Republican leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly are like kids turned loose in a candy store who have locked the door behind them. They can’t help themselves, and there seems to be no way to stop them from indulging to their hearts’ or their bellies’ content. But there’s going to be a lot of sick kids later.
And so there will be a lot of sickness among those kids in North Carolina’s public schools, and their families, when GOP lawmakers get through rearranging the power structure in public education. The goal is to award more power to the office of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. That would have been unthinkable, of course, with Democrat June Atkinson in the office. But in November, Atkinson, 68, lost her bid for another term to Republican Mark Johnson, a 33-year-old Winston-Salem attorney and local school board member.
So lawmakers are going to town on organizing public education, giving Johnson much more appointive power, even over the State Board of Education, which is run by Republicans. Johnson will have the education board’s authority over administration of public schools, and he’ll oversee the Office of Charter Schools, which had been held by the state board. He’ll be all-powerful when it comes to hiring and firing in the Department of Public Instruction, and he’ll appoint the superintendent of the lowest performing public schools, instead of that being done by the state board.
Lack of experience
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Johnson is genuinely earnest about public education, but he’s never been a superintendent, and he had two years as a member of the Teach for America corps in a Charlotte school before becoming a lawyer. And, his views on charters and vouchers, both of which he strongly favors, aren’t going to gain him the confidence of teachers, administrators and many parents.
The state superintendent traditionally has been an advocate for mainstream public schools, the ones to which most North Carolina families send their children. Charters, originally seen as laboratories to experiment with new curricula and scheduling, now have become for some conservatives an alternative to public schools, when in fact they are public schools. And yes, some work well and are what they were intended to be, places where teachers and parents can work together to try things like a longer school day, or more school instruction out of traditional classrooms.
But other charters have severe imbalance in racial and socioeconomic groups, and performance has been uneven. Republican lawmakers rushed to expand charters — and some advocates for all public schools suspected the push was designed in part to weaken regular public schools, since charters do drain money from the overall public education budget. GOP lawmakers, excepting a teacher pay raise in an election year, have shown little interest in — and sometimes contempt for — public school advocates.
Johnson, a self-assured young conservative, needs to keep his mind open regarding charters, and to listen to those who are worried about the impact they’re having.
As for his pro-voucher stance, that’s even more problematic, because with a superintendent of their own party in place, Republican lawmakers will look to Johnson to back them up when they move, as they surely will, to expand the voucher program. Though they started the program under the cover of making lower-income families the first to be eligible, it’s no secret on Jones Street that conservatives would like to expand the voucher program to almost everyone.
The restructuring of the lines of authority in public education reflects, of course, the general push by Republicans to strengthen their political and ideological views in practice, not just theory. They’re moving to weaken the governor’s office, soon to be occupied by a Democrat. And, though the district lines they prefer for their own seats and those of members of Congress are under serious constitutional challenge, they’ll continue to skew the lines, and the voters, in their favor.
But bringing ideology into the debate over public education is damaging to a system that changed North Carolina for the better over 100 years. Now, it seems Republican leaders just want to change it to their liking. That’s ironic, since they don’t seem to like it much at all.