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Tedesco faces tight GOP superintendent runoff

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When Wake County Republicans gather these days, they cheer the loudest for their school board members, spear-carriers in a war against—a favorite GOP term—social engineering. (Also known to them as busing, a bad word. Or as busing for diversity, another bad word.) They reserve their very loudest cheers for the voluble leader of their school board contingent, John Tedesco.

So it wouldn't be surprising if Tedesco were the least popular school board member with pro-diversity Democrats, especially given that he is also an upstart candidate for the Republican nomination for state superintendent of public instruction—a contest in which the winner will go against a popular Democratic incumbent, June Atkinson.

Tedesco, 37, was unknown when he ran for the school board three years ago, but he's been in the headlines ever since. He was the top vote-getter for superintendent in the first GOP primary in May, finishing ahead of four other candidates. But he fell far short of the 40 percent needed to win the nomination outright, with 28 percent. His July 17 runoff election against runner-up Richard Alexander, who got 24 percent, is a battle of self-styled conservatives and the most interesting of the four statewide runoffs on the Republican side. (See side bar at right.) Early voting begins this week.

It's interesting because Tedesco is a bundle of contradictions. In Mitt Romney's party, he's a Republican who grew up poor, answers questions at warp speed, and comes across like the last place he'd want to be is a country club. He can be bombastic. He can also talk compromise. He opposes higher taxes, but he wants more resources devoted to teaching kids, especially those who are low-income and who struggle to learn. He supports charter schools and "choice," meaning taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. But he knows that the majority of students, including most of the kids in need, attend traditional public schools.

"I support choice," he says. "But within that choice, I choose working to improve our public schools."

Tedesco prides himself on speaking—and saying the same things—to tea party audiences and NAACP meetings alike. He tells both about the pernicious effects of high suspension rates in the schools, especially for black male students, and how suspensions lead to dropouts and feed the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

His tone differs before Republican audiences; he emphasizes to them how wasteful it is pouring taxes into bad schools. "But I tell everybody that if you're not willing to invest $8,500 a year on the education of a child, you're setting yourself up to spend $35,000 on the incarceration of a man."

Tedesco decries the polarization of politics and the red-blue, Republican-Democratic divide. His role model is Ronald Reagan, a principled conservative who listened to, and often learned from, liberal friends like Ted Kennedy and Tip O'Neill. Partly, he says, listening is a matter of self-interest. "If we don't listen to the other side," he asks, "how do we share our views with them?"

Thus, while Tedesco is poison for many Democrats, he's also the only Republican school board member who regularly communicates with any of the five Democrats who now constitute the new board majority, after two years of Republican control.

Case in point: The Democrats struggled late last Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning over the wording of their resolution calling for fundamental changes in the student assignment policy—the thorny issue that has long fired up Republican audiences. And there was Tedesco huddled with Democrat Keith Sutton, the two exchanging whispered ideas about language all nine board members could support.

Sutton is the board's vice chair and its only black member. He and Tedesco are occasional allies, especially regarding the work of a special task force they created to help economically disadvantaged students.

They didn't quite agree on the assignment resolution. Tedesco failed to persuade Sutton that it shouldn't emphasize a new "address-based" assignment policy, one that would account for diversity ("socioeconomic factors") while linking every home to a specific base school at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

The resolution, adopted by a 5-4 vote with the Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed, calls on Superintendent Tony Tata to start on a new plan by September.

Instead, Tedesco wanted language that would have allowed Tata to offer incremental changes to the controlled-choice plan the Republicans voted to adopt last year, before the Democrats regained control of the board. Regardless of what the Democrats or Tata do next, the controlled-choice plan will be in effect for at least the 2012–13 school year.

Under controlled-choice, every student is presented with a list of five or more nearby schools and asked to rank them in order of preference. Most students, but not all, are assigned to their first- or second-choice schools according to a formula that considers such factors as whether the student lives within 1.5 miles of a preferred school or has a sibling already in the school.

With controlled-choice, there are no base school assignments and—thus far—no diversity standard. Democrats worry that as the controlled-choice plan has unfolded, parents are self-selecting into "have" and "have not" schools because their lists of proximate schools (and their economically segregated neighborhoods) are pulling them apart.

Sutton did change his resolution a bit to suggest a hybrid approach that would "integrate the best practices and strategies" of controlled-choice plans and base-assignment plans.

