Berger's plan is unfairly tough on teachers

March 20, 2013 

One wonders whether a teacher once put state Sen. Phil Berger in the corner in first grade, causing him to say to himself: “One day I’ll be president pro-tem of the state Senate and I’ll pay ’em all back.”

Or perhaps he had time on his hands this week in the General Assembly and decided to revive his education reform proposals that were stymied last year as Republicans didn’t have their veto-proof majority. Berger’s 33-page bill is a wonder to behold.

Consider: He’d have public schools receive letter grades based on certain measures of performance, and parents would be notified. The implication, of course, is that a school that doesn’t measure up could be essentially eliminated when parents move their children to other schools. To put a letter grade on schools would be an imperfect science and would label a school forever. A low grade would be a scarlet letter, a stamp of inferiority upon the school and all the teachers and administrators in it.

That’s not just unfair. It’s bad education policy. Just how would the Eden senator recruit teachers to go to low-performing schools in poor sections of North Carolina, and there are plenty, if those teachers knew they’d be branded even as they tried to bring children along against all odds? Or would Berger simply abandon those schools and those students?

Tough guy

Berger’s bill is full of rhetoric about making teachers and schools more “accountable,” getting tough on inferior teachers and administrators, instructing the State Board of Education on how to measure schools. It even gives orders on how to dismiss someone and how long teacher contracts should be.

Ah, yes. The senator has returned to the legislative fray (not much of a fight anymore with Republicans in control of every branch of government) to set up his reform show there on Jones Street and to put North Carolina’s public school teachers in the center ring.

He spends several pages in his bill on teachers, but his real point is to end teacher tenure for good. It’s one of the few “perks” of public school teaching. A teacher who completes four years on the job has some protection against firing, but the protection is hardly absolute and not identical to more secure university tenure. Any teacher with any amount of experience can be dismissed for a specific cause.

Teachers with less than four years of service can be fired without cause. No protection there.

But Sen. Berger wants an end to tenure, period. Teachers would be offered single-year or multi-year contracts depending upon their job performance.

A modest benefit

Employment linked to performance? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That’s the condition most working people accept as terms of employment, particularly in an anti-union state such as North Carolina.

But tenure is a fair trade-off for teachers who work far in excess of a standard work week, who go in their own pockets to buy supplies, who are expected by some parents to be mentor and mother and father and disciplinarian and miracle-worker.

And just how does Berger expect to lure good teachers when North Carolina ranks by one measure 46th in teacher pay compared with other states? But there’s no mention of a lot more money for teachers in his bill, only gratuitous insults and comments such as, “The days of accepting a broken education system in North Carolina are over.”

Broken? The vast majority of North Carolina families send their kids to public schools.

Of course, his cause has already been undermined by the General Assembly’s failure to adequately fund the schools and support them, and by justifiable suspicions on the part of teachers that Republicans on Jones Street are out to beat them up for sport. After all, in a special session in the dead of night last year, Republicans pushed through a measure to deny teachers the right to have their dues for the N.C. Association of Educators deducted from their paychecks.

It was a childish, punitive and petty act that later didn’t pass legal muster, but GOP leaders were proud of it, as they’d been mad at teachers for criticizing their cuts to education.

Apparently, they’re still mad. And now they’re taking the gloves off. They should all be put in the corner.

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