Because quality public schools are essential to our economy and our democracy, our state is supposed to assure all children access to a sound education. Sounds great. But how can we provide excellent education without excellent teachers?
We’ve heard this month that teacher turnover is steadily increasing and that applications to schools of education are down. The situation has gotten so much publicity and generated such public outrage that North Carolina Republican leaders have promised to make changes in the upcoming short session.
Yes, suddenly, this General Assembly – one that was unable to find money for any teacher raise – has found millions to raise teachers’ starting salaries. Additionally, the legislators now think they can afford to restore advanced-degree pay and that cutting it might have been a mistake.
But teachers are, pretty obviously, not primarily motivated by money.
Quality teachers – and North Carolina teachers boast 96 percent proficiency and the highest rate of National Board Certification – enlist for public service, but we do not expect to have to take second jobs to support our families.
Quality teachers will not continue to enlist, even if master’s pay is restored and a modest raise materializes, if endlessly dismissed and devalued by political ideologues who seek to score points by telling residents that declining achievement is caused by teachers rather than by social and economic ills.
Lawmakers also uncapped and further deregulated charter schools, diverted $10 million to private-school vouchers and enacted a statute to strip all teachers of due process protection by 2018.
And despite half our public school students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch and poverty being the leading factor correlating with underachievement, they cut the number of teacher assistants and increased class sizes.
This session offended educators not merely because of funding choices, but because lawmakers sought to change the very nature of public education. Quality teachers who enlist to serve wish for public education to remain a cherished civic responsibility; they do not wish to compete against their peers in a “market environment.”
Teaching children actually differs from turning profits.
At a recent UNC Law event, Rep. Paul Stam stated that his GOP majority doesn’t want schools to “have to get permission from Raleigh” in order to act.
They should not then mind if local districts (LEAs) take additional steps to value, recruit and retain quality teachers.
Local boards can take the following steps:
• Lawmakers demand a statewide teaching contract. LEAs should insist it stipulate that teachers’ salaries will not be reduced between contracts. They should also demand inclusion of means for dispute resolution, including a right to a hearing prior to nonrenewal and assurance that teachers cannot be dismissed/demoted based solely on one below-proficient mark. Current teacher evaluations assess 25 elements in five performance domains; without protections, if a single domain is “developing” rather than “proficient,” a teacher with predominantly outstanding performance could face nonrenewal.
What private-sector professional would assume such risk for so little respect or reward?
• LEAs should also sign the NCAE resolution against the “25 percent plan.” In a patently unclear and unfair statute, legislators mandated that districts somehow select 25 percent of proficient teachers to be offered four-year contracts with modest bonuses if these teachers immediately relinquish career status – the status for which teachers contracted and then duly earned.
They offer paltry incentive, only $500 of which is budgeted, for teachers to act against their own interests. Lawmakers’ apparent belief that this money would motivate otherwise sandbagging teachers to somehow raise student achievement reflects how little lawmakers understand or appreciate educators.
Local districts should join teachers in saying, “No deal. We’ll keep the system we contracted for.”
North Carolina LEAs can offset the 2013 legislature’s damage to public education. By acting now to value and protect teachers, LEAs can help stem the tide of departing talent.
North Carolinians who understand that quality public education is essential to a just and healthy society must ask their local boards to take these steps in solidarity with educators. We must mitigate this damage before North Carolina finds itself in the cellar of public education rankings, just as our teachers are in the cellar of national salary rankings.
Vivian Connell is a lawyer in Chapel Hill.