Point of View

Education budget doesn't reflect NC values

September 5, 2013 

The phrase that led me to volunteer lobbying with Sojourners in 2006 also led me to leave my beloved teaching job in 2010 to attend the UNC School of Law. The phrase was: “Budgets are moral documents.”

How we spend our money – as a municipality, as a country or as an individual – says more about what we truly value than any rhetoric we spout.

While in law school, I worked for a “big law” firm for nine weeks during the summer of 2012. I grossed more money than I brought home to my family the last year I taught in North Carolina public schools – when I had a master’s and 18 years of teaching experience; when I worked at least 50-60 hours per week and went in to my classroom every other Sunday afternoon to catch up; and when my young daughter asked many nights, “Mommy, will you always be grading papers?”

For the record, I left teaching as a grade-level lead teacher at a top N.C. high school. My final evaluation was “above standard” in every area, 97 percent of my sophomores passed the state writing test, I was voted “Most Inspirational Teacher” and, during my first term of law school, I wrote 70+ recommendation letters for former students who now attend Yale, Penn, Duke and almost every UNC system school.

I am not boasting. I am defending against the insidiously arrogant and too-prevalent beliefs that “those who can’t, teach” and that “bad teachers” (rather than poverty and resegregation) are to blame for “failing schools” – errant beliefs that, prior to this legislative session, I never believed were held by North Carolina’s leaders.

I will not extensively rehash the budget; one can find myriad articles debunking GOP assertions that Republicans adequately funded education. I will merely highlight that they stripped educators of pay for advanced degrees and allowed salaries to plummet from near the national average to near the very bottom.

And I will ask: Would you sign up for this treatment? Who will teach our state’s youth in the coming decades? And, in addition to the moral imperative to provide quality public education to every child, will an ill-educated generation of (mostly) poor and minority children, those whose parents cannot navigate the system or live in the “best” neighborhoods, be an asset to our state?

The short-sightedness is stunning.

Adding to the point, Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision to pay privileged young aides (on a team unable to keep his numbers from tanking) more than a highly qualified and influential teacher speaks volumes about his values. This choice – and his giving four- and five-figure raises to his employees – is an affront to teachers and other state employees.

Education is the great leveler in our society. We like to believe that anyone can overcome disadvantages and succeed in America if she works hard in school. Many, especially those on the right, denounce affirmative action and advocate for pure meritocracy.

OK, then. Does anyone think these young McCrory insiders merit twice the salary ($80,000) of a successful, 10-year-veteran teacher ($40,000)?

How we spend our money reflects who we are more accurately than beliefs we profess. “Actions speak louder than words” is, after all, a traditional value.

Our current leaders’ allocation of funds conveys their values very clearly to North Carolina’s teachers, middle and working classes and poor.

Budgets are moral documents, and 2014 will bear out the growing sentiment that the fiscal decisions of McCrory and the NCGA do not reflect the values of most North Carolinians.

Vivian Connell is a lawyer

in Chapel Hill.

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