Q&A: NC Superintendent Wants To Give Schools 'Flexibility'

May 11, 2017

State Superintendent Mark Johnson's first months leading North Carolina Public Schools has been marked by a legal battle over just how much power his office should have.

It's a lawsuit that pits Republican against Republican.

In December, state lawmakers voted in a special session to strip powers from the Republican-led State Board of Education, and give them to Johnson, also a Republican. Those powers include the right to hire and fire personnel within the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which Johnson leads, DPI's budget, and decisions about a new state-wide charter-school district. The state board is suing the General Assembly to get those powers back.

Meanwhile, Johnson is still charged with leading the state Department of Public Instruction and working with the state board to improve educational outcomes for North Carolina students. WUNC Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting Jess Clark sat down with Johnson to speak about his first five months in office.

This transcript has been edited for brevity.

Q: You've been in the Department of Public Instruction for five months now; you've been visiting schools for five months. What have you learned so far?

A: I'm learning how many incredible things are going on in our public schools. And one of my first priorities taking this position was to get out of Raleigh and get into the school districts to see what was going on. One of my top guiding principles is innovation. And innovation comes in lots of different forms.

"There is the distrust between people in Raleigh and out in the local school districts." - State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

It comes in technology, but I've also seen innovation in how we treat teachers, how we recruit them, how we retain them. You know, when I taught at West Charlotte High School, the graduation rate was 50 percent and at the end of every summer it was a scramble by the principal to find permanent substitutes to just sit in classrooms with students. Now, because of innovative methods used at West Charlotte, the graduation rate is up to almost 90 percent, and they are monitoring diploma integrity. And at the same time it has become such an attractive place for really dedicated teachers, there was only one vacancy at the end of the last summer for West Charlotte. Bringing those ideas back to Raleigh, then finding ways for the Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh to support those great initiatives elsewhere in the state. 

Q: Are there any bills that you're excited about that are moving through the state legislature right now?

A: You know, it's not a bill but it's something that I've been so passionate about ever since I've gotten involved in education, and that is enhancing transparency for school finance. School finance is extremely complicated, it's extremely difficult, and it's actually quite convoluted. Its almost, if you're, you know, really good at it, it can be a shell game. You know, moving money around. Now, most people in charge of the finances in schools, they're not doing that. But there is the distrust between people in Raleigh and out in the local school districts of whether or not that may be happening. We have the ability to update the business systems that help our schools manage the financial transparency.

"I don't feel the state board has the same sense of urgency I have." - State Superintendent Mark Johnson

Right now, most superintendents have to use three systems: A separate system for HR, a separate system for payroll and a separate system for licensing of teachers. So it is extremely complicated and cumbersome for a superintendent just to be able to say, "How many art teachers are there in my district? How many P.E. teachers are there in my district?" It will be a big investment, it will cost a lot of money, but we can streamline those business systems, we can modernize business systems, and we can actually help districts across the state with that issue, and at the same time give the ability to the people in Raleigh to say, "Ok we're all looking at the same facts now, so let’s not argue over the facts, let’s focus on the policies together and what’s best for our schools."

Q: If you could make any statewide policy change to improve outcomes for students, what would it be?

A: I would really champion some more flexibility to districts, coupled with accountability; giving a little bit more flexibility for innovation, for out-of-the-box thinking, where hard work can really drive change and could go a long way. And then if something's not working, the accountability factors say, "Let's have an honest conversation, this isn't working, we need to go back on the other track." But, one thing I've seen on my listening tour is that innovation is working. You know, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has got the one to one schools, Rowan County is one to one. That's driving  results. And in Forsyth County, I was on the school board there; we did a restart model for Cooke Elementary school, and we were actually able to give that one school particular school more flexibility: Longer schools days, a little bit longer school year, more professional development for teachers. I'm very excited after this being this first year I think we're going to see some really good results from Cooke Elementary.

Q: You are now the head of this department, and you've said that you'd like to make changes in how the department is run. How would you like to run the department? What are the changes that you would like to see?

A: [Chuckles] Well, I'd like to be able to hire the top deputies that report to me, and I would like to make sure that I'm hiring people that are my recommendations and support my vision; the ultimate vision being: This department in Raleigh needs to be a place that is seen as a department that supports schools in the local districts, not tells schools what to do. Compliance is s huge part of the role of this department. However it shouldn't be seen as, "We're the compliance agency, we're telling you what you have to do, no ifs, ands, buts about it, get it done." It should be, "We're the compliance agency. How can we help you comply?" There is work that needs to be done. From day one entering this department, I have had a temporary restraining order placed on me basically preventing me from hiring anyone except three or four people.

"I do feel, even through all this, we are working together." - Johnson

Q: How well do you think the state board is doing? Do you think the state board in touch, do you think that the state board is implementing the laws of the land, creating policies that are moving education forward in North Carolina?

A: I don't feel the state board has the same sense of urgency I have. I respect them as individuals. They come from various different backgrounds; some come from education, some come from business; all care about students, all care about teachers, all care about what's going on. You know, this department, the department of public instruction, just needs to be able to change more quickly to respond to the needs of the teachers and students out in the districts.

Q: At the end of this lawsuit, you and state board of education chairman Bill Cobey and all the members of the board will have to work together. What do you see that relationship looking like at the end of all this?

A: I do feel, even through all this, we are working together. Now, we have differences of opinions on my recommendations for who should help me run this department. But we all share the same vision, and that is: Every student should be able to go to school, work hard and reach their American dream. And we also know that we have to support teachers, we have to support principals, we have to engage parents in order to get there. I do not see this as something, regardless of how the lawsuit goes, that will interfere with us working towards that shared vision.