Comment

Jenkins: NC teachers get offered a rotten deal thanks to legislators

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comJanuary 9, 2014 

There’s a good reason why a recent op-ed article by former Gov. Jim Hunt has proved popular with readers. It’s because people, particularly parents of school-age children, agree with the four-term “education governor.”

His proposal? To raise North Carolina’s teacher pay to the national average. Hunt noted the state now ranks an embarrassing 46th in the nation. That’s quite a comedown from the days when Hunt campaigned for a fourth term as governor in part on a promise to raise teacher pay. Then, with the support of the business community and some Republicans, he did it.

What a difference vision makes. And what a difference a lack of vision fails to make.

A story in Wednesday’s paper told of the struggle the Wake County school board is having in trying to meet a Republican mandate to end teacher tenure. That action is going to force local school boards to leap through all kinds of hoops.

Wake will, under a new state law, have to offer four-year contracts, with the paltry incentive of $500-a-year raises, to the top 25 percent of teachers. But those teachers lose tenure, which is a modest job protection that is not, contrary to what Republican leaders would like people to believe, a lifetime guarantee of employment.

Far from it. In fact, though “career status” as it’s called comes with a few protections, including the right to a hearing in case of a firing, the truth is that incompetent teachers can be dismissed. And good principals can encourage less-than-stellar teachers to leave the classroom.

The real reason behind the law ending tenure was because some in the N.C. Association of Educators opposed Republican attacks on public education, so Republicans decided to punish them. We’ll show them, they said in effect. So they voted to abolish tenure, implying that the state was overloaded with bad teachers. It was a vindictive and petty maneuver.

Tenure ends in 2018, but this $500-a-year deal applies to teachers who have tenure or would get it at the end of this school year. It’s an effort by the legislature to get teachers to surrender tenure before the 2018 deadline.

Wake school board members are angry about it, and rightly so. Tom Benton, a former teacher and principal, says the new law will hurt the county in efforts to recruit new teachers, causing “irreparable harm” to the school system. Many school board members around the state agree.

It all seems politically nutty as well. A couple of twentysomethings signed on with the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory for $85,000-a-year-plus, and the hirings were justified as entirely necessary, you know. But Republicans want teachers, most of whom make a fraction of $85,000, to leap at the chance to make another 500 bucks a year.

These are teachers. They’re educated people. They’re not stupid.

The entire idea is insulting to teachers. It’s insulting as well to the citizens of North Carolina, who have been getting too good a bargain in their public schools and know it. The average classroom teacher probably spends more than $500 out of his or her own pocket for supplies every year.

Tenure makes it hard to get rid of bad teachers? So, does ranking 46th in the country in teacher pay make it easy to hire good teachers? Does bashing public education as a political sport make it easy to draw the best teachers to the state?

Keep it up, you purveyors of Republican wisdom. We look forward to your next strategic move, the one you’ll use after the state hits a teacher shortage not too many years hence: “Look, we know you could make $10,000 a year more in South Carolina and elsewhere, and we know we’ve taken away job security, and yeah, we like to smack your profession around a little in debate, but...but...if you get two more jobs on the side you’ll make almost half of what some of the governor’s political people make!”

So now school boards such as Wake’s, most of them made up of people with a sincere interest in making the schools better and troubled by the difficulty in finding and keeping good teachers and rightly worried about the future of their systems in a state with disgracefully low teacher pay, will do the best they can with a very bad state law. But the future isn’t promising.

Jim Hunt speaks truth. He was right when he pushed to raise teacher pay to the national average, and he’s right again. And if the Republicans who’ve fumbled so badly on so many issues during their brief rule in the General Assembly won’t listen, the people will.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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