The candidates for governor and president are citing education as one of this election year’s major issues.
On July 17, Republican voters in North Carolina have an opportunity to make a statement about the direction the state’s public schools will take in coming years.
John Tedesco, a member of the Wake County School Board, and educator Richard Alexander will face off in a runoff election for the right to face incumbent NC Department of Public Instruction superintendent June Atkinson in November.
Tedesco says current discussions about public education are missing the mark:
“Per-pupil expenditures is the wrong paradigm on education spending. There is this perpetual call for more and more money. Over the past thirty years, education spending has TRIPLED while outcomes have flat-lined. The money to get the job done is already there. We need to refocus the discussion toward using the money we have WISER. ‘’
On his campaign web site, Tedesco outlines a “4×4 structural plan” – which focuses on areas such as (1) building a better educated workforce, (2) protecting, developing and empowering teachers, (3) reinforcing the basics and innovating forward, and (4) empowering parents and strengthening communities – that he plans to use as an agenda for his tenure as state schools superintendent.
Tedesco says public education is in need of serious reform:
“We’ve got a lot of junk going on in the classroom. We’ve got bureaucrats in one county talking about how many chicken nuggets a kid has. In another county, we’ve got a teacher screaming at her kids about being arrested for criticizing Obama. While all of this is going on, two-thirds of kids who graduate from North Carolina high schools and go on to community college need remedial instruction. We need to make sure that a high school diploma actually means something in North Carolina. We’ve got to get back to the basics in the classroom while continuing to innovate.’’
Tedesco says the successes of the Wake County public schools, where he is serving on the school board, are a model for the rest of the state. The system has 165 schools, more than 18,000 employees and a $1.5 billion budget. (The candidate noted that Wake County, one of the nation’s largest urban-centered school systems, has the third best graduation rate within that group.)
Tedesco says the Wake board cut millions from the bureaucracy and passed those savings on to in-classroom instructional activities:
“We consolidated administrative offices and facilities. We outsourced the parts operation for the school buses, and renegotiated cell phone contracts. We didn’t have to cut a single teacher. In fact, we were able to award bonuses for teachers. We found these savings, and put more money to areas that really needed it, without having to go to the county for one dime.’’
Tedesco says one of the board’s biggest achievements was pushing through reforms of the Wake County schools student assignment process:
“We passed the nation’s largest parental choice program. The concept of neighborhood schools has come back. It’s what the community wanted. We took the power away from the bureaucracy and back into the hands of parents – who truly know what’s best for their kids.’’
Tedesco notes that the school system’s auditor described the system’s most recent audit as “the best in twenty years.’’
The Wake County Republican says that – if elected – he has a number of concerns he would like to partner with the governor and legislature on:
“I’d like to see the role of the superintendent strengthened. I’d like to see the superintendent empowered to reduce bureaucracy and increase local control of schools.
I’d like to see more competitive wages for teachers. That’s the way you retain top talent – by paying competitive wages.
I’d also like to have local boards more involved in decisions like setting the school year calendar. Currently, the state requires a set number of instructional days. That creates problems for more metropolitan districts like Wake County, where we have a mixture of year-round and traditional schools. We’ve got a lot of households where both parents work – and they really appreciate the year-round option. Of course, more rural districts – where farming is important – and coastal districts – where tourism is key – have different concerns. ‘’
Tedesco cautions conservatives to back away from calls to gut or eliminate the Department of Public Instruction:
“This is a state’s rights issue for me. If you weaken the department or eliminate it, you increase the power and influence of federal bureaucrats within North Carolina’s schools. To me, that’s not a good thing.’’
Tedesco realizes that his reform agenda will likely result in a culture clash with the Raleigh establishment and the teachers union. He says he knows some will hold the fact that he is not a public schools teacher against him. Tedesco points to the Wake Board’s decision to hire retired Army general Tony Tata as the superintendent of schools:
“A board member from the other side of the aisle said ‘It’s clear he knows how to shoot and kill people. He’s not an educator. Does he know anything about running a school system?’ I told her ‘We’ve got plenty of teachers already. He’s got a proven record as a leader. That’s what this system needs — now more than ever — a leader.’ That’s what I hope to bring to the Department of Public Instruction — strong, principled leadership.”