NC teachers need raises, but not without job protections

May 29, 2014 

Phil Berger, champion of teachers? No wonder some Democrats and teachers are suspicious of the Republican state Senate president pro tem, who was among Republicans bashing public school teachers not long ago as part of an assault on public education in North Carolina.

But now, perhaps because of concern that the public – particularly parents of public school students – might not like attacks on teachers, Berger is leading the charge on a new Senate pay plan for those teachers. Republicans are counting themselves as teachers’ champions.

Their plan, they say, will raise North Carolina’s disgracefully low teacher pay ranking – 46th in the country – to the middle of the pack. Budget documents obtained by The News & Observer show that there will be an average raise of 11 percent for teachers who move to the new pay plan.

Move? Ah, there’s the rub. To get onto the new pay plan with its raises, teachers would have to surrender tenure protections called “career status.” There is a lot of misunderstanding about this, which Republicans encourage as they paint it as a protection that makes it hard to fire lousy teachers.

That simply isn’t true.

Tenure as it’s called in the public school system is nothing more than the recognition that, after a few years, teachers are entitled to a hearing, to a review, before they are fired. That’s fair. But it certainly does not ensure that bad teachers get to keep their jobs. Substandard teachers are fired. They can be fired for a host of reasons listed in state law. They do not have absolute protection, and they do not enjoy the security of the type provided for university professors.

Tenure in North Carolina’s public schools, in other words, is not what Republicans say it is.

But they’re pressuring teachers desperate for a raise by requiring them to surrender their tenure in return for more pay. This is a ham-handed political ploy from Republicans who ought to care more about the dignity of their offices and their credibility. They’ll say, of course, that this isn’t an ultimatum, that teachers have a choice. Some choice: Give up tenure and get closer to a living wage or keep it and never get a raise.

Yes, the plan would raise pay raise, but it seems more an election-year response to restive teachers than part of a well-funded, long-term commitment to improving public education. With the proposed raises come cuts elsewhere in public education. Teacher assistant positions would be reduced by half. Textbook funding would stay at a paltry $15 per student. Support for school transportation funding would be reduced by $28 million. The Department of Public Instruction would receive a 30 percent cut.

June Atkinson, the state superintendent for public instruction, rightly said, “These cuts will eliminate essential services for teachers and schools and leave teachers with more duties and less support.”

Is it better to pay more? Yes, whatever the motivation for Republicans, it is better. But attaching this to a requirement that teachers give up their right to due process is unfair. And paying for the raise with cuts that make teachers’ jobs harder and education less effective is unwise.

The truth is, teachers have been leaving the profession, and they’re likely to keep leaving. And though the Senate would continue to pay teachers with advanced degrees and certifications more, they’ve had those benefits on the chopping block, and who’s to say that won’t happen again?

Bottom line: Republicans have lost credibility on this issue and the trust of those who support public education and those who are part of it. They need to do more, starting with eliminating this assault on a very limited form of “tenure.” If they can start there, perhaps they can regain the trust. Otherwise, the state is going to be looking very soon at a serious teacher shortage, and its reputation will continue to suffer.

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