Elect 2012: Tedesco calls for flexibility, local control
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY - John Tedesco, Republican candidate for state schools superintendent, says he wants to bring an outsider's perspective to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Tedesco, a member of the Wake County School Board, stopped by the Rowan Public Library headquarters on Thursday to greet early voters and tell them why he's running.
His Democratic opponent, Raleigh resident June Atkinson, is the current state superintendent. Before her election in 2004 and re-election in 2008, Atkinson worked for the Department of Public Instruction for nearly 28 years.
"She's been there as part of that bureaucracy since 1976, so it's part of her whole frame of reference," Tedesco said. "I've led on a local school board, so I know the burden of what Raleigh does to the local school districts."
Tedesco, of Garner, was elected in 2009 and served as the school board's vice chair in 2011. He said he leads a system with 169 schools, a $1.4 billion budget, 150,000 children and 18,000 employees.
As state superintendent, he said he wants to direct money away from administration at the state level and toward the classroom, giving local school boards more flexibility.
"Those dollars are better spent in Rowan County schools than in a 'pink palace' in Raleigh," he said, referring to the state's distinctive public instruction building.
Tedesco said local officials best know the needs of their schools, and they might look very different from the needs in other parts of North Carolina. Plans that work for children on the coast may not help them in the mountains or the Piedmont, he said, and teachers should have the freedom to educate their students in different ways.
"One in eight teachers are leaving the profession, and they're talking about the sheer amount of cumbersome bureaucracy that they have to deal with," he said. "They spend more time jumping through hoops in Raleigh and Washington than teaching anymore. That's hurting our kids."
Tedesco said he and the other board members successfully cut the school system's budget by more than $100 million while giving teachers more money and resources.
He also spearheaded a school choice plan that has been at the center of a high-profile national controversy.
The plan, supported by Republicans and approved in March 2010 by a 5-4 vote, removes the link between students' addresses and their school assignments, instead relying on a system where children and their parents rank nearby schools in order of preference.
The state chapter of the NAACP filed a civil rights complaint and held two protests against the plan, saying it would resegregate the schools. Other opponents said it would create an imbalance among the schools and a disadvantage for low-income and minority students. One superintendent resigned in 2011 in protest of the new school assignment process, and his successor was fired in September by a (newly Democratic) majority of the school board.
Tedesco said Thursday that the Wake County system had been growing so fast that students faced "constant reshuffling" as the assignments were rebalanced for diversity.
"A child could go to one school for second grade, one school for third and another school for fourth," Tedesco said.
He argued that the new plan, which became effective in the 2011-12 school year, has not hurt economically disadvantaged students. In fact, he said, new efforts to reach those students through alternative schools and programs have actually helped their performance.
Giving parents choices empowers them, he said, and keeps them engaged in their children's education. He said competition should be encouraged with new ventures like charter schools, but as a student of public schools, Tedesco also said he wants to focus on meeting their needs.
Tedesco supports expanding vocational programs, apprenticeships and early college opportunities.
He also said he wants to end "social promotions" that move up underperforming K-12 students, instead making sure they can successfully read, write and do math at grade level.
Tedesco earned a bachelor's degree in political science with a concentration in public administration from Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., just north of where he grew up in the Pittsburgh area.
He now lives in Garner with his wife, Jennifer, and their son Gabriel.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.