A bewildering turn against public schools

June 23, 2013 

June Atkinson, North Carolina’s superintendent of public instruction, came by The News & Observer last week. She has a first name that echoes an earlier time and a gracious Southern manner that does the same. But behind her restraint, there was a look of worry veering toward alarm.

“We are at a crucial point in public education in our state,” she said.

That’s hardly a new statement in the long debates over schools in which situations are always urgent and the future is always in jeopardy. But this time it sounded different. This time it sounded as if she knew that we have actually passed that “crucial point” and are heading over a brink earlier generations had feared and avoided.

Atkinson is a former high school teacher with a doctorate and years of service to education at the state level. She is seeing what lifelong educators thought would never come: a crumbling of the consensus that public schools are an essential part of our society and our democracy.

Now there are people in power who think public schools are a problem and public school teachers are part of it. Their solution is to take a hammer to the public school edifice by breaking it up into charter schools and giving parents vouchers to send their children to private schools. The teachers, meanwhile, will be given meager salaries and pitted against each other in a competition for merit pay based on test scores.

For Atkinson, who taught in an era when teachers were revered, the shift is stunning and discouraging. The state now ranks 46th in teacher pay, nearly $10,000 below the national average. A teacher with a bachelor’s degree must work 15 years to earn an annual salary of more than $40,000.

“I realize it’s not a job you enter to get rich, but we do have to value them,” Atkinson said, making more a plea than a statement.

“In times of hardship, we should be praising our teachers instead of saying we have ineffective teachers,” she said.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the state Legislative Building, Republicans who control the General Assembly were debating budgets that would further erode education funding. Atkinson knows there’s no more money coming. She threw out an idea: Exempt teachers from the state income tax. That would boost their take-home pay without a direct allocation of state funds.

The idea proposed in the afternoon was dead before sundown. There will be no imaginative ways to get money to teachers. The idea is to get tough with them.

The state superintendent of education is suddenly in a realm of education she doesn’t recognize. When she goes into restaurants, she meets teachers waiting tables. She meets some who work three jobs. That’s how much their work is valued now.

“We’ve made teachers villains,” she said. “I believe that has happened at the national level over the past three or four years.”

She’s right about that. North Carolina Republicans didn’t invent the hard turn against public schools. Their policies reflect a national phenomenon where the right-wing plan to curtail government by “starving the beast” with tax cuts has made it acceptable to starve the so-called “government schools.”

In Pennsylvania, tightfisted legislators have sharply cut funding for Philadelphia’s public schools. A New York Times report last week said state aid to the schools has fallen by $274 million in the last three years. The city just laid off 19 percent of the school workforce.

The Times reported: “Principals are contemplating opening in September with larger classes but no one to answer phones, keep order on the playground, coach sports, check out library books or send transcripts for seniors applying to college.

“You’re not even looking at a school that any of us went to,” said Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer. “It’s an atrocity, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves if the schools open with these budgets.”

We should be ashamed. Philadelphia’s schools, like most big systems, have waste and excesses. But they should be fixed, not abandoned. For to forsake them isn’t to forsake teachers or administrators. It is to forsake children.

June Atkinson knows that. Teachers know that. Somehow conservative lawmakers don’t.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins wrote last week about the efforts of teachers to get by with less and less. The column brought emails from dismayed teachers. One wrote: “I have been teaching school since 1976 and have never been disheartened until this year when I have seen our state legislature take a grand slap-in-the-face toward teachers. The message they are sending is that education does not matter, teachers are not worthy, and teaching is not a real job.”

Such comments can’t be dismissed as the complaints of the disgruntled. Even the best teachers are worried and many are quitting. Karyn Dickerson, an English teacher at Greensboro’s Grimsley High School, is the 2013 North Carolina Teacher of the Year. She said in an email interview:

“We are already seeing the effect of low teacher salaries and low per-pupil funding in our schools. At the end of the past school year, three teachers at my school decided to leave public education in North Carolina. One of my other co-workers, a teacher completing his second year, shared with me that of his graduating teacher education class of twenty five from UNCG, fifteen have either left North Carolina to teach in other states or have left the field of education completely.”

No wonder Atkinson worries. So should everyone who cares about children and their futures.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or

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