New Superintendent of Public Instruction highlights urgent need to transform “outdated” school system

By: - January 5, 2017 2:12 pm

Superintendent Mark Johnson

New Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson to begin his term with a listening tour 

Pledging to “transform” North Carolina public schools, new Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson told members of the State Board of Education Thursday that he believes the state’s system of schooling is “outdated.”

“I will be generous and say that this system was designed for students in the 1950s,” Johnson said. “I will be generous because you could probably trace this system back to the 1920s or even earlier.”

Johnson’s comments, while lacking specifics on planned reforms, marked his first extended address to the state board since stunning longtime Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson in November’s election. And they come in the midst of a broiling legal dispute between the state board and the state legislature over the powers of his office.

While he did not address that pending court battle, which is due for a hearing Friday morning in Raleigh, Johnson did pledge Thursday to embark on a listening tour for the remainder of the school year to meet with stakeholders—teachers, parents and administrators.

Once that tour is completed, Johnson said, he promised to return with action items. In the meantime, he lobbied school leaders to act with urgency to improve conditions in some of North Carolina’s lowest-performing schools.

“Today is Jan. 5, 2017,” said Johnson. “There will never be another Jan. 5, 2017 ever again. No matter how we use this day, if we make the most of it, if we waste it, it’s gone. Every day we don’t take bold actions for our students is a day we lose. Every day we don’t take bold actions for our teachers, is a day they lose.”

Despite the public tension, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey, a GOP appointee of former Gov. Pat McCrory, said he could back the basic principles Johnson laid out Thursday.

“I have felt a sense of urgency ever since I started sitting in this chair,” said Cobey. “I don’t think there any excuses for us not reaching the low achievers and bringing them along so they can experience the American dream.”

Public school advocates have been seeking some specific plans from the little-known Johnson, a Winston-Salem Republican who has not responded to multiple Policy Watch requests for an interview since his surprise ouster of Atkinson last year.

Johnson assumes a hugely influential role overseeing the state’s Department of Public Instruction despite boasting a relatively limited background in the classroom. Johnson taught at West Charlotte High, a low-income school in Mecklenburg County, for two years through the Teach for America program before becoming a corporate attorney. Since then, Johnson ran for and won a seat on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education.

His campaign last year focused on reforming a bureaucracy he characterized as broken and outmoded, something he hammered home again Thursday, telling a story of a ninth-grade student in Charlotte that could not read on a fifth-grade level.

“That’s the story I carry with me because the system had failed that young man,” Johnson said.

He called on school leaders to avoid “complacency” in their actions.

“If we don’t act with urgency, we’ll continue to betray students,” he said. “And we’ll continue to lose teachers and have difficulty recruiting them and retaining them.”

Cobey, as well as the board’s GOP Vice Chair A.L. Collins, have derided lawmakers’ changes to the public school power structure as “unconstitutional,” even as Johnson lauded the legislature’s moves to curb the State Board of Education and invest his office with new powers.

Neither mentioned the looming battle for power in the state’s public education system, after lawmakers last month speedily approved strict limits to Cobey’s board in consolidating powers with the new GOP superintendent.

If the courts uphold the legislature’s actions, Johnson would take on greater hiring powers in the department, control of the state’s charter school office and the authority to appoint a leader of the so-called “achievement school district.”

The achievement school district was approved by Republican leaders in the legislature last year and could soon hand over management of a few low-performing schools in North Carolina to for-profit charter operators.

It’s a reform that’s been met with lackluster results and withering criticism in other states, but Republican backers tout the district as a means of reaching long-neglected, struggling schools.

Republican legislators frequently clashed with Johnson’s Democratic predecessor over the issues of teacher pay and school funding, but Johnson has yet to criticize leadership in the General Assembly, focusing instead on the Department of Public Instruction bureaucracy.

Despite his campaign criticism, Johnson once again did not offer any specific plans for changes in the department Thursday, and has declined to publicly address any changes in top staffing.

Still, he pledged to back “innovative” reforms for the state’s schools, and listen to North Carolina’s teachers, who have been departing the state in droves in recent years as the state plummeted in the national teacher pay rankings.

“What is it we need to do better to support (teachers) to provide that opportunity to students?” said Johnson.

In a statement following Johnson’s speech Thursday, leaders of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), a teacher lobbying organization based in Raleigh, said they hope to work with the new superintendent to improve conditions for low-performing schools.

“NCAE’s core values center on the opportunity for all students to be successful regardless of Zip code and we look forward to working with Governor Cooper, Superintendent Johnson, and the State Board of Education to realize that goal,” said NCAE President Mark Jewell. “Unfortunately, there are some leaders in the General Assembly who have not shared that vision, instead adopting legislation that has harmed public schools and passed budgets that fall short of the resources our students need to be successful.”

Check back with Policy Watch Friday for updates on the State Board of Education’s pending court challenge.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.