North Carolina State Superintendent Mark Johnson was elected in 2016, defeating incumbent June Atkinson by 53,860 votes, or 1.2 percent. Johnson attended public schools, specifically the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. He went on to earn two degrees in political science and environmental studies. He earned a law degree from the UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill and graduated with honors. Johnson has taught in the classroom in West Charlotte High School. “I realized that opportunity is not available to every student in this country, and it needs to be,” he has said. His background also includes serving as a school board member in Forsyth County. Mr. Johnson appears to have prepared himself for the top job for public education and educating more than 1.5 million K-12 students in North Carolina.
While campaigning, he talked with reporter Jeffrey C. Billman of Indy Week about a number of important issues facing K-12 education. He discussed the ACT, where half of graduates were failing to meet a single benchmark on the ACT. He also discussed Workforce Preparedness, preparing diplomas for work rather than targeting the graduation rate, and improving African American student performance in obtaining a minimum ACT score required for college admission. Teacher Pay has been an issue for many years with North Carolina teacher pay being in the lower spectrum for national teacher pay. Johnson identified the importance of tackling the issue of over-testing for teachers and students. The goal was to focus students on how they are performing daily rather than at the year-end of grade or end of course test. Johnson spoke of the importance of using digital technology in the educational process and had great concerns on the impact of poverty on education.
As we come to the end of his third year as the state’s educational leader, it is important to ask a question: Are North Carolina public schools better off today than when Mr. Johnson assumed his role as the state’s top educator?
Johnsons’ outlines a focus on school safety, career pathways, early childhood education, computer science and coding, and reducing over testing. The digital initiative for third-grade reading, Istation, was met with strong opposition from the Department of Information Technology. The competing bidder argued that Johnson awarded the $8.3 million contract improperly. Johnson also was successful in achieving two major legislative goals that tie to his strategic focuses, House Bill 75 (School Safety) and Senate Bill 621 (Reduced Testing).
He alienated the N.C. Association of Educators, who did not invite him to the annual convention in March of 2018, breaking an historical precedent of inviting the N.C. Superintendent to their annual convention. The reason cited in the Raleigh News and Observer was “his disruptive actions such as support of private school vouchers and controversial comments about teacher pay.”
A recent Charlotte Observer editorial, “A state superintendent who wants to be a czar, speaks to the challenges and leadership style of Johnson, who came into the role with credentials as an educator, but has led like a czar as opposed to a leader that children and educators need. Unfortunately, as one looks back on the tenure of Johnson, it’s worth noting his tenure got off to an inauspicious beginning when Republicans passed House Bill 17, which gave the inexperienced superintendent more authority and control over public education issues than the State Board of Education itself.
In retrospect, this move crystallizes the ups and downs of Johnson’s educational agenda, as no man is an island and the trendy superintendent would be wise to listen to the wisdom of members of the State Board of Education. His forward-thinking goals can be reached if he works as a team player and not a czar as the Observer charges.