Mark Johnson, state schools superintendent, finds comedy in one troubled school system’s tragedy

Mark Johnson, state schools superintendent, finds comedy in one troubled school system’s tragedy

And what North Carolina Republicans, if they truly support public education, should do about it

If North Carolina Republicans are confounded by the notion that every last one of them disdains public education—and, surely, not all of them do—they should tune into Mark Johnson’s bro huddle with right-wing talk show host KC O’Dea last Friday to see where a North Carolinian might get such a notion.

Amidst the self-pity, the self-congratulation, the media-bashing and the repetition (I would go back and attempt to count the number of times Johnson spits the word “bureaucrat” like a slur, but really, honestly, this conversation is too much of a chore) our superintendent of public schools squeezes in an unmistakably hearty laugh at one county school system’s budget troubles. 

“What responsibilities does DPI have when a school district is a giant dumpster fire, as is Johnston County right now, from a leadership and budget standpoint?” O’Dea asks just before the 80-minute mark

Most public officials would be uncomfortable with the question, but Johnson begins tittering before O’Dea can even offer the qualifier that his question might refer to system leadership and not, perhaps, the 37,000 K-12 students, 5,000 employees and 2,600 classroom teachers in Johnston County Schools rattled by the turmoil.

Amidst the self-pity, the self-congratulation, the media-bashing and the repetition, our superintendent of public schools squeezes in an unmistakably hearty laugh at one county school system’s budget troubles.

To my ears, it is not even a nervous chuckle from Johnson. It is a four-whoopie-cushion guffaw, a playground bully romping following a successful swirlie.  

Assuming no one off-mic just wrapped one doozy of a knock-knock joke, assuming Mark Johnson is not the sort gripped by irrepressible laughter in inappropriate situations like a funeral, assuming Mark Johnson possesses more empathy than a gerbil, it would appear the state superintendent believes there is something inherently hilarious about Johnston County’s $8 million budget crisis. 

It is the sort of crisis that imperils teachers and students and the economy and raises vital questions about whether the adults of North Carolina understand their responsibilities to their children. 

O’Dea’s interview style is irreverent. It is, of course, his shtick, and inexperienced public figures often play along in such a scenario. But this question about Johnston County Schools might be, given Johnson’s standing as North Carolina’s top public school official, the least funny question that could be put to him. 

It might be considered an aggressively serious question even, given a recent court-ordered independent consultant’s report finding North Carolina has underfunded public school systems to such a degree that it would require $8 billion over the next eight years to meet the most basic constitutional duty to provide students with a sound, basic education. 

Indeed, Johnston County Schools’ financial straits, and their turnover at the top, might be at least partially blamed on local mismanagement.  But to assume that any bled-dry school system in 2020 is in this position independent of Raleigh’s failings is madness, something Johnson should bear in mind when he scoffs at problems that might be blamed on his own party.

No one cares whether O’Dea, a right-winger who seasons his “news” with a heavy splash of clickbait, finds the situation worthy of a laugh.

Mark Johnson has about a year remaining as North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. For those remaining months, he should at least act like it.

But everyone should care if Johnson does, regardless of whether the attorney, Teach for America alumnus and former educator in a Title I Charlotte high school plans to jettison K-12 politics to run for lieutenant governor.

If so, Mark Johnson has about a year remaining as North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. For those remaining months, he should at least act like it.  

The last thing, indeed the very last thing, Johnston County’s students, teachers and administrators need in this moment is the public school superintendent’s heartless chortling. I have covered struggling school systems. I was raised in a struggling school system. There was very little humor to be found in the situation. 

Johnson should apologize. He should do it today. Otherwise, it reeks of cruelty, and the privileged finding dim sport in their privilege.

It should be said again that not every Republican, despite what their critics say, loathes public schools and seeks with their every aim to destroy them. There are GOP school board members, county commissioners and, indeed, state lawmakers who genuinely wish to improve conditions for all students, even if the GOP track record since it assumed leadership in 2011 would indicate otherwise. Likewise, it is foolish to assume everyone in their counterparts in the Democratic Party has the best intentions for public education.

But when one party’s most visible public school leader takes a Cheshire cat-like glee in any school system’s existential struggles, that party should take a moment to consider what it is they stand for in North Carolina today. 

And if this is not it, they should say so. They should say so loudly. They should shout it from Grandfather Mountain. Otherwise, we must assume that they, like Johnson and O’Dea, are cackling in the back of the locker room.

When one party’s most visible public school leaders takes a Cheshire cat-like glee in any school system’s existential struggles, that party should take a moment to consider what it is they stand for in North Carolina today.

Almost three years ago, when state lawmakers underfunded K-12 operations and carved great portions of the budget off the Department of Public Instruction’s hide—enough so that career Republicans like ex-State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey were at a loss to explain their own party’s logic— teachers, local school districts and the general public wondered what a suddenly silent Mark Johnson could be thinking, what he could be saying in the back rooms. 

Now, after his jocular moment with O’Dea, perhaps we know otherwise. Perhaps he found the whole damn thing side-splitting.