Point of View

Greeting the new school year in NC with anxiety rather than joy

August 23, 2013 

On a drizzly Saturday morning, I met teachers and volunteers at Forest View Elementary in Durham where my 9-year-old son is entering fourth grade. As we pulled weeds, pruned bushes, sampled figs from the fig tree and spruced up the third-grade garden for the first week of school, the parking lot began to fill up.

First came the principal. Then a fourth-grade teacher. Then another teacher pulled in. All were headed into their offices and classrooms to work and prepare for the wave of eager and energetic young children who would soon fill the halls.

Our public school teachers were working at the school on a Saturday morning – despite not getting a raise for the fifth year in a row. Despite receiving a salary that – on average – ranks 46th in the nation. Despite legislative budget cuts that eliminate over 5,000 teacher positions, 3,800 teaching assistants and almost 300 school counselors, social workers and other support staff across North Carolina. Despite more budget cuts – over $120 million – that will take away textbooks and classroom supplies that our children desperately need to learn.

I wasn’t surprised to see Forest View staff and teachers working on a Saturday morning. I have had two children in the public school system for over six years, and I know teachers work tirelessly – both in and outside of the classroom – to help every child achieve. From helping students afterschool, to staffing parent information meetings and school events at night, to planning lessons over the weekends, most teachers work far more than 40 hours a week to ensure that the children in their classrooms have what they need to become tomorrow’s leaders and citizens.

But teachers can’t do their jobs when hundreds of millions of dollars are being cut, when they don’t have classroom supplies, textbooks and technology. They can’t provide individualized instruction when their classroom numbers are rising. They can’t provide for their own families when they make so little money that their own children qualify for Medicaid or they need to work second and third jobs just to make ends meet.

And so North Carolina parents are beginning to hear the heartbreaking stories of teachers leaving the profession entirely or considering a move to other states with higher salaries. We are saying goodbye to thousands of teaching assistants who are being laid off and who over the years helped in second- and third-grade classrooms, providing additional support so that the teachers could maximize their teaching time. We have seen and will continue to see the effects of diminishing financial support for our public schools – classes with outdated textbooks or not enough textbooks for all the children, and classroom “wish lists” that grow exponentially longer as money for basics like pencils, paper, Kleenex and markers disappears.

As the first day of traditional-calendar school nears, thousands of teachers across North Carolina are preparing the classrooms, hallways, gardens, playgrounds, music rooms, gyms and athletic fields. For our family, this time of year is always an exciting time. We buy school supplies and new backpacks. We clear off desks in bedrooms and organize homework spaces. We pull out calendars to map out afterschool activities and school events. We wonder what teachers the kids will have, and which of their friends will be in their classes.

But this year feels very different. Instead of excitement and anticipation, we feel deeply saddened and anxious by what is happening to North Carolina public schools and our teachers. We are worried about the effect of these budget cuts and policy decisions not only for our own children but for all children in North Carolina.

It is time for North Carolina’s leaders to do the right thing by our kids, our teachers and our public school system. Here is a good start: Raise teacher pay so that North Carolina is competitive with other states.

Our leaders may say we can’t afford to financially invest in our public schools right now. I say, on behalf of our children, we can’t afford not to.

Michelle Hughes lives in Durham.

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