Point of View

Breaking spirits and bank accounts – then bidding them bye

December 11, 2013 

Last month I caught myself lingering at the open door of a supernatural teacher, the kind who could out-magic Harry Potter. A sudden movement in the corner caught my eye: Mrs. Fluffy, the class bunny, was loose! A young boy finished placing fresh straw in the cage and gently returned Mrs. Fluffy.

Some, especially in Washington and Raleigh, might say rabbits are irrelevant to education, but many kids in our district lack the opportunity to have pets and develop the responsibility that comes with caring for animals. A few years ago my daughter had been sick with a fever but demanded I take her to school because it was her “bunny duty” week. How many times had I watched kids emerge from this teacher’s classroom like butterflies from chrysalises in the kits she used each year. Mrs. Fluffy was worth her weight in gold. Test scores be damned.

The teacher waved me inside. Urgency in her expression. “Can you watch my kids for a moment?”

I had been on many field trips with her and knew she didn’t like others watching “her” kids. I nodded and gave her an “Is-everything-all-right?” look.

“Just have to run to the lady’s room.”

It was nearly 11 a.m. Last year she would have had an assistant teacher. This was the first time in her long career that she had taught without an assistant and a bad year for expecting the most rudimentary of rights.

In general, the federal funding streams for public education in the United States are drying up or are tied to invasive bureaucratic tendrils, and at a state level one might as well look for streams in the Sahara. According to the North Carolina School Board Association, our state ranks 51 in the nation in 10-year percentage change in average teacher salary decline from 2002 to 2012. How did we get to be 51? Yes, we are even lower than Washington, D.C., which has no state or federal representation. That’s right, in the last 10 years there has been no place you can live in the United States where teachers have lost more salary.

In 2008 a teacher with five-year bachelor’s could earn $35,800. Now? $30,800.

Some teachers now call the Tar Heel State the Tar Hell State and are leaving. Just by commuting to South Carolina, a starting teacher can make $9,000 more a year. If teachers want to drive back East, some can double their salaries. Our best and brightest teachers are leaving as fast as they can drive, assuming they can afford a car and the insurance.

I confirmed my worst fears when the teacher returned from the restroom. She had been watching the kids nonstop for hours without a break. When I asked how she was surviving, she said she wasn’t. She was looking at teaching overseas with two other gifted teachers in our school. She is what I call a 99-er because so many of her children perform at the 99 percent level on end of the year tests. For clarity, that is the highest possible score, and there are school systems that don’t have children performing at the level. She grew them like wheat. And now she was discussing teaching in Singapore for two years. If not, Atlanta.

“Why?” I muttered.

Her eyes welled up. “My son had to go on Medicaid,” she said.

“What?”

The teacher gathered herself. “Almost every teacher in the building has kids on Medicaid. Several qualify for free and reduced lunch.”

So this was what defunding public education truly means. Not only do kids lose good teachers by forcing them to relocate and work in other countries and states, it also means the ugly, real-life repercussions of no bathroom breaks and using Medicaid.

Kids spend more time in schools than with their parents. Think of the teachers who made a difference in your own life: the hugs when you fell in kindergarten; the band, choral and strings instructors who gave you the gift of music; the coaches who gave you lessons that lasted a life time. Is there a more worthy investment than great teachers and coaches?

Even from an economic standpoint, how will these kids do when competing against state and global counterparts who benefit from the great teachers they lost? Is there anyone who truly feels this strategy is good for our children, our society and our economic future?

Matt Buys is a member of the Asheville City Board of Education. His views are his own.

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