The teachers were upset. And with North Carolina now embarked on a program of aggressive backsliding in its commitment to public education, who could blame them?
Teachers, many of them wearing distinctive red t-shirts, helped swell the crowd of several thousand at the July 29 “Moral Monday” protest in downtown Raleigh – the largest gathering in a series that began back in April.
They objected to spending cuts and policy changes imposed by the Republican-led General Assembly, which had wrapped up its 2013 regular session three days before. All in all, the new state budget signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory leaves North Carolina’s public schools in a free-fall toward the bottom of the national barrel in terms of support for the classroom educators who are indispensible to student success.
Yes, this is a pocketbook issue for many teachers. With the state’s average teacher pay having already sunk to an abysmal 46th in the country, if not worse, why shouldn’t it be? There is simply no valid reason for North Carolina to be paying its teaching professionals at levels that often require extraordinary personal sacrifice.
But teachers, inspired by their strong belief in the public school mission, will not remain silent in the face of policies making it ever harder for public schools to meet their responsibilities. When the teaching profession itself is degraded by low pay and onerous working conditions, to the point where bright young people have even less incentive to choose the teaching path, the whole educational enterprise is put further at risk. Teachers understand what’s at stake.
The budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 trims state spending for K-12 education by $117 million, down from $7.98 billion. This remains the budget’s largest single category, and some would say that a cut of about 1.5 percent could hardly rate as a disaster.
Budget skin and bones
Yet the public schools have been on the equivalent of a bread-and-water diet over the past several years as budget writers had to keep overall spending in line with revenues held down by the recession. And this year, spending cuts occur in tandem with policy revisions that seem calculated to diminish teachers’ status and make the choice of a teaching career even more problematic.
North Carolina’s practice has been to make teachers eligible for “career status” after successful completion of their first three years. Although often referred to as tenure, this is not a ticket to lifetime employment. Effective principals can and do weed out underperformers in the teaching ranks.
Career status does, however, help shield teachers from some of the pressure that can be brought to bear when they make unpopular decisions or get crosswise with the wrong people. It has been a useful carrot in an environment with far too many sticks.
The new budget does away with teacher tenure in favor of employment contracts of one, two or four years. Suddenly teachers’ hold on their jobs will become more fragile – just the sort of inducement people need when deciding whether to enter or stick with a profession notorious for low pay and incessant demands.
Even with pay having stagnated over the past several years, the only teachers who can collect more money (other than those who last long enough to move up the salary schedule) will be those who are offered and who accept four-year contracts – a massive $500 raise. So someone who’s been teaching for five years or less and who presumably was doing an excellent job would be making on the order of $31,300 in state pay.
And in what seems to be a deliberate insult to the premise that teachers can enhance their skills and value by continuing with their own educations, the budget strips teachers who go on to acquire graduate degrees of the extra pay to which they’ve been entitled. What a slap in the face to teachers who want to learn more about their subjects and about their profession, and who understandably expect a modest salary boost for their efforts.
Jo Ann Norris, president and executive director of the nonpartisan Public School Forum of North Carolina, provides a rundown on the budget’s damage to public education. Besides the tenure and advanced degree changes, she notes teacher job losses that could reach 5,000 during the 2013-14 school year. There also will be a projected 3,850 fewer teacher assistants, ramping up the classroom management burdens on teachers in the early grades and giving them less time to work with students.
Supplies? Bring your own
Another sore point highlighted by Norris: Teachers can anticipate no relief from the expectation that they’ll have to pay for many classroom supplies out of their own pockets. And funding for support personnel such as counselors, media specialists and speech pathologists will be locked in at recession-era levels.
Meanwhile, the highly successful Teaching Fellows Program, which helps recruit some of North Carolina’s most promising teachers from the state’s universities, will be phased out. With turnover among junior teachers already at troubling levels and school systems struggling to keep their teaching ranks adequately staffed with the well-qualified and the dedicated, scrapping the Teaching Fellows Program seems almost like sabotage.
Legislative leaders profess their support for public education by providing more money for advanced classes and more to prepare high school graduates for careers, among other initiatives. They insist that students be able to read by the end of third grade or be channeled into special summer reading programs. But little in the new budget seems likely to help schools achieve that worthy goal – certainly not shrinking the number of teacher assistants.
At the same time, the budget launches an “Opportunity Scholarship” program – starting price tag, $10 million a year – to help students from lower-income families attend private schools. The intent may be noble, but the effect is to drain money from public school systems that have a general responsibility to serve all the children in their jurisdictions, including those for whom private schools are neither desirable nor feasible. If lower-income kids are to be better served, the key is to give the public schools more support, not less.
Budget cuts for K-12 education, as well as for community colleges and the University of North Carolina system, were perhaps inevitable once the legislature agreed on a package of tax cuts that will mean some $500 million less in revenue over the next two years. Gov. McCrory went along with the cuts in the hope that, according to the classic trickle-down model, they’ll boost business and help create jobs.
Gaps in opportunity
But by restricting its investment in schools and colleges, the state turns away from a strategy that has led many companies to choose North Carolina as a good place to operate, with a plentiful supply of well-qualified workers.
It also risks worsening the persistent gap between the state’s prosperous urban regions and hard-pressed rural areas, between its affluent suburbs and poverty-plagued city neighborhoods, between its haves and have-nots. Of the latter, many are people of color, traditionally stuck with the short end of the economic stick.
The N.C. Council of Churches is especially concerned with how state policies affect our disadvantaged and vulnerable citizens. That concern reflects Christian mandates to look out for the interests of those who need an extra measure of care. It also is in keeping with ideals of social justice.
All members of a just society deserve a fair and equal chance to enjoy what the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution refers to as the blessings of liberty. And the opportunity to get a decent education is vitally important to that personal success. It is an opportunity that, in many tragic chapters of our history, has been withheld from people viewed as inferiors or as fodder for exploitation.
That link is well understood by the state chapter of the NAACP, organizers of the Moral Monday protests. In making common cause with teachers, the NAACP focuses on a grievous failing of the current General Assembly and governor to give public education the resources it needs. The schools and the families who depend on them cannot be left to bear the consequences of that shortsightedness.
— Steve Ford, Volunteer Program Associate