In the IStation saga, Mark Johnson’s failings get a big stage

In the IStation saga, Mark Johnson’s failings get a big stage

If North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson ever fizzled in his lustrous perch in DPI’s corner office, his sharpest critics surmised, he would be failed by his extraordinarily limited bona fides.

After all, when it comes to Johnson’s background – two years in a Charlotte classroom via Teach for America, a stint as a corporate attorney, and a brief tenure as a school board member in Winston-Salem – there is simply not much to parse over.

“I mean, he has taught two years,” a flabbergasted June Atkinson marveled in 2016, with no small amount of condescension, when Johnson ousted her. “He’s never run an organization that has almost 900 people. He has never traveled to the 100 counties. He doesn’t have a background. So, it’s like, how do I teach or how do I help a person who is an infant in public education to become an adult overnight to be able to help public education in this state?”

The image conjured up by Atkinson’s damning assessment – that of an in-over-his-head novice – endures today among Johnson’s detractors.

But after IStation, after the iPads, after the supremely suspect rollout of the superintendent’s propagandizing website, perhaps we were wrong.

Johnson has brazenly stretched public records laws, built a bulwark to keep the media out, spun the truth mercilessly, and, shrewdly, deferred early and often to the partisan powers-that-be in the state legislature, even as lawmakers gouged the very department he oversees.

The superintendent may lack the academic, alabaster sheen of a career educator that we’ve come to expect from North Carolina’s top public school official, but his actions reflect the unvarnished cynicism of a veteran politician.

How boring, how trite.

It is as if Johnson, through osmosis, took on the traits of lawmakers with quadruple the experience, cagey legislators like Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.

The political clichés inherent to a younger candidate like Johnson – the idealist, the optimist, the outsider who eschews “business as usual” – were quickly and mercilessly dispatched, replaced by rote partisanship, in North Carolina the embodiment of “business as usual.”

And, despite its irregularities, the unspooling IStation saga is “business as usual” – it bears the familiar characteristics of a sullied political hierarchy, cronyism over credibility.

“A curious P.R. strategy”

The IStation story, at this point, is about control.

Control of narrative, control of information, control of sources, and control of a lucrative state contract for the state’s Read to Achieve diagnostic tool, one very much in doubt today, after North Carolina House lawmakers backed an amendment Monday that would allow local districts to choose whether they buy into the company.

And the problem with IStation’s rancorous “cease and desist” letters – aside from the positively radioactive image of a multi-million dollar company bullishly hoping to muzzle public school educators – is that there is no chance they will serve to control this fiasco.

Some worry that the company – which would replace Amplify’s mClass tool – is a poor screen for dyslexia. Others are perturbed by the state’s illogical selection process, which seems to have less to do with educators’ preferences and more to do with Johnson’s high-tech agenda.

Charlotte teacher and advocate Justin Parmenter authored a tortuous narrative of the iStation selection process this month. Based on Parmenter’s convincing reading, Johnson jettisoned a selection committee’s recommendation and the committee itself when, it seems, members did not go in his intended direction.

Worse yet, Parmenter contends Johnson lied about the process, claiming that the committee never made a recommendation when it did. The documentation is not a complimentary portrait for the superintendent, or his motivations.

Johnson’s office invited a similar questioning in 2018, following a purchase of about $6 million in iPads – weeks after a private, Apple-funded Silicon Valley gathering that skirted the state’s ethics laws.

The power lies in Johnson’s office. He is, after all, the state’s top public school official, and Johnson, more than IStation, is accountable for the choice, but there’s more than enough inscrutably tortured, bureaucratic hand wringing here to justify a pending case through the Administrative Office of the Courts. Amplify initiated that case when it filed a complaint two weeks after Johnson’s selection.

When Parmenter and other critics – including Durham school psychologist Chelsea Bartel and K-12 consultant Amy Jablonski, one of Johnson’s prospective opponents in the 2020 campaign – began uncovering the mess, IStation’s legal counsel penned a terse “cease and desist” letter to “end the misinformation.”

We’ve yet to see evidence of any factual errors in Parmenter’s account, the absence of which suggests that IStation is more concerned with unflattering information than it is misinformation.

“It’s a curious PR strategy for a company that you’d think would be focused on winning over North Carolina teachers right now,” Parmenter wrote on his blog last week.

The “tragic flaw”

Yet, at least IStation’s motivations – to make a profit, to unseat a business rival – are clear. Johnson’s less so, inviting an epic poem’s worth of questions about the superintendent, his priorities, his transparency, and his accountability. The state superintendent’s office is a cozier fit for a mediator, not a dictator, certainly not one as tangled in rank Raleigh politics as Johnson appears to be.

And if there is a recurrent hamartia – a tragic flaw – in Johnson’s administration, it is summarized neatly in the IStation controversy.

Education blogger Stu Egan’s assessment of IStation officials’ campaign giving notes the company is, financially speaking, cozy with Republicans like Johnson.

No doubt Atkinson was a politician, but the longtime captain of the state’s K-12 system was an educator first, and a politician second. How else to explain her almost complete absence from the campaign trail in 2016, when Johnson seemed more of a bleating, sacrificial lamb than an honest-to-God challenger? Atkinson, and others on the left, severely underestimated the challenger’s cleverness and the length of Donald Trump’s coattails.

They also, perhaps, failed to see the appeal of a candidate who talked about a departure from the norm, a high-tech upgrade, and a reduction in high-stakes testing, even if it is North Carolina conservatives – the architects of the supremely test-oriented Read to Achieve law – who can’t make up their minds about testing.

Or they may have missed the burgeoning frustration with the beleaguered state of North Carolina’s public schools, a condition still more aptly blamed on the state legislature, for whom no price – not the limited faculties of our schools, not the debilitated condition of our infrastructure, not the failing of a social safety net they never particularly cared for – is too great for a tax cut.

When Johnson fizzles, it’s because he forgets, or he’s never known, who he serves. He imagines that he can prosper without the public servants in his employ, that he can endure without those folks who are supposed to carry out his vision for public education in the 100 counties and the 115 school districts June Atkinson catalogued in 2016.

If you exclude the right-leaning school choice apostles, Johnson has struggled to endear himself with his primary constituents, North Carolina’s teachers and school administrators. And, at the heart of it, it is because he comports himself as a veteran, not of education, but of politics, one long rumored to have eyes on higher offices.

Senator Berger and Speaker Moore are creatures of Raleigh and denizens of their own conservative districts. But Johnson serves as the state’s public school leader for thousands of teachers, principals, guidance counselors and teaching assistants from the Outer Banks to the Coastal Plain to the Piedmont and the Mountains – professionals who, like the students they serve every day, can sniff out a fraud from miles away like a flattened skunk on a highway.

Campaign and fundraise all you wish. But when you boldly proclaim what is best for the classroom to individuals who have, for decades longer than yourself, stood in front of a classroom, no manner of preparation with top-dollar consultants will cloak simple ignorance.

Here, in the classroom, for hours on end every day, this is truly a “no-spin zone.” This is where partisan platforms come to die, on display before millions of inquisitive, mischievous, and ambitious North Carolina children who, God bless them, forgot to guzzle cheap party pontifications before they zipped up their backpacks and hopped on the school bus.

“You may be an ambassador to England and France,” Bob Dylan sang in 1979. “But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Mark Johnson has to decide whether he is the state superintendent of the Republican Party, IStation and the corporate elite, or the superintendent of the public schools of North Carolina.