Superintendent of Schools Dr. June Atkinson speaks out amid criticism of her department

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Superintendent of Schools Dr. June Atkinson sat down with ABC11 to spell out four steps she says could turn failing schools around. (WTVD)

Two weeks after announcing that 29 percent of North Carolina grade schools had gotten Ds and Fs on a new, state-wide grading scale, Superintendent of Schools Dr. June Atkinson sat down with ABC11 to spell out four steps she says could turn those failing schools around.

Atkinson is pushing universal preschool, teacher pay incentives to draw the best teachers in the state to struggling schools, flexible school year calendars to let failing schools add days or spread them out more evenly over the year, and expanded summer reading camps for younger and more kids.

"We need to have a substantial amount of money that would allow teachers who go to schools receiving Ds and Fs much more money than they are being paid today," said Atkinson. "We need to provide support to those teachers through professional development. The teacher is the key."

That notion finds little resistance, even among critics of the current system.

"Priority number one is to ensure you get good teachers in the classroom," said Mitch Kokai with the conservative John Lock Foundation, "and that's why differentiated pay is so important. School systems ought to be able to pay a lot more money for the teachers who we know are good and who are then willing to work in these schools that have poor grades."

However, whether Atkinson gets the chance to implement her ideas may depend on the fate of a bill introduced in the Senate earlier this week. The Republican-backed bill would change the superintendent's position from elected to appointed. The bill would turn the Department of Public Instruction into the Department of Education with a cabinet-level appointee at the helm.

"It simplifies the process," said Kokai.

Conservative groups have long advocated fewer elected positions and fewer places for the buck to stop.

"Since the governor is the main person setting policy for the state," Kokai said, "why not have the top education person under the governor? Who do we hold accountable? Is it the Superintendent of Public Instruction? Well, not really, because the superintendent doesn't really set the policy. The governor appoints the Board of Education. The Board of Education sets the policy. The Superintendent has to follow the policy set by the Board so you have people who could potentially work at cross purposes."

For her part, Atkinson doesn't seem too worried about the change.

"This bill to make the superintendent an appointed position has been swirling in North Carolina for a long, long time," she said.

Moving the superintendent's job to an appointed position would take a constitutional amendment, which would mean voters actively giving up the right to choose who heads education in the state; that's something Atkinson thinks Tar Heel voters will be reluctant to do.

Moreover, Atkinson says there are good reasons to have a separately elected head of education.

"When a state superintendent is appointed," she said, "it does take away some of the independence of the superintendent to speak for children. The elected superintendent can be very forthright in advancing the needs of our children and how to address those needs."

Atkinson says she'll keep pushing her ideas in the legislature and with Gov. Pat McCrory's education team. She says she sees common ground in the ideas of expanding the summer reading programs and incentive pay.

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