When North Carolina officials put a stop , at least for the time being, to a badly mishandled contracting process for a new K-3 reading test operator Tuesday, it’s as if they read the writing on the wall.
Teachers, parents and legislators – at least those identifying as Democrats – lost faith in the contract process weeks ago, which leaves Superintendent Mark Johnson, bewildered members of the State Board of Education, and GOP lawmakers digging in for a misguided fight, one they could have never imagined lasting this long.
These aren’t, of course, the sorts of decisions that often make for lurid political drama. If you can think of a snappy headline for this partisan pot-broiler that involves the words “literacy test contract,” I’m all ears.
But nothing has been normal about Johnson’s tenure, from his election as a political unknown, his cozy relationship with the partisan powers-that-be in the GOP legislative caucus, his adversarial relationship with the public school educators he oversees, the legal and ethical quagmire of last year’s iPad purchase , and this internecine struggle over a multi-million dollar contract.
But here we are anyway. The Department of Information Technology stepped in and played adult in a room full of children, using their authority over the purchasing contract to call a temporary halt.
“I am disappointed in this stay as it sows unnecessary confusion for our educators just as the school year starts,” Johnson complained Tuesday.
But the superintendent need not look far if he’s seeking someone to blame. Charlotte educator, activist and occasional Policy Watch contributor Justin Parmenter  has turned over enough stones in recent months to wonder where the sense ever was in this senseless process, one that appears from the outside as if Johnson intended to hire Istation for the K-3 reading contract, no matter the recommendation of the panel of educators tapped to review the potential vendors this year.
Johnson denied the runner-up’s appeal of the decision, but that was to be expected.
Among those educators is a potential challenger for Johnson’s office, so it’s fair to wonder whether Johnson is being targeted unfairly, whether this is simply a political feeding frenzy, sharks gnashing on chum.
But there are enough twists and turns and corkscrews in this drama to at least demand a review, if not a fresh start. It’s not about whether Istation is the best fit for North Carolina schools. Some educators have certainly claimed otherwise, while Johnson insists the company is a good fit.
It’s about the integrity of the process. And if, at the end of a new process, Istation is the better vendor, so be it. But, in the meantime, it’s difficult, nigh impossible, to muster any faith in the process that brought us here.
Imagine, if you can, that former state Superintendent June Atkinson mangled a process so. The howls from the Legislative Building would be deafening. The legislative inquiries would be shrill political theater. And the new bills, aimed at curtailing the superintendent’s power, would fill the calendar.
In its place, there’s a void in the legislature. And there’s not a soul in Raleigh who believes that Johnson’s party affiliation doesn’t play the largest part in that. What utter madness.
It is not the politicians and the pundits and the media and the companies that will ultimately suffer. It’s the students and, yet again, the teachers, the same ones prepping in this moment for the return of traditional calendar students next week, the same ones tasked with learning a new reading test, stopping all of that abruptly, and then resuming at some undefined point with, perhaps a new company, perhaps not. What a waste.
And what’s left of Johnson’s credibility floats in the ether, in the same place where the state’s plan for 3,000 or so unused iPads resides.
“If North Carolina has this kind of money to spend, why aren’t they spending it on personnel?” a third-grade teacher from New Hanover County told The News & Observer in June. “We don’t have enough help in my school. There are 19 K-3 teachers, and I think we have eight assistants and they’re spread as thin as they possibly could be.”
Such pragmatism is unfashionable in North Carolina politics, but we expect pragmatism from teachers, a group that’s been asked to make do, to make lemonade out of lemons, in perpetuity. After a time, that old cliché becomes an affront.
If teachers are forced in the coming weeks to learn and relearn a new literacy testing program, perhaps we could make this a learning experience for everyone. Lawmakers could step in, perhaps learn how an actual classroom works.
Johnson, in fact, could audit the course.