NC schools chief says raising teacher pay is a ‘top priority’ after controversial comments

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson says raising teacher pay and resolving the K-3 class size issue are major priorities in a video released less than a week after he made controversial comments about teacher pay.

Johnson had said at a conference Thursday that the base starting salary of $35,000 for teachers was “good money” and “a lot of money” for people in their mid-20s, especially in rural parts of North Carolina. The N.C. Association of Educators criticized Johnson’s comments and announced that it was not inviting the superintendent to its annual convention in March.

Johnson responded Wednesday by speaking directly to educators and the public with a YouTube video.

“This year, my team and I will be working with the General Assembly to invest even more in K-12,” Johnson said in the video. “Some of our top priorities are continuing to increase educator pay, expanding personalized learning and expanding early childhood education to make sure students are ready when they start school. And yes, we are working with the General Assembly on the current class size legislation.”

Johnson didn’t provide additional details. Most of the two-minute video was focused on asking educators to give their opinions on post-secondary education options for students.

Even before the video, Johnson had talked about the need to raise teacher pay. At the same meeting Thursday where he made the comments about the $35,000 salary, Johnson also said he was working with the General Assembly to continue to raise the pay for teachers.

Graham Wilson, a spokesman for the superintendent, has said Johnson’s remarks last week 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 how it is below $40,000 in 33 counties.

Johnson, a former teacher turned lawyer, became the first Republican elected to state superintendent in North Carolina history in 2016. He defeated longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson, who had been endorsed by NCAE.

Johnson has struck a different path than his predecessor, as shown by his speech at a school choice rally Jan. 23 in Raleigh that celebrated the state’s position as a leader in helping students to attend options other than traditional public schools.

Before breaking the 48-year tradition this year, NCAE had annually invited the current superintendent to its convention.

Mark Jewell, president of NCAE, said he had decided months ago not to invite Johnson. Jewell accused Johnson of supporting policies that are “clearly destructive” to public education and being silent on issues such as the K-3 class size “crisis.”

School districts around North Carolina have been clamoring for relief from a state mandate to lower average K-3 class sizes to roughly 17 students starting in July. School officials have said they don’t have the space and might have to lay off art, music and physical education teachers to come up with the money to hire new K-3 teachers.

Johnson, who is 34 and earns a state salary of $127,561, has said he prefers working behind the scenes with state legislative leaders to resolve issues instead of talking about them publicly.

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