Education

NC teachers’ group snubs state’s school chief, calling him ‘clearly destructive’

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, center, sits with charter school students as he watches one of the presentations at a school choice rally on Jan. 23.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, center, sits with charter school students as he watches one of the presentations at a school choice rally on Jan. 23. cseward@newsobserver.com

The state’s largest teachers’ group is publicly snubbing state schools Superintendent Mark Johnson, whose support of private school vouchers and whose controversial comments about teacher pay have drawn complaints from some educators.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, announced Friday that Johnson was not invited to the group’s annual convention in March – breaking a 48-year tradition of asking the current superintendent to attend. The announcement came a day after Johnson publicly said the base state starting salary of $35,000 for North Carolina teachers was “good money” and “a lot of money” for people in their mid-20s, especially in rural parts North Carolina.

Jewell said the decision to not invite Johnson was made months ago due to what the group considers the superintendent’s support of policies that are “clearly destructive” to the state’s public schools. But Jewell said the pay comments “devalued” the teaching profession and caused him to want to publicly announce the non-invitation.

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Mark Jewell, then the vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators, marches with other educators in Raleigh in 2014 to call on state legislators to raise teacher pay. Robert Willett News & Observer file photo

“When the $35,000 comment came out, I just had to speak out,” Jewell said in an interview Monday. “I couldn’t have someone who speaks out on so many issues that we oppose.”

Johnson expressed his disappointment in not being invited to the NCAE convention.

“My first priorities as State Superintendent continue to be the students, educators and parents in North Carolina,” Johnson said in a written statement. “Unfortunately, there are some who still want to play politics with the facts. I am disappointed but not surprised this group wants to shut out diversity of ideas on how we improve our schools.”

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for the superintendent, said Johnson’s remarks about “good money” referred to 22-year-olds just out of college who work as teachers in some parts of the state.

Wilson pointed to how the median household income is at or below $35,000 a year in 17 of North Carolina’s 100 counties and that the median income is below $40,000 in 33 counties.

Johnson, 34, whose salary is $127,561, also told attendees at Thursday’s N.C. School Boards Association’s public policy conference that he is working with the General Assembly to continue to raise starting teacher pay.

Johnson, a former teacher turned lawyer, became the first Republican elected to state superintendent in more than 100 years. In 2016, he defeated longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson, who had been endorsed by NCAE.

Johnson spoke at last year’s conference. Jewell said Johnson was invited last year as part of an effort to build a relationship with the new superintendent.

But Johnson has struck a different path than his predecessor, as shown by his speech at a school choice rally last week in Raleigh that celebrated the state’s position as a leader in helping students to attend options other than traditional public schools.

“School choice means charter schools,” Johnson said at the rally. “It means private schools. But importantly, as we mentioned earlier, it also means magnet schools.”

Jewell said Johnson has been silent about the crisis school districts face meeting state-mandated K-3 class sizes and on mandated budget cuts to the state Department of Public Instruction that will result in cuts to services helping high-needs students.

“He clearly has not been a champion for speaking out for North Carolina public school students and the profession,” Jewell said.

Jewell said he could not in good conscience “invite someone working to unravel our underfunded public education system.” Instead, he said a full slate of “public school champions” such as Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, will be speaking at the convention.

Johnson has publicly said he prefers to work behind the scenes talking with the leaders of the Republican-led state legislature.

Jewell said he’s gotten positive reaction from teachers for the announcement that Johnson was not being invited. But some conservative critics have taken to social media to blast the decision.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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