Mostly a Soapbox: Morgan, Atkinson Vie for Superintendent Job
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
The candidates for state superintendent of public instruction promise that their backgrounds and expertise can make the most of a job with no power or management duties.
Republican Richard Morgan, of the Moore County community of Eagle Springs, and Democratic incumbent June Atkinson, of Cary, come at the job from different perspectives.
Atkinson, 60, is a former teacher who retired from the state Department of Public Instruction as director of instructional services. She uses the superintendent's office to talk to the public about ways to improve education.
"I brought to the forefront of many people that we must improve our graduation rate," she said.
Morgan, 56, a former co-speaker of the state House, said his long career in politics makes him the best candidate to serve as a liaison to legislators, who decide how much state money to devote to education. "The value of having put together at least 18 budgets makes me uniquely qualified," he said.
Though the title "state superintendent" gives the impression that the holder plays some management role, the office is little more than a soapbox. The state superintendent has no legal authority to run the state Department of Public Instruction.
In recent history, the state's governors have been the drivers on major education matters. The governor appoints most of the State Board of Education members. The board hired J.B. Buxton, a former aide to Gov. Mike Easley, as its deputy superintendent. Buxton, who lost to Atkinson in the 2004 Democratic primary, runs the department.
Atkinson serves as an education ambassador, speaking at forums and visiting schools. She said she's worked to rally business support for schools and students. She has traveled the state to talk about the importance of preparing students to succeed in the global economy and making courses relevant to life outside the classroom.
Morgan said he would bring a different approach to the job because he knows legislators, legislative staff and the budget process. For two years, he shared leadership duties with former Democratic Speaker Jim Black, but became the center of a GOP feud that resulted in his expulsion from the state party's executive committee. He lost in a primary in 2006, and several of his Republican allies also lost their seats.
While he had power, Morgan froze out GOP House members who didn't side with him, assigned them to tiny, windowless offices and gave them committee assignments they did not want.
Black resigned office in disgrace and is serving time in federal prison for public corruption. House Democrats have tried to distance themselves from an episode that holds bad memories. Morgan's history could make for a complicated relationship with legislators should he come back as a petitioner for education rather than a power broker.
Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, the leader of House Republicans, refused to talk about Morgan.
"I went four years without making any public statements to anybody about Speaker Morgan," he said. "I'm going to decline to answer questions about that race."
Rep. Linda Johnson, a Kannapolis Republican who is a vice chairwoman of the House subcommittee on education spending, said Morgan would help the deliberations.
"Legislatively, he knows how things are handled," she said.
Morgan dismissed the idea that bad blood from his years in the House leadership would have repercussions.
"I'd like to think and believe that I do have friends in the legislature," he said. "I talked to many more of them while not in office than the current superintendent, I would bet."
Atkinson talks not about the legislators, but about the schools she visits and the principals and teachers she meets. She wants the state to set a timetable that would lead to all students finishing high school.
"We need to set benchmarks to fulfill the mission," she said, "or our chances of having a higher graduation rate will be overlooked."
Atkinson is participating in the state's public financing system for campaigns, agreeing to limit her fundraising and spending. Campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections show Morgan raised $2,600 for the race through the end of June, and lent his campaign $100,000. Atkinson had raised about $149,000.
Here are the answers Morgan and Atkinson gave to four questions during interviews:
Q: What would you do to make the job more relevant to shaping education policy?
Atkinson: "I would amend state law ... (to make) it very clear that the state superintendent runs the Department of Public Instruction, and as the law says today, the superintendent would be responsible for carrying out the educational policies of the State Board of Education.
"I have enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the State Board of Education. I have been pleased with their willingness to listen to my major recommendations about policies. But I think it would be better for public education, ultimately, to have the state superintendent in charge of running the Department of Public Instruction."
Morgan: "We need to improve our governance system. Everyone in the General Assembly has heard it. We have too many players in the decision-making process in public schools."
(Morgan's initial answer was to have the governor appoint the superintendent, but he modified that view later, acknowledging that voters want to keep electing people to the office.)
Q: What is one specific thing you would do to change how the department operates?
Atkinson: "I would not make any drastic changes. People in the department have gone through reorganization for the past two years, and we are at the point where we need to have stability and the continuation of our focus on school and district support, curriculum revision, information technology systems development.
Morgan: "We hear 'dysfunctional' everywhere. Perhaps there is a little too much finger-pointing and playing the blame game going on in DPI. If I had my way about it, there would be no place for partisan politics and partisan games."
Q: Should teachers who specialize in teaching math or science make more money than other teachers?
Atkinson: "On the surface, to say that we would have a market-driven teacher pay sounds great, but then the problem is that our children aren't divided, with one part ... that the math teacher takes care of and the other part of the student that the science teacher takes care of. We really want to look at the child as a whole, and all of those teachers in a school have some part in student achievement."
Morgan: "Of course. You need to pay teachers more in subjects where it's hard to find teachers to teach it."
Q: Should teachers who agree to teach in low-performing schools be paid more?
Atkinson: "I do support that you pay more teachers at a higher salary schedule if they go to a struggling school or a hard-to-serve school. I think that is equitable and that is a way to get teachers who are willing to take on more difficult assignments."
Morgan: "I'm inclined to agree with that. Teachers that are willing to go into a troubled area, much like the Teach for America program, I'd want to pay them more."
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