Mark Johnson is a smart, savvy 32-year-old with lots of ideas about how North Carolina’s educational system ought to operate. Now he’ll be challenged to put those ideas into practice as he replaces three-term state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson. Johnson, a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board, defeated Atkinson on Nov. 8 in something of a surprise.
Johnson, an attorney who taught public school with the Teach for America program before entering law school, deserves credit for running an energetic campaign, and he made his fast-paced pitch to voters in every corner of the state. One priority: reducing testing, which Johnson believes is taking too much energy from teachers. Another: more help for local districts from DPI. And another: support for charter school expansion and a voucher program wherein public money goes to parents (for now, only to lower-income parents) who want to send their children to private school.
Atkinson was a sound superintendent with a genuine concern for teachers and students. She was tireless in making the case for public schools — mainstream public schools to which most North Carolina families send their children — to all who would listen.
Unfortunately, in recent years, those who listen hasn’t included Republican legislators now in charge. Atkinson has seen cuts in DPI’s budget and, as a Democrat, found not many sympathetic listeners in the General Assembly. Still, the state is in her debt for doing a tough job for a long time with grace and straightforwardness.
Johnson was moved by his Teach for America experiences with poor children who were in his classrooms. “I realized that opportunity is not available to every student in this country, and it needs to be,” he said.
That’s a productive attitude. And those would be good words for Johnson to hold on to in the months and years ahead.
Johnson now is the advocate for teachers and traditional public schools, and he needs to make the case for them at the General Assembly.
It won’t be an easy audience, but as a Republican and a lawyer by training, perhaps Johnson can build more support. Parents and students must hope that he will listen carefully to the capable staff at DPI, and to parents and yes, to students, to help him make that case.