Nobody really knew what to expect when political newcomer Mark Johnson won North Carolina’s 2016 election for state superintendent, defeating 3-term Democrat June Atkinson by just 1%. Those who helped elect the first Republican state superintendent in a century thought he talked a good game, particularly by promising to reduce testing in our schools.
They thought it might be time for a change.
To some degree, Mark Johnson was set up for failure by the North Carolina General Assembly. Immediately after Johnson’s election, state representative Craig Horn sponsored a bill which gave the superintendent unprecedented control over our state’s education funds. Horn’s bill relegated our highly qualified, govern-by-consensus State Board of Education to the sidelines on many meaningful decisions related to education in North Carolina. It also spawned court battles which ruined any chance Johnson had at developing a positive working relationship with the state board.
Consolidating that much power in the hands of one man with so little experience in either education or leadership was a huge gamble by Republican state legislators.
That gamble has backfired in a big way.
Mark Johnson’s leadership at the Department of Public Instruction has been an unmitigated disaster.
During his three year tenure–which has felt like three centuries–Superintendent Mark Johnson has lurched from scandal to scandal.
- There was the shady purchase of iPads Johnson made after being wined and dined at Apple’s California headquarters
- The taxpayer-funded .com website which serves largely as a campaign vehicle
- The swanky, invite-only education announcement event which excluded educators
- The endorsement of a teacher classroom supply plan which would have robbed Peter to pay Paul
- The consistent lack of transparency through ignoring or denying lawful public records requests
- The Istation contract awarded unilaterally and against the advice of knowledgeable educators
- The legal threats made against educators who spoke out against the Istation contract award
- The DPI Spygate controversy over intercepted personal text messages
- The use of school contact info to send campaign messages
It’s not a track record that should inspire confidence in North Carolina voters.
While serving as superintendent, Mark Johnson has managed to alienate many of North Carolina’s educators as well. At a time when state legislators have been prioritizing tax cuts over public education for nearly a decade, Johnson has consistently failed to stand up and advocate for more resources for our schools. In 2018 he called North Carolina’s $35,000 starting teacher salary “good money,” which raised eyebrows of educators working exhausting side hustles to keep the lights on.
The superintendent also criticized the thousands of public school educators who turned out at rallies in Raleigh the last two Mays to protest the legislature’s lack of support for education–although he did show up at a School Choice rally as keynote speaker to celebrate charter schools and vouchers.
But if you ask any classroom teacher what irritates them the most about Superintendent Mark Johnson, it’s likely to be his endless self promotion. Since he took over, teacher mailboxes around the state have been filled by a steady flow of glossy color fliers boasting various photo-ops of Mark Johnson. The fliers are printed on luxurious card stock and contrast sharply with the lack of copy paper and textbooks in our schools.
It’s almost as if Mark Johnson has been campaigning for his next office ever since he started. Indeed, just like his two-year teaching career and his abandoned term on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board, Johnson’s time as state superintendent has always felt like a stepping stone to elsewhere.
Mark Johnson is currently running for elsewhere as a Republican candidate in the primary for Lieutenant Governor. If he wins that office, he’d get a seat on the State Board of Education and the NC Board of Community Colleges. He’d also have the power to appoint directors to the Public School Forum and the Teaching Fellow Commission and would serve as Chair of the E-Learning Commission.
Perhaps most importantly, Mark Johnson would become president of the NC Senate and have the ability to cast tie-breaking votes. With control of the Senate beyond November 2020 very much in play, that role could become critically important in shaping education policy.
When you vote on Tuesday, March 3, remember that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. If you get a Republican primary ballot and value leaders who are honest, transparent, collaborative, and committed, then please do not vote for Mark Johnson.
It’s time for Mark Johnson to return to the private sector.