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School governance and quality at stake in court decision

There has been too much tumult for too long between the State Board of Education and Republican State Superintendent Mark Johnson. And Republican leaders of the General Assembly, who like Johnson’s advocacy of charter schools and support for their voucher program giving taxpayer money to some parents to send their kids to private schools, are all too eager to support the superintendent in any dispute with the State Board, which is run by Republican Bill Cobey.

Now the state Supreme Court is taking an important step, agreeing to hear a court case that might decide whether the State Board or Johnson will control public schools.

Cobey recognizes the importance of public education as a servant to all North Carolinians and doesn’t breathlessly support ideologically driven policy. A former congressman and one-time athletics director at UNC-Chapel Hill, Cobey’s brought a steadying hand to the State Board.

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But he’s battled Johnson, a hard-right Republican with limited experience in education (he served on a county school board) who’s now building a staff of his very own without much control of the State Board, thanks to hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money for his own use from his friends on Jones Street. And Johnson’s been none too eager to lay out his views on the state of public education very often. For someone who’s supposed to be the face of public education, he’s been a behind-the-scenes leader, taking his instructions apparently from legislative leaders.

This is not a healthy relationship, and Johnson’s courting of support from GOP leaders and his clashes with the State Board indicate a superintendent who wants to steer the public schools in a direction that will bring on unlimited charter schools and an even more expensive voucher program, to the detriment of mainstream public education.

That puts Johnson squarely in philosophical harmony with legislators – specifically with Republican leaders who seem determined to dismantle the public education system that has served North Carolina well for more than 100 years. In Johnson, these legislators believe they have someone who’ll follow their instructions.

The State Board is claiming that a state law shifting more power to Johnson is unconstitutional, that the state’s governing document requires the board to run education and that the law passed by GOP leaders undermines that.

A high court ruling here is desperately needed, and the most sensible one would support the State Board and thus the quality of North Carolina’s education system. When the superintendent is an ideologue as Johnson appears to be, the State Board at least can moderate the office and keep the public schools on an even path.

It’s good that the court is going to take the case. This ongoing dispute needs a resolution.

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