It's not clear how, or even if, the two seemingly contradictory approaches might be integrated. But if they can, Tedesco could play a key role. Never uncomfortable with contradictions, he was the initial driving force behind the adoption of controlled-choice as a compromise between the address-based plans, with diversity emphasized and which the Democrats liked, and a pure "neighborhood schools" approach—no diversity—that most Republicans wanted.

The controlled-choice compromise passed in 2011 by a 7-2 vote, with two Democrats who are no longer on the board joining Tedesco and his fellow Republicans to approve it.

Ironically, Tedesco, as he watched the Democrats vote to scrap controlled-choice, was reminded of how the Republicans roared in and ripped diversity out of student assignment almost before their seats were warm. The result was two years of political chaos that ended with their political defeat.

"Learn from our mistakes," Tedesco advised the Democratic board. "Let's put down our swords and work together for a win-win solution."

It was statesmanlike Tedesco at work.

So will Tedesco be on hand to help craft another compromise to the student assignment wars in Wake? Or will he win his runoff and, by September, be in the midst of a statewide campaign with a chance to unseat DPI Superintendent Atkinson?

On Thursday, Tedesco sat down with the Indy to talk about Wake issues and his runoff campaign. They were like two sides of the same coin. Around here, Tedesco is viewed as a conservative ideologue. But statewide, he says, he's trying to fend off his opponent's charge that he's really a "progressive Republican," with moderate tendencies that would cause him to, well, compromise with a Democrat.

Tedesco's opponent, Richard Alexander, lives in Union County, outside of Charlotte, and teaches special-education students in Lancaster, S.C. A more rigid conservative, Alexander also stands for more charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools. Alexander goes further, though, calling for elimination of the federal Department of Education and most of the state Department of Public Instruction.

What's left of DPI should be headed by a gubernatorial appointee, Alexander says, not by an elected Council of State member.Tedesco disagrees. He says DPI should be strengthened and needs "a strong, bold [elected] voice" at the top to bring conservative reforms to the schools. Tedesco maintains that he'll be heard in high Republican councils arguing for pro-schools policies and won't let himself be marginalized by skin-flint Republican legislators.

Alexander, he says, would be marginalized simply by the fact that he has no ambitions for his office.

Alexander's statement that Tedesco is a moderate, and not a true conservative, is premised on the fact that Tedesco, while on the school board, voted to accept federal funds passed through to Wake County from a "Race to the Top" grant obtained by the state DPI and Gov. Bev Perdue.

Ouch. What really concerns Tedesco, though, is that by an unlucky turn of events, there are no hot Republican runoffs in the Triangle, where he's been in the headlines a lot; there are three such runoffs in the western part of the state, where Alexander lives and Tedesco is virtually unknown.

The three congressional runoffs, for the GOP nominations in the Eighth, Ninth and 11th districts, are considered winnable by the GOP in November. So they're drawing lots of attention and advertising, and Tedesco worries that voter turnout for the Republicans around Charlotte could be two or three times greater than the turnout here.

If it is, it could doom his chances. Add the fact that Tedesco is running his campaign on a shoestring budget, with little help from those cheering Republicans, and the upshot is that Tedesco has no money to advertise in the Charlotte market. His most recent campaign finance report, dated April 30, shows that he had raised less than $7,000, including some $2,000 from personal funds. He says he's still short of raising even $10,000.

An obvious question for Tedesco is whether he's receiving any money from a nonprofit organization, called the N.C. Center for Education Reform, which he launched last year. The answer is no, he says. He's had little time to fundraise for it. And because he's campaigning virtually full-time except for school board business, he's chosen to draw no salary at all from the Center in 2012.

Thus, he said, he and his wife (they have one son) are living on her salary as a state health-care agency aide and his school board salary of $12,000. Combined, that's about $50,000. "A lot of families do fine on $50,000 a year," Tedesco says, shrugging. And no, he answers, laughing, there is no Art Pope propping him up—no rich Republican donor shoveling money into his campaign or his personal accounts.

But Tedesco is the eternal optimist. If he wins his runoff, it's on to statewide leadership. If not, he hopes he can help Wake County past its assignment wars and on to a successful school bond issue in 2013 that will be needed for any assignment plan to work. And he'll try to restart his nonprofit center.

"I'm passionate about fixing our schools," he says. "Other conservative leaders see education jobs as useless, which is exactly why I want them. Because the slow evolution of public education in this country is killing opportunities for too many kids, and we can do better."

Correction: John Tedesco and his wife have one son (not daughter).

This article appeared in print with the headline "No easy row for Tedesco."

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