Too bad, teach

March 9, 2013 

When former Gov. Jim Hunt, the champion of many enlightened policies in North Carolina, signed his Excellence in Schools Act in 1997, clear goals promised a vastly improved public education system in so many ways. There were going to be tougher standards for teachers, more accountability and a determined effort to bring teacher pay in the state to the national average after a history of ridiculously anemic salaries for those charged with the noble task of educating the future.

Today, says a report to the State Board of Education, the state ranks 46th. The average salary (including experienced teachers with all others) is $45,933, or $10,000 less than the national average, says the National Education Association.

The low pay, embarrassingly low, is the result of a multi-year salary freeze and the failure of lawmakers, Democratic and Republican, to make good on all their rhetoric about how important teachers are and how they deserve our support. Talk is cheap, it tunes out. And so is the General Assembly, several editions of it, in fact.

North Carolina is taking advantage of its public school teachers, who despite this economic mistreatment continue to get the job done, with many of them improving their students’ test scores and working long hours after school with children in need of assistance. Most go in their own pockets for supplies.

Some parents, aware of how teachers are shortchanged, try to help with fund raising geared toward supplies. Consider that for a moment: The state, and yes, counties, don’t even provide adequate funding for supplies so that young people have what they need, so parents have to make up the difference. And what happens in those schools where parents are not affluent enough to help? They go wanting.

And so do teachers. Anyone who’s priced single family homes and apartments in any average sized city in this state knows that teachers simply can’t make it on their own, which is why many young ones have to take on roommates or additional work. The financial struggle drives many good teachers out of the profession, as a substantial percentage of new teachers are gone after three years.

If anything, public school teachers, who have a profound impact on youngsters just starting school in terms of helping them develop study habits, finding interests that will keep them enthusiastic, helping their parents work with them, deserve salaries every bit as handsome as those of college professors. And yet lawmakers and some taxpaying parents think we can go on the cheap with public education with no consequences.

But if shame isn’t enough, and their ought to be shame at this ranking, then perhaps not far down the road, when North Carolina’s ranking makes it simply unattractive to teaching candidates and the state has trouble filling positions (which will mean larger classes, and some courses not offered in upper grades), then this will become a crisis, and a serious threat to public education.

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