When Republican Mark Johnson, a 33-year-old former Forsyth County school board member, upset incumbent state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat, in the 2016 election, Republicans in the General Assembly were rubbing their hands together so hard they could have started a forest fire.
In Johnson, who advocates for charter schools and expansion of a wrong-headed voucher program that takes money from public schools and gives it to parents to enable them to send their kids to private school, legislative leaders like Senate President pro-tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore had an inexperienced superintendent to whom they could give marching orders.
In the latest example of legislative meddling, a budget mandate reported by N.C. Policy Watch, a project of the N.C. Justice Center, would fire several education officials from the administration of Atkinson, and would eliminate a top staff member’s position with the State Board of Education, which by statute has charge of policy. Martez Hill is the board’s executive director. Johnson and the board, led by former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey, a Republican and experienced public education advocate, have repeatedly clashed as Johnson, with the support of right-wing lawmakers, has tried to consolidate power. He’s doing so, of course, with direct input from Jones Street.
This is outrageous. Said Cobey: “I’ve been told offline that they eliminated Martez’s position not because of him, but because he was executive director of the state board, which I think is a sad state of affairs.”
No kidding. Johnson ought to be seeking and taking as much advice as he can from experienced hands like Cobey. The superintendent has a lot to learn. In fact, he has everything to learn, and he seems a lukewarm supporter of conventional or mainstream public schools, which isn’t good. And a weak superintendent gives full control of public education to the people who want it, the GOP leaders of the General Assembly.
This kind of action also erodes confidence in the Department of Public Instruction, internally and externally.
Republicans seem determined to dismantle the public education system that has served North Carolina well for over 100 years. In fact, it may be said that the state’s strong public schools transformed it, giving hope to millions of young people and opening their lives to the endless possibilities that education should inspire. Why GOP leaders want to meddle in and damage public schools remains a mystery, given that the majority of North Carolina families have their children in public schools.
The State Board is hardly a liberal outpost, far from it. But it has provided needed supervision of Johnson, who has kept a low profile since taking office, perhaps on the orders of Berger and Moore. Who knows?
What we do know is that these latest maneuvers are transparent, intended by lawmakers to weaken the state board and empower politicians with guidance of the schools. That’s not good.