NC teachers deserve to be heard by GOP lawmakers

November 5, 2013 

Of all the comments made about Monday’s statewide teacher protest or “walk-in,” state Sen. Phil Berger’s were predictably the most pointed, but the comment from Wake County Sen. Neal Hunt, like Berger a Republican, might have been the most ridiculous when he said, “Education is an absolute priority for us.”

Beam him down, Scotty. He wasn’t kidding.

Republicans in the General Assembly have relentlessly bashed public school teachers and public education in general, from woefully cutting money to adding vouchers for private school tuition to poking the state teachers association just for sport, which is what Berger likes to do. All of this, of course, while holding teacher salaries flat to the point where their pay is now near the bottom in national rankings.

The teachers’ protest Monday was civilized and a good example for students on how people have a right to be heard – and how they can best be heard. In schools all over the state, teachers had “walk-ins” where they met with parents to discuss their issues: no raises for teachers in four of the last five years, the end of tenure, the elimination of extra pay for teachers who get graduate education, cuts in the number of teacher assistants and those vouchers.

Education may be a priority for Republicans, but it must be private education.

Berger, the Senate GOP leader, came down hard on the teachers association: “We don’t appreciate,” he said, “the bully tactics of an organized union that puts kids’ safety at risk to gin up its membership and inflate the salaries of its executives. There is a time and place for everything; our schools are not the place for politics, and our children should not be the pawns.”

Even for a guy who has gone around the right-wing bend since gaining power, this is radical. Berger knows full well that the N.C. Association of Educators isn’t really a union. In fact, the NCAE urged teachers not to walk out but to have walk-ins at schools. He also knows that he and other Republicans, angry because some in the NCAE and other teachers were speaking out against cuts to public education, were the ones who took politics into the schools. As for his statements about children being in danger: The teachers staged their protest so that would not be the case.

Despite Berger’s rhetoric, there are rumors in Raleigh that Republicans, sensing a backlash to their attacks on public education, may institute a small raise for teachers, taking the money from the state university system. That might be called the “cookie strategy,” recalling Gov. Pat McCrory’s presentation of cookies to abortion-rights protesters outside the governor’s mansion last summer. The governor apparently thought that token would improve the group’s regard; it didn’t work.

A small raise at a time when teachers’ salaries are an embarrassment isn’t going to turn the views of teachers or their supporters, of whom there are hundreds of thousands. Clearly, some Republicans realize they’ve antagonized huge numbers of people who believe in and rely on public education and support their children’s teachers. But small raises won’t make heroes of goats.

GOP leaders, apparently so intoxicated with their new-found powers that they’ve disconnected with those they represent, have made serious tactical errors in the name of flame-throwing ideology. In the process, they’ve so underfunded teachers that the state is quite likely to have a teacher shortage soon. Someone with a family, or with hopes of having one, isn’t going to stay in North Carolina to teach when some experience and a master’s degree can mean 30 percent or 40 percent more income in another state.

Serious damage has been done. Serious action, minus ideology, will be needed to fix it.

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