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After agency shakeup, superintendent lays out his vision for NC’s public schools

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson talks about charter schools at his office in Raleigh, NC on Feb. 8, 2017.
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson talks about charter schools at his office in Raleigh, NC on Feb. 8, 2017. News & Observer file photo

State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson says he’ll work to speed up approval of teacher licenses, reduce testing and hold charter schools accountable now that he’s in undisputed control of the agency that works with North Carolina’s public schools.

Last week, Johnson announced a reorganization of the state Department of Public Instruction, after the state Supreme Court upheld a state law that transfers some of the powers of the State Board of Education to the superintendent.

On Wednesday, Johnson explained his new organizational chart for DPI and how he wants to make it more than just a regulatory agency, even as it’s also dealing with two years in a row of layoffs because of state legislative-mandated budget cuts.

“As a team we can look at the positive changes we need to make to this organization to make sure we are using all the resources that we have, and we might not have as much as we used to, but all the resources that we have in order to do the best job we can to support schools,” Johnson said at the state board meeting.

Previously, some positions at DPI had reported directly to the state board or to both the board and the superintendent. But the Republican-led state legislature moved to put Johnson, the first GOP schools superintendent elected in 100 years in 2016, in charge of DPI.

As part of the reorganization, Johnson announced that there will now be four deputy superintendents, instead of just one, to oversee DPI’s different divisions. Johnson repeatedly said Wednesday that employees in different divisions are expected to collaborate to help support schools.

The reorganization includes the creation of an educator, recruitment and support division whose No. 1 priority will be improving the process for granting teaching licenses. A report found that it could take as long as six months for some teachers to get licensed, delaying the ability of districts to hire new educators.

“We had people in the licensing department that are working hard,” Johnson said. “They are working hard to get licenses through that department. We have processes that need to be fixed.”

One of Johnson’s newly created positions is deputy superintendent for innovation. That will be filled by Eric Hall, who will oversee different divisions such as charter schools and the Innovative School District.

Hall had initially been hired to be superintendent of the Innovative School District, a new program that allows the state to take over low-performing schools and to turn them over to third-party operators, such as charter school management groups.

Johnson said that Hall will also serve as acting superintendent of the Innovative School District until a replacement is found.

Charter schools are taxpayer funded schools that are exempt from some of the rules and regulations that traditional public schools must follow.

The Office of Charter Schools had reported to the state board before lawmakers shifted it back to the superintendent. Johnson said Hall’s new position will allow him to see whether charter schools are serving as labs of innovation and to suggest things that can be used by traditional public schools.

But Johnson also talked about holding charter schools accountable for their performance.

Hundreds of proponents of school choice, including NC Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, cite the benefits of non-traditional education options during a rally in Raleigh, NC Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

“I’m a proponent of parental school choice,” Johnson said. “But if a charter school is not measuring up, then the charter school needs to close.”

Several times Wednesday, Johnson also talked about how it will be a priority to reduce the amount of student and teacher testing. State lawmakers passed a law that directs Johnson to make recommendations by Jan. 15, 2019 on ways to reduce testing that’s not required by state or federal law.

The state board had sued to block the shift in power to Johnson. Relations between Johnson and the board have been rocky, but the superintendent extended an olive branch Wednesday as he noted that the board was at the top of his organizational chart.

“The State Board of Education makes the rules and regulations for our public schools and ultimately has the general supervision of our public schools,” Johnson said. “That is important to note here.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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