Two weeks ago, State Superintendent Mark Johnson announced his bid for Lieutenant Governor, meaning he will not be seeking reelection to his current office. In 2020, voters will have the chance to define the course of the state’s public schools for the next four years, as Johnson’s office oversees the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI).
Johnson’s tenure was unique in many ways: He was the first Republican to hold the office in a century, and he was the first superintendent to exercise direct authority over the DPI, on account of a law passed in 2016 after his election. Previously, the State Board of Education had held this and several other responsibilities.
Johnson took full advantage of his newly-powerful position over the course of his tenure. Although several of his decisions sparked backlash, most significantly was his decision to use a new company, Istation, to administer tests rather than the previous system. A court battle still rages over the system, causing concern among schools unsure of how to move forward.
North Carolina’s schools deserve a superintendent who takes a thoughtful approach to leadership and a clear path forward for their students. And NC State deserves local students who are well-prepared for its academic rigor, not held hostage by leaders for political gain.
The Istation incident started when the school system needed to choose to renew a contract with mClass or do business with a new company in order to administer tests to K-3 graders under the Read to Achieve program. To make this choice, a committee was formed to evaluate alternatives and make a recommendation. After claiming that the committee was deadlocked, Johnson unilaterally selected Istation. However, later documents showed that the committee had in fact preferred mClass based on a number of factors.
The state’s Department of Information Technology temporarily halted implementation of the new program, but some systems, including Wake County, have had to start using it anyway because they have upcoming year-round calendar tests to administer. It’s likely the disagreement will wrap up before the next election cycle, but we will certainly need a skilled leader to guide schools through the rocky transition, or to swiftly negotiate a renewal of the mClass system. With this bald deception by Johnson, we must demand transparency in all future decisions of this sort.
Johnson also made waves with his opposition to two teacher protests in May of 2018 and 2019. Ahead of the first such protest, he asked schools not to cancel classes on account of prior cancellations due to severe weather, and he argued that teachers had already received large raises from the General Assembly. He made a similar statement in 2019, stating that protests would be just as effective outside of instructional hours — a point the organizers of the rally disputed.
The nature of Johnson’s defenses — that the General Assembly was already generous to teachers and would listen to their pleas — underscored his closeness with those in the legislature. This familiarity is understandable, as shortly after his election, lawmakers stripped the State Board of Education of many of its powers and transferred them to the incoming superintendent. This move was decried even by the Republican leaders of the school board, and while it was challenged in court, it ultimately was upheld.
The reason for this was quite clear. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, had just been elected Governor, a position in charge of choosing members of the school board. Indeed, in the same bill that transferred power from the board to Johnson, a number of powers were also stripped from Cooper.
The current arrangement of powers between the board and the superintendent are likely to stick for a while. The quality of our public education can have a wide array of impacts, from influencing the competitiveness of our students in college and job markets to affecting the critical thinking skills of future voters and active citizens. Good schools are the basis of a good state, and NC State students should lead the way by helping pick a new, high-quality superintendent.