A failing grade for NC’s top educator

Mark Johnson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, is said to be weighing whether to seek reelection or run for lieutenant governor in 2020. There really isn’t anything to weigh. He should run for lieutenant governor. It would be a good fit, a job with few responsibilities and a lot of politics. As for reelection, that should be off his list. Another four years of the would-be wunderkind superintendent turned isolated bumbler shouldn’t be on anyone’s list.

Johnson, a school choice advocate who is closely allied with the Republican legislative leadership, came into office in 2017 with an intriguing resume. He was a lawyer, former counsel to a digital marketing firm, a former Teach for America teacher and a Forsyth County Board of Education member. All that and he was only 33.

Johnson represented a sharp change of direction when he took over the Department of Public Instruction. He had narrowly defeated incumbent Superintendent June Atkinson, who held the job for 11 years and had served a total of 40 years at DPI. He said he came to the job with “a great sense of urgency within me to transform our public education system” so every student graduates high school prepared for college or the workforce.

Almost three years later, Johnson presides over a demoralized DPI that has suffered deep budget cuts and staff reductions imposed by his Republican allies in the General Assembly. Instead of working with the State Board of Education, he’s clashed with it. When teachers twice marched on Raleigh demanding better pay and more school resources, he did not join them. At a time when public schools are underfunded, he supports vouchers for private school tuition.

Johnson began his tenure with a “listening tour” of North Carolina schools, but he’s not much of a listener. In June, he ignored the opinion of an evaluation committee in awarding an $8.3 million contract to test the reading skills of North Carolina students. Last year he took $6 million in money that was supposed to be directed at teachers and bought more than 24,000 Apple iPads for K-3 schools. Many schools didn’t need the devices and returned them.

The good news is Johnson’s flailing has drawn a strong field of candidates who want to replace him. Announced so far are: Jen Mangrum, a UNC Greensboro professor who took on state Sen. Phil Berger in 2018; James Barrett, a member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education; Michael Maher, assistant dean of professional education at N.C. State University; Keith Sutton, vice chairman of the Wake County Board of Education, Amy Jablonski, an educational consultant and former teacher, and Constance Lav Johnson, a former teacher, school counselor and administrator.

Mangrum thinks Johnson’s troubles stem from his skepticism about public schools and his support of school choice. A void of leadership prompted Maher to run. “We spent two years without seeing any real initiative coming out of the department from the superintendent,” he said. Constance Lav Johnson wants to emphasize school cooperation, not competition. Sutton sees the need for a superintendent who can “inspire and motivate teachers.” Barrett wants to stop Johnson’s quarreling with the board and others. “Fights between adults are not productive for helping our kids, and he seems to relish it,” he said.

Mark Johnson promised to transform North Carolina’s public schools. He has. He has added turmoil and tension. North Carolina’s teachers and school children deserve better.