News: CJ Exclusives

Johnson: Lawsuit needed to bring accountability to school governance

GOP superintendent says duties divided among DPI, State Board of Education lead to inefficiencies harming parents, students, and teachers

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, pictured here in his office. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, pictured here in his office. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson’s first few months in office have been anything but boring.

Johnson, a Republican and former member of the Winston Salem/Forsyth County school board, in November ousted incumbent Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson.  

In December, the General Assembly passed a law that stripped some responsibilities from the N.C. State Board of Education, giving them to Johnson. The state board immediately sued, putting the new superintendent in the center of controversy before he moved into his office at the Department of Public Instruction.

The new law was unconstitutional, board Chairman Bill Cobey told Carolina Journal in January.

In April, Johnson filed an affidavit in the lawsuit. He said the board was severely limiting his authority. The board ignored and denied multiple requests to make staffing changes, he said.

A three-judge Superior Court panel ruled in July for Johnson. The state board appealed the decision earlier this month.

On Aug. 8, Johnson sat down with CJ Associate Editor Kari Travis to discuss the lawsuit, his role at DPI, his relationship with the General Assembly, and more.

The second part of this interview, covering the importance of work force development, technology, and school choice, will appear online at a later date.

This interview was edited for clarity and space.

CJ: Let’s talk about the lawsuit with the State Board of Education. Last month, the court ruled in your favor. The board is appealing that decision. How does that tension affect your ability to work with the board?   

Johnson: It was my hope that the state board would not appeal this ruling. It was pretty clear cut. It was handled by a panel of bipartisan judges. They [unanimously ruled] summary judgment that the General Assembly and I are on the up-and-up in allowing one single point of accountability to manage this department.

The system that has been created by the state board over at least the past decade has completely emphasized non-accountability. People send their kid to school, and they want to know who is making the decisions. When they have a concern with that, or a concern with a certain form of testing, do [they] call the school board of their local district? Do they call their local superintendent? Do they call their General Assembly member? Do they call the state superintendent, or do they call the state board of education?

When you get to the state level, we’ve had a situation here for far too long where [the board has been] head of the agency. It’s a board of 13 people working to make decisions that should [be quick and] responsive to the field. They’re not. When you have 13 people that have to meet and have to vote on making decisions, it slows things down. It becomes just a bureaucratic process.

This department should be able to respond to the field quickly and efficiently, and the better way to do that is to have a single point of accountability.

If managed properly, [the department] can help find innovation going on in those local districts, and [it can scale] them across other districts. … [We should be a] center point for all that knowledge, and when other school districts are looking for good programs to implement, [they should be able to] call the department and say, “Can you tell us how we can implement this type of program?” Under an accountable leader, this department can get there.

Q: Your relationship with the state board has been visibly strained since before the beginning of your term. How would you describe your relationship with board members, especially with Chairman Bill Cobey?

A: You know, I did an affidavit for the trial that we posted on the website … back in April. Nothing has changed since I’ve submitted that affidavit. So … I think that affidavit speaks for itself.

Q: So safe to say the relationship is still a little strained?

A: I will tell you this. I am ready to lead this department. I am hopeful that Chairman Cobey and the state board will drop this wasteful lawsuit. That money should be going into classrooms — not the pockets of their lawyers.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with the General Assembly?

A: When I campaigned for this office, I told people that one thing I really wanted … was to be someone who walked across the [Halifax] Mall and met with members of the General Assembly. If you’re here in Raleigh, you know that the General Assembly building and the Department of Education building is only separated by [one lawn], but for years it felt like it was miles and miles apart.

That is no longer the case. We are in the General Assembly. When they were in session we were meeting with them often. We were advising them 0n policy decisions. We were pushing our legislative agenda. And we actually worked with them to [accomplish a lot], ranging from business modernization, to a council approving pre-K [programs], to more [career and technology education] options and opportunities. That list goes on. My relationship with the General Assembly is good. We have been thought partners on how to transform education, on how to make our education system better for teachers, and on how to drive results for students.

Q: What about your relationship with local superintendents, and with the N.C. Association of Educators?

A: The very first month I was in office we had a meeting with the North Carolina Association of Educators, and I told them that if they ever have any concerns, they should reach out to me.

The relationship with superintendents has also been good. We have a quarterly meeting for superintendents, and it’s a place for them to get into a room with me. They share about great things they’re working on, and [they express] their concerns. We also have an open communication policy with superintendents. I get text messages. I get emails from superintendents with concerns. We’ve also gotten multiple requests to come visit and see the great things they are doing. So we try to get to them as often as possible.

Q: Are there trends among the concerns superintendents bring you?

A: Most of the concerns I get from the superintendents actually have to do with what this department does. One example of the biggest concern I [hear] across the spectrum of educators — from teachers, to superintendents — is actually about teacher licensing.

The licensing department in this agency needs a little bit of help. There are people in the licensing department that are working hard, but they’re stuck in the machine, and the machine was never fine-tuned to process licenses correctly. I get complaints from teachers that it’s taking up to seven months for them to get their teaching license. That is actually something that will block a good teacher from moving … to North Carolina to teach.

[We’re] actually conducting a [third-party] audit of the licensing department. … We know that it needs to be revamped badly, so that is the first thing we looked at doing when we came [into the agency]. I’m very excited because, by working with the General Assembly, I have [also received] money for the department to have a top to bottom operational review. That’s very exciting.

Q: One final note on the state board. What would you change about the current situation, if you could?

A: I’ll take a step back, and I’ll look at this from a 30,000 foot level — above my situation. We have an education governance problem in North Carolina. That has made itself apparent in that it seems like once a decade people are suing each other over who should have the authority to be the point of accountability for our public schools. The people of North Carolina voted [last year], and they were loud and clear that more of the same [leadership] is not what they want for the education system.

I would hope that the state board appreciated that, but they didn’t. And that’s why we’re now in the situation that we’re in. But we probably need to be having a discussion, as a state, about where we go from here to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

I don’t have the answer for that yet. I’m talking with the General Assembly about that. But it probably means some kind of constitutional amendment to make this a more defined role for each of us. And I think there’s a lot of benefit to that, because a lot of the problems we have seen at this department, and a lot of the problems we have seen in education, actually stem from the fact that we have an education governance model that’s not working as efficiently as it could be. We owe our students and teachers more than we have right now.