The Pulse

Incoming N.C. schools chief applauds transfer of powers to his office

By: - December 19, 2016 2:41 pm
Incoming DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson
Incoming DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

North Carolina’s incoming secretary of public education—Winston-Salem Republican Mark Johnson—is reportedly celebrating last week’s highly controversial move by state lawmakers to shift powers from the State Board of Education to his office.

While he didn’t respond to questions for comment on the bill from his local paper, the Winston-Salem Journal reports that the corporate attorney, who boasts two years of experience teaching at West Charlotte High in Charlotte, is supportive of House Bill 17.

The GOP-sponsored bill, which predominantly limits the powers of new Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, has been approved by both the state House and Senate and has been forwarded to Gov. Pat McCrory’s office for signature.

McCrory, who has fought lawmakers in court over the governor’s powers, has not indicated whether he will support the measure, but in the meantime, Johnson seems pleased with the move.

From the Winston-Salem Journal:

Among the provisions limiting the power of Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, House Bill 17 strips power over the state’s vast public education system from State Board of Education and transfers it to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

 Starting in January, that will be Johnson. The 33-year-old lawyer was two years into his first term on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education when he beat incumbent June Atkinson, a 40-year veteran of DPI. The Democrat was seeking her fourth-term. Johnson’s previous education experience includes two years in Teach For America, where he taught at West Charlotte High School.

After the bill’s passage Friday, Johnson commended lawmakers for passing “straight-forward, common-sense reforms.”

“HB 17 will help usher in an era of greater transparency at DPI by eliminating the more confusing aspects of the relationship between the N.C. superintendent and the N.C. Board of Education,” Johnson said.

“This will better serve constituents visiting Raleigh as our working relationship will be more similar to how local superintendents and their respective boards of education work together across North Carolina.”

HB17 would actually give the State Board of Education considerably less oversight of Johnson’s decisions at the Department of Public Instruction, though, than Johnson had as a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education over the district’s superintendent.

One example: hiring and firing.

HB 17 gives the state superintendent control over appointments of administrative and supervisory personnel to the staff of DPI and the state board, save four positions that the state board will continue to appoint.

The power shift has already drawn criticism from State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey and Vice Chairman A.L. “Buddy” Collins, both Republican appointees of McCrory.

“The State Board of Education and State Superintendent have a strong and productive relationship that works well on behalf of public schools and charter schools in North Carolina,” Cobey said in a statement last week.

“HB 17 … raises Constitutional concerns and eliminates checks and balances that are important to the students of North Carolina.

Johnson defeated longtime DPI Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat, on Election Day.

As the Journal notes, House Bill 17 bundles several major power shifts for North Carolina public schools.

In an interview last week, Johnson said he had been meeting with the leadership of both the House and Senate education committees as well as Cobey and Collins. Leaders of the House’s standing committee on K-12 education are Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes, Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, and Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus. The Senate’s standing committee on education is led by Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph and Barefoot.

At that time, Johnson said he looked forward to working with “partners” on the state board to accomplish priorities like reducing testing requirements and creating “more authentic vocational education opportunities.”

“I have this balance, where everything I do has to be approved by the State Board of Education,” he said.

With the passage of HB 17, that won’t be the case anymore.

Johnson will also have sole authority in hiring the superintendent of the state’s forthcoming Achievement School District, and will be able to make all staff appointments to the state’s specialty schools for the deaf and blind.

The bill also remakes oversight of the state’s charter school program.

Johnson, as opposed to the state board, will appoint the executive director of the charter schools office. The bill strips the governor of his right to appoint members to the state’s Charter School Advisory Board. All seats on the board will be appointed by the House, Senate and State Board of Education — three GOP-led bodies.

It’s unclear whether the board intends to push a legal challenge to the rule, although members are slated to convene a specially-called meeting to discuss the issue Tuesday morning.

Check back with Policy Watch for more updates.

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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.