson has said he wants to strengthen professional development for teachers. He also has called for a judicious backing away from “over-testing,” not to get rid of standardized tests, but to use tests more to give teachers guidance in teaching individual students, and less as a way to judge schools and teachers.

As first-time candidates, these young Republicans are rather untested and unpredictable in how they would respond to the pressures of a general election and, eventually, of a Cabinet-level office. Still, the three GOP contenders present a fascinating choice to voters in part because they are not altogether “on message” with the Raleigh Republican titans.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.