Politics & Government

NC schools chief offered a $250 prize to take a survey, and 22,000 parents responded

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson is offering parents a chance to win $250 if they take an online survey about student testing, which critics are calling a public relations stunt.

A total of 22,571 survey responses have come in since Johnson emailed North Carolina parents on Thursday about participating in the “2018 Parents’ Perspective Survey: Testing Contest.” To encourage people to respond, Johnson says parents who take the 5-minute survey “can enter for a chance to win $250 right before your holiday shopping.”

One $250 prize is being offered with the money personally coming from Johnson and not from public funds, according to Graham Wilson, a spokesman for the superintendent. The contest runs to Nov. 30.

“We are committed to giving parents an opportunity to voice their concerns on issues regarding their children’s schools,” Wilson said in an email message. “With more than 16,000 responses in the first eight hours, it’s clear parents are eager to give their input.”

But critics say the survey is just a way for the Republican superintendent to promote his image among parents.

“Suffice it to say that this is a ridiculous and inappropriate scheme that ought to be beneath the dignity of (a) supposedly serious public official entrusted with overseeing the education of the state’s children,” Rob Schofield, director of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch, wrote in a post on Thursday.

Johnson was elected in 2016, defeating longtime Democratic incumbent June Atkinson. The Republican-led state legislature has granted Johnson more authority over the day-to-day running of public schools.

The past two years have seen Johnson clashing with the State Board of Education and other critics over issues such as using $6 million in state funding to purchase iPads for K-3 literacy teachers and creating his own website instead of using the state Department of Public Instruction’s website.

In June, state lawmakers passed a law that directs Johnson to make recommendations to legislators by Jan. 15, 2019, on ways to reduce testing that’s not required by state or federal law.

Johnson sent a mass email to parents with the addresses coming from the state’s student information system which is used for official outreach to parents from DPI, according to Wilson.

In the email for the survey, Johnson tells parents that he shares the concerns of students, parents and educators that there’s too much testing.

“I will use your input to guide our work with state lawmakers and local school districts to reform the current system of over-testing,” Johnson says in the email.

But Schofield questioned how valid the survey results will be since Johnson’s message features the words “Too Much Testing!” in large lettering and bold type.

“The issue of whether North Carolina does too much testing of its students is certainly an important one, but one obviously can’t obtain legitimate results with such a preposterously slanted overture,” Schofield writes.

Pack Poll, a group of N.C. State students who do surveys on campus, tweeted Thursday that the survey was “dishonest” and “unethical.”

“Parents are not told if the survey is anonymous & questions are poorly worded, designed to manufacture evidence of too much testing,” Pack Poll tweeted. “Unethical behavior for a public servant, deliberately biasing a survey to yield results to be used as a weapon for his political ambitions.”

Wilson defended the survey as being a valuable way to get parental feedback.

“Partisan bloggers can criticize parent engagement if they want,” Wilson said. “We will continue to seek feedback from parents and educators to give them a voice on important education issues.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer