Editorial: School chief's choice - independent public schools advocate, ideological obstructionist
Posted November 28, 2016
A CBC Editorial: Monday, Nov.28, 2016; Editorial# 8087
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson can truly relate to the saying about the dog that catches the car.
Swept up in the Republican tide in North Carolina, Johnson, 33, defeated three-term incumbent Democrat and career educator June Atkinson by a thin, half-percentage-point margin.
A lawyer working for a Winston-Salem tech firm, Johnson has spent just two years on the Forsyth County school board. Between his undergraduate education and law school, he spent a couple of years teaching 9th grade science at West Charlotte High School in the Teach for America program.
It is an understatement to say he faces a sharp learning curve as he prepares to take control of the state Department of Public Instruction. It has 1,200 employees and oversees the education of 1.54 million North Carolina students. The annual state and federal education budget of $12.6 billion is nearly a quarter of all state spending.
Through the quiet Council of State campaign Johnson offered broad slogans and well-worn themes: students are over-tested; the education bureaucracy is unresponsive; not enough students graduate prepared for jobs or advanced education; teachers need more opportunities for professional development; schools need to take better advantage of technology and advanced instructional support.
Now, Johnson will be presented with the opportunity to make good on his rhetoric. He will also need to establish his independence and avoid the ideological barriers to progress in public education erected by Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly.
Over the last four years public education has not been a top priority. Rather than focus on improving classroom learning and boosting the lagging pay of teachers and school administrators, the power-brokers in Raleigh pursued a narrow agenda of school vouchers and attacked teacher tenure. Only as an election-year stunt was there a boost in teacher pay.
So, the task of re-establishing North Carolina’s brand as a leader in public education won’t be easy. There will be plenty of political heavyweights looking to shove him around – taking advantage of his youth and political inexperience. They’ll be testing him, hoping he doesn’t have the fortitude and drive of Atkinson. She proved – to both Republican and Democrats – to be a strong and determined protector of the independence of the agency, her job and responsibilities to the students and teachers in the state’s public schools.
Johnson needs to retain and build a staff at DPI with the knowledge and understanding to develop, promote and carry out the mission of making North Carolina’s public schools the best in the nation.
He will need to stand up to legislative leaders, particularly Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who will see the inexperience at DPI as an opportunity to spread their influence and stunted vision for public education. Their agenda promotes private school vouchers and stagnant public school funding while choking the pipeline for top-notch classroom teachers by abolishing the successful N.C. Teaching Fellows program.
While Johnson’s experience is short, it has given him the opportunity to see where the challenges are the greatest – high poverty areas and low-performing schools. He knows first-hand how focus, determination and appropriate investment can improve instruction, student achievement and pave the way to better lives.
Those are the things that should guide and motivate him – the students, fellow teachers and parents he got to know as a member of Teach for America and on the school board.
Before his term in office ends, Mark Johnson’s three-and-a-half-year-old daughter will be headed to kindergarten. He needs to avoid settling for the mediocre schools that North Carolina’s current legislative leaders have made their standard.
The expectation for his daughter’s teachers and school should be what he demands for every child in North Carolina – the best education in the nation.