Legislators call to re-evaluate DPI’s role

June Atkinson speaks in an undated photo. Photo: DPI.

June Atkinson speaks in an undated photo. Photo: DPI.

RALEIGH – In the wake of a contentious Senate committee meeting Thursday, during which North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction Superintendent June Atkinson faced scrutiny from Senate leaders, some legislators are calling for a re-evaluation of DPI’s role in public education.

During the Education Oversight Committee meeting, Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake) questioned Atkinson about the agency’s request to use money intended for reading intervention programs to cover administrative salaries. The request was filed in January, despite warnings from the Office of State Budget and Management not to try to use classroom money for agency overhead.  In January, DPI requested to spend $2 million of Read to Achieve money to funding DPI headquarters positions that would have been cut.

“This is not a new phenomenon. This is a habit of the department ever since they received Race to the Top funds under Gov. (Beverly) Perdue, and now those funds are no longer available,” said House Education Chairman Jeffery Elmore (R-Wilkes). “What they did with that grant money is build up the DPI bureaucracy and now they are having trouble because we are not backfilling those funds.  It’s a perfect time to re-evaluate the role of the department.”

At issue are funds intended to expand reading intervention summer camps toward the legislative mandate that all third graders must read at grade level. The money was designated by the legislature to include more first and second graders in the camps in an effort to get them reading at grade level before the crisis point of third grade. Atkinson had assured legislators earlier in the year that DPI had no plans to try to divert instruction money toward headquarters salaries.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore

“It’s bad enough we have a Department of Public Instruction with priorities so misplaced that they proposed shifting money intended to help children around our state learn to read to fund Raleigh bureaucrats. But for the state Superintendent to then turn around, deny it, and attempt to cover their tracks is a textbook example of the lengths bloated bureaucracies will go to protect themselves,” said Berger.

The controversy of re-allocating instruction funds for department salaries comes as the new federal law Every Student Succeeds Act is being evaluated for compliance requirements by individual states. ESSA was signed into law in December and had bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.  It is a re-write of the No Child Left Behind Act and pushes more authority to the local level and limits federal influence in schools.

“They will do everything they can to maintain the large bureaucracy that they have even through its not necessary because the new federal law has lessened the requirements for it. We don’t need it,” said Elmore.  “This is a real opportunity to streamline and make changes in the system if there is a willingness to do it.”

DPI says they have filed a new proposal that does not move the funds, but the Office of Budget and Management confirmed in email that they have not received it as of Friday evening.  While the legislature is due back in Raleigh for the short session April 24, lawmakers are already meeting in oversight committees to determine what changes may need to be made to existing policy or departments. According to Jones Street insiders, this controversy may have bumped DPI to the top of the list.