- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 12, 2019

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s Republican state schools superintendent announced on Tuesday he’ll run for lieutenant governor instead of his current job, shaking up races for two statewide elections just three weeks before candidate filing begins.

Mark Johnson was narrowly elected superintendent of public instruction in 2016 in his first run for statewide office at age 33. He now says he wants to stir up broader state government like he did in the education department for the past three years. During that time, he’s butted heads with the State Board of Education, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration and teachers aligned with Democrats.

“We need a change agent at the top of the ticket for North Carolina as well,” Johnson told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “I have shown that working with the General Assembly I am able to drive change to make government more accountable and more transparent.”

But instead of being the likely GOP nominee for superintendent, Johnson is entering a March primary field for lieutenant governor with at least seven other announced Republican candidates, including former and current legislators and ex-U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers.

Johnson said he’ll have statewide name recognition and a message that goes against the political establishment. “Watching this race unfold, I have not heard that message from other candidates,” Johnson said.

Current Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest is running for governor. The lieutenant governor’s job historically has had few mandated responsibilities beyond presiding over the state Senate. That power could be exponentially greater should the Senate be evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans after the 2020 elections, since the lieutenant governor only votes during ties. The lieutenant governor also serves on the State Board of Education and the State Board of Community Colleges. Several Democrats also are running.

Johnson, a former high school teacher and local school board member for Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, was elected the first GOP state superintendent in over a century, upsetting three-term Superintendent June Atkinson, a Democrat.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed a law weeks before he took office shifting more responsibilities from the State Board of Education to him. The education board challenged the law, which was ultimately upheld. But Johnson said he’s received pushback from establishment Republicans and Democrats and bureaucrats even when he uncovered problems that began before he took office.

As one example, Johnson cited his discovery that $15 million for a legislatively-mandated early-grade reading program had been unspent by the Department of Public Instruction. So Johnson used it to purchase electronic tablets for teachers and for continuing education for reading instructors. He then received criticism because thousands of iPads sat in a warehouse. The state board, now largely composed of Cooper’s appointees, also has questioned his spending.

Johnson also didn’t support massive school funding rallies at the Legislative Building the past two years put on by the North Carolina Association of Educators because he said dozens of school systems were forced to cancel classes on scheduled instructional days. The teachers’ group sounded pleased by his announcement.

“After years of making bad decisions for our public school students and educators, we are glad that Mr. Johnson has realized that the role of state superintendent was not a good fit for him personally or professionally,” NCAE President Mark Jewell said in a written statement.

Johnson’s departure from the superintendent’s race opens the door for a Republican field to emerge. At least five Democrats already are running for their party’s nomination.

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