Superintendent Mark Johnson on controversial teacher pay comment: Phrasing was “less than stellar”

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson says his “less-than-stellar phrasing” when addressing teacher pay at a Raleigh conference last month spurred a “fierce partisan backlash focused only on teacher pay.”

Johnson addressed the controversy—in which he reportedly referred to $35,000 in teacher pay as “good money” for some educators—in an op-ed for The News & Observer Wednesday.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, has since re-emphasized calls for further teacher raises from the N.C. General Assembly.

Meanwhile, Johnson argues that context matters in his quote, which touched off a firestorm and prompted leaders in the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) to shatter tradition by announcing that the superintendent would not be invited to their annual conference this March.

From his commentary:

A key challenge facing North Carolina today is the urban-rural divide. This probably isn’t news to you. Gov. Roy Cooper started the Hometown Strong project to focus on this issue. What is surprising is how I recently triggered a statewide partisan flare-up after my admittedly inelegant attempt to highlight how this urban-rural split causes us to see things differently.

I believe transforming our education system will be a key part of bridging the urban-rural divide. I hoped to illustrate this point recently when discussing starting salaries for teachers with school board members of different political stripes. I said the state’s annual base starting pay (before local supplements) of $35,000 was a good start in some rural communities where families of all shapes, sizes, and age ranges bring home a median household income of just $33,000 a year. While we are on the right track with recent salary increases, I continued, we need to keep working to better compensate our teachers. But my less-than-stellar phrasing activated a fierce partisan backlash focused only on teacher pay.

This recent clamor actually gets to the heart of the matter, though. We are now well into the 21st century but still have students and educators who only have 20th century tools. And some of those tasked with making schools better are more focused on preserving tired partisan wedges rather than looking for innovative ways to provide more and better opportunities in rural communities.

Raising teacher pay is important, and I have consistently pushed for it. But compensation is only a piece of how we strengthen North Carolina’s public school system. Politicos can debate the personal attacks and misdirection, but I want to look for real solutions.

Teachers in rural communities deserve a professional environment that reflects the importance of their role. Last year, my team and I worked with the General Assembly to commit $105 million to replace clearly outdated school buildings in rural communities that cannot afford to build schools on their own.

Meanwhile, NCAE President Mark Jewell has said that he was invited to debate teacher pay with the superintendent on Spectrum News’ “Capital Tonight” program, although Jewell said Johnson declined the offer.

Johnson’s Wednesday commentary also touched on school technology and infrastructure. It’s worth noting some state House legislators have been pushing a nearly $2 billion statewide school bond referendum to partially address an estimated $8 billion in K-12 construction needs, although the measure has yet to gain sufficient traction in the Senate.

Read more from Johnson’s commentary below:

The differences between facility conditions in urban areas versus some rural ones are shocking. On my state travels, I have seen firsthand the struggles facing counties such as Columbus and Jones. Motel-like school buildings with pathways exposed to the elements instead of indoor halls. Struggling air conditioning units so old that replacement parts aren’t made anymore. Bathrooms that – I will spare you the descriptive details – are substandard.

Just as in cities, rural communities need modern facilities to foster opportunities for students. Teachers also need more flexibility instead of having to teach to a test. We are prioritizing new, adaptive technology that can serve as a powerful tool for educators. Thanks to efforts of state leaders including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, both urban and rural classrooms are now connected to high-speed internet.

The same adaptive technology that allows us to personalize our news, entertainment and food orders will empower teachers to personalize learning for students and also explore subjects that may have previously been offered only in urban areas. By providing immediate, rich data, this technology can reduce testing and other burdens that teachers endure to measure student progress.

Lastly, my team and I are focused on career pathways for students and creating workforce development pipelines in schools that connect students to local jobs, including teaching. We need to eradicate the notion that students must go to a four-year college to succeed. Students in rural communities can find their own path to success through military service, a technical certificate, an associate’s degree from a community college, or a university degree.

Solving the challenge of the rural-urban divide is no easy task, and it will take different kinds of leadership from across the state to get it done. Gov. Cooper is right to focus on the issue. We don’t agree on everything, but the governor and I can, and do, engage in productive conversations. I want others to join us.

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