N.C. Superintendent of Schools June Atkinson came to Johnston County Oct. 9 to urge state lawmakers to invest in education. But the format of her appearance later met with criticism from a state senator.
Atkinson spoke at “Stand Up for Students,” put on by an advocacy group called Public Schools First NC. Former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge moderated the panel. Atkinson was the keynote speaker. Also on the panel were Johnston Superintendent of Schools Ed Croom and David Johnson, president of Johnston Community College.
The speakers bemoaned spending cuts in education, low teacher salaries and a lack of funding for pre-kindergarten programs in Johnston, a fast-growing county.
Atkinson highlighted her goals for the state’s public schools. She wants them to graduate 100 percent of their students, 90 percent without remediation. Also, she wants North Carolina to become an international leader in reading and math while offering training that employers demand.
Atkinson gave six ways to invest in education, starting by raising teacher salaries. She cited a recent survey that said 81 percent of North Carolinians support increasing teacher salaries, which rank 46th in the nation.
“I believe that it is critical that North Carolina invest in its teachers through higher salaries and through a greater respect,” Atkinson said. “It’s important regardless of our political affiliation, regardless of how we view the world.”
Public Schools First billed the event as a forum, but it chose and asked the only questions. N.C. Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Republican who represents Johnston, Harnett and Lee counties, said he attended the forum hoping for an open dialogue but found none.
“I could not in good conscience say I thought that forum was geared toward any kind of discussion, because everybody there supported one point of view, there was no dissent, and all the questions were preselected,” he said. “There was no real openness, as I think there should be in a forum.”
Rabin said he attended the forum to listen, not to speak. But he said a discussion should include all points of view.
Rabin said he supports higher teacher pay and a focus on pre-kindergarten education, but he and Atkinson disagree on how to accomplish those goals.
“I don’t think that there’s a senator that I know who doesn’t agree that teacher salaries should be increased, and I would probably guess that in the next budget that will happen,” Atkinson said. “But we just tend to disagree on some of the key issues and what is keeping our education process from working better than it is. I personally don’t think that the answer is more money.”
In addition to paying teachers more, Atkinson wants North Carolina to spend more on early childhood education so that all children enter kindergarten on equal footing.
Also, she wants North Carolina to “stay the course” on the new Common Core education standards, which set a higher bar for students. Early on with Common Core, tests scores will be lower, she said, but students and teachers will quickly rise to the challenge.
Atkinson wants North Carolina to get out the mindset that says students must master all subjects before advancing to the next grade. She can foresee the day when a student might be at the fourth-grade level in science but seventh-grade level in social studies, for example.
Finally, Atkinson said the schools must continue using technology to help teach, and they should give students more options, including more online courses and “schools within schools” that focus on a specific subject.
“The big notion is that Johnston County and all of the other 99 counties will be in a much better place economically if we bite the bullet and invest in our public schools to the level that we need to do,” Atkinson said.
The other panel members agreed with Atkinson’s premise and described how recent funding cuts are affecting the county. Rich Nixon, president of Johnston County Association of Educators, described the toll on teachers from the salary freeze, the loss of tenure and the loss of increased pay for master’s degrees. He likened teacher morale to a Rocky Balboa quote: “It’s not how hard you can hit; it’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
Croom sought to assure the crowd that “the sky is not falling.” Though times are tough, he said the county’s educators are following the advice his father, a teacher, gave him: “Take what you have and you make the most of it.”