North Carolina’s schools deserve a superintendent who will fight for them

*note: this piece originally ran on Cardinal & Pine

Recently State Auditor Beth Wood released another damning Department of Public Instruction audit, detailing errors involving tens of millions in taxpayer dollars.  It barely made the news.  

It’s a sign of how utterly low Superintendent Mark Johnson has dropped the bar as his tenure atop North Carolina K-12 education nears its end.

Elected in 2016 as the first Republican superintendent in a century, Johnson has lurched from scandal to scandal.  The sweetheart deal for Apple iPads, thousands of which were found to be collecting dust in DPI storage a year later.  The shady Istation contract award.  The short-lived, campaign-driven Common Core hate.  And more.  So much more.

But as a veteran classroom teacher who constantly struggles to do his job effectively with insufficient state resources from a legislature that seems bent on sabotaging public schools, I’d say the worst part of Mark Johnson’s superintendency has been his complete lack of backbone with the General Assembly.

Johnson was elected well into a decade where a veto-proof Republican supermajority has taken a veritable wrecking ball to public education, passing a jaw-dropping succession of laws which make it harder for North Carolina’s schools to attract and retain excellent teachers and provide the education that our students deserve.

Those laws include, among others:

Against this apocalyptic backdrop, it would have been extremely helpful to have someone leading public schools who was willing to speak truth to power.  Not only has Mark Johnson failed to do that, he’s often served as an ad hoc spokesman for the General Assembly’s appalling education policy, famously referring to North Carolina’s $35,000 starting teacher salary as “good money,” for example.    

As superintendent, Mark Johnson has also worked to undermine efforts by education advocates, speaking out against protests by thousands of pro-public school individuals in March of 2018 and again in 2019.

Mark Johnson needs to be replaced with a state superintendent who is willing to support educators and to call out bad policy.  That’s why recent remarks made by Republican candidate for superintendent Catherine Truitt raised such huge red flags for me.

Responding to a question about how she would work with state lawmakers, Truitt took her Democratic opponent Jennifer Mangrum to task for assigning the General Assembly an F for its education policy:

During a candidate forum this winter, all seven state superintendent candidates were asked to grade North Carolina’s public schools. Our answers ranged from “A” to “C”. My opponent decided to add, “but I would give legislators an F.”  This comment is insulting to legislators of both parties who take on an incredible amount of work on behalf of us all for a stipend of around $13,000 per year, and it damages her credibility with these folks. Regardless of whether one feels there is truth in her statement, this type of public admonishment is not appropriate, nor does it indicate an ability to work across the aisle and build trust. 

When elected, I pledge to work with legislators from both sides of the aisle, and to work with the governor and his designees regardless of what political party they are from. And this work will be characterized by respect and the understanding that we must always ask the question, “is this what’s best for students?” 

I am also confident legislators from either party, a governor from either party, and State Board of Education members from either party, will be willing to work with me because they know I respect them, I respect their opinions and perspective, that I will always be honest with them, and, unlike others, I have not and will not ever personally attack them or their character. 

Being a vocal advocate for the needs of public schools doesn’t constitute personal attacks–it’s a basic element of the job description of state superintendent.  It’s what North Carolina’s educators and students desperately need.  

This is not the first time Catherine Truitt has played the “Be Nice” card in defense of Republican education policy.  

In 2016, when Truitt served as Governor Pat McCrory’s Senior Education Advisor, dozens of teachers marched 23 miles to the governor’s office to call attention to the needs of public schools.  14 of them were arrested.

In an opinion piece for the News & Observer, Truitt delivered something that sounded remarkably like the public admonishment she lectured Mangrum about last week, referring dismissively to the educators’ actions as a “publicity stunt” and saying they weren’t interested in “constructive dialogue.”  She vigorously defended Governor McCrory’s record on education before advising the teachers to do more to “set a positive example for [their] students.”

Just to be sure we’re clear, Catherine Truitt appears to think it’s fine to admonish those who speak up on behalf of public schools, but it’s disrespectful to find fault with Republican education policy.

Public schools are at a critical moment, with a deadly, school-closing pandemic still sweeping the country and a general election with huge consequences for education at both the national and state levels rapidly approaching.  

Now more than ever it’s incredibly important that we are able to make an unflinching assessment of what K-12 education’s needs are, what policies and practices have led us to this point, and exactly what actions we must take to get it right for our students and teachers.

Mark Johnson’s election was the mistake of the century.  

Let’s not repeat it.

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