Teachers take another hit in state budget

July 23, 2013 

Nothing like scientific research when it come to formulating state policy. Take Phil Berger, Republican senator from Eden and that chamber’s president pro-tem. When pressed for the reasons he has crusaded for ending teacher tenure in North Carolina’s public schools, Berger just says he has heard about a lot of incompetent teachers hanging on thanks to tenure.

The problem is, Berger’s logic is not scientific, it’s not reasonable and it woefully stretches the definition of tenure, which is not really what public school teachers have. “Tenure” the term is more often applied to the velvet pillow provided university professors. Professors can attain tenure after a certain number of years, when it becomes virtually a lifetime guarantee of employment, at least relative to the average working person.

But in North Carolina’s public schools, tenure is mainly protective of veteran teachers, a safeguard against them being fired quickly and arbitrarily. Under state law, teachers can be fired for any number of reasons.

And Berger’s not telling the whole story of his attempts to gut tenure, which are succeeding in the latest state budget. The whole truth is that he and other Republicans don’t like the state teachers’ association, in particular the criticism some in that group have offered of budget cuts to education. So the end of tenure is some payback, mean, vindictive and foolish payback.

Instead of tenure, teachers who are judged to be doing a good job will be offered shorter term contracts and merit pay.

Other priorities

Of course, in North Carolina that’s not saying much. Teachers as a group won’t be getting a general pay hike this year, as there’s not enough money, Berger says. But there is enough money to pump public funding into a voucher program for some parents so they can send their children to private schools (disadvantaged children qualify initially, but it won’t be long before Republicans expand it). Lawmakers also want to expand the charter school program, with more “independent” public schools to compete with conventional ones.

Frankly, it’s a wonder North Carolina has enough public school teachers now, given the shoddy way they’ve been treated and the criticism they’ve endured from Republicans.

A teacher’s tale

Consider the Buncombe County high school English teacher who said in a letter to legislators that her salary is so low her two small children qualify for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor. (Of course, lawmakers have cut that, too.) She noted that she has to think twice before taking her children out for ice cream. And she is a teacher in North Carolina!

As it stands now, the state is near the bottom in teacher pay in national rankings. That is a disgraceful circumstance for a state that thanks to the efforts of former Gov. Jim Hunt once got its pay levels to the national average.

So let’s see...bottom pay, no tenure, and, oh yes. The General Assembly is making a big cut in teachers’ assistants, who as anyone who’s been in a classroom knows, are vital to the educational process. And more crowded classes make them all the more vital.

Maybe somebody at the barber shop told Phil Berger he’d heard some assistants were coasting.

Teachers are the heart of the most noble thing this state and this nation do: provide an education to all. And yet Berger and other Republicans speak of public schools as if they were more a nuisance than a monument to enlightenment. They also seem to believe they can continue to make teachers a target of petty criticism, pay them poorly, offer them few benefits and still maintain a quality school system.

That defies logic. And as teachers begin to ask themselves why they want to work in North Carolina, they’re going to have more difficulty coming up with the reasons.

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