Sifting through the cloud of education rhetoric
It has been quite a few days in the debate about public education in North Carolina.
Teachers, parents, and civic leaders staged walk-ins at schools across the state to draw attention to the devastating budget cuts that are making it harder for teachers to do their jobs.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger called the events media stunts and attacked the N.C. Association of Educators for their “bully tactics” when in fact the NCAE turned what was developing into a wildcat teacher walkout into productive community discussions about public schools.
Governor Pat McCrory took a more moderate tone, saying teachers had “legitimate gripes” and then Tuesday convened the first meeting of his newly formed Teacher Advisory Committee to come with “long-term solutions to complex educational issues.”
McCrory said the state’s sluggish economy wasn’t providing enough revenue to make a lot of new investments in teacher pay and school funding and then he claimed that he inherited lot of the problems in education including the “cloud” of low teacher morale that has been hanging over the state that he said didn’t just come up in the last nine months.
Education advocates pointed out that McCrory signed legislation this year that provided no pay raise for teachers, slashed funding for teacher assistants, ended career status for teachers, ended pay supplements for teachers who earned master’s degrees, abolished the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program, created a voucher scheme to send public money to unaccountable private and religious academies, and made more cuts to funding for textbooks, classroom supplies and school bus replacements.
That’s a lot of the cloud right there.
Republican leaders are clearly worried that the public increasingly understands the damage the General Assembly and the McCrory Administration are doing to public education in North Carolina and will take it out on them at the polls.
A television ad paid for by anonymous donors to a political group with close ties to McCrory features the governor telling a crowd that the state is spending more on education than ever before. But people are clearly not buying it, as they take their kids to school and see larger classes, fewer supplies, no teacher assistants and not enough textbooks to go around.
They also see teachers leaving their children’s schools, heading to neighboring states where they can make as much as $10,000 more a year.
The walk-ins and the discussions they prompted brought it all home again, forcing Republican leaders to scramble to respond.
Berger wants to blame everything on the NCAE, absurdly portraying them as a big, bad union pulling all the strings. McCrory wants to blame the economy, former administrations, Medicaid, anybody but himself or his fellow Republicans, and is trying to change the subject to “long-term complex solutions.’
Also this week came a crystal clear, fact-based look through the cloud -- a report from the N.C. Budget & Tax Center and the Education and Law Project of the N.C. Justice Center that points out that many of the solutions aren’t complex at all and can be done immediately if the political will is there.
The report, “Smart Money; Investing in education promotes students success,” details the cuts to public schools in recent years and even though they are familiar by now, they are still startling to read.
Spending on K-12 education in North Carolina is $563 million less this year than it was six years ago when adjusted for inflation. Per pupil spending is $653 less and there are more than 48,000 more students in our schools than in 2007.
There are now fewer slots for at-risk four-year-olds in NC PreK, even as rising poverty has put more kids at risk of facing problems. The budget that McCrory signed this summer provides a total of $15 per student for textbooks when a single book, print or digital, cost between $35 and $85.
Nurses and counselors and teaching assistants have all been cut, even though they play important roles in helping students in school.
And then there is teacher pay, where North Carolina ranks near the bottom of the 50 states. A teacher must work 16 years to make $40,000 and must still pay for classroom supplies out of his or her own pocket.
The report also makes the case for the correlation between investments -- from NC PreK to teacher pay to supports for students -- and academic achievement.
There is nothing complex about addressing the current problems in education. There’s plenty of time for committee meetings and esoteric debates about long-term shifts in policy and methods.
What students and teachers and schools need now are the resources to succeed.
The current General Assembly and Administration have instead offered rhetoric, slogans, ideology and misplaced blame---and that’s not helping anybody learn.
Chris Fitzsimon is the executive director at NC Policy Watch.