North Garner Middle School language arts teacher Marcia Timmel, fed up with the tattered, over-used books the school system allowed her, went to Amazon and bought new copies of “The Giver” last year.
“You can’t teach a 12-year-old student to read a novel with a third of the pages missing,” Timmel said. “It turned out to be one of the best instructions I’ve ever had. Kids know when we care about education, and they respond accordingly.”
That’s why Timmel attends Moral Monday protests, where she was arrested in the General Assembly building June 10.
Timmel said she considers it both a professional and religious obligation to stand up against deeper cuts to education proposed by the Republican-majority state legislature, and Timmel, a Catholic, was arrested in the nonviolent protests on a day dozens of clergy also were detained.
“This isn’t a political issue. For people who are religious, our faith requires us to act on behalf of anyone who’s vulnerable,” said Timmel, who’s been teaching at North Garner Middle for eight years. “The way education is being slashed right now, all of our children are vulnerable.”
While the total dollars would increase, proposed budgets by both chambers of the state legislature would cut from the continuation budget, with especially deep cuts proposed by the Senate. The continuation budget represents what it would take to maintain current funding, factoring in population growth in a growing state and inflation.
“It’s not radical to demand to keep the status quo,” Timmel said, arguing that opposition is not a far-left agenda but merely an effort to at least keep budgets from shrinking and class sizes from growing.
North Carolina spends less per students than all states except Utah and Arizona, according to the latest National Education Association report.
Regarding teacher salaries, only South Dakota, Oklahoma and Mississippi will spend less per teacher in 2013-14 than North Carolina. In 2010-11, teachers earned 12.3 percent more in the state than they did in 2000-01, easily the lowest rate of increase in the nation. Indiana came second-to-last at 17.3 percent, and the national average was a 28.2 percent raise over the decade.
Studies have shown that adding spending doesn’t necessarily lead to results, as money is only part of the equation. Utah, for example, spends little but has respectable achievement rankings, and some states spend more and achieve less. But Timmel says the degree to which North Carolina has moved to operate on the cheap will cause major problems, including decreasing college acceptance rates.
“We’re going to be the same kind of sad educational joke that places like Mississippi have been,” Timmel said. “We used to be a kind of the jewel of the South. I just feel that on every level, education is under assault, and it hurts kids that I know deeply.”
The decrease in funding also affects class size. The Senate proposal would eliminate caps on elementary school class sizes. (They had already been removed at higher levels in recent years.)
“Why should we tell schools what’s the best way to spend their money,” Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, said. “We need to put the decision in the hands of people who are running the school.”
To Timmel, Tillman’s conclusion is unacceptable; she said studies show the importance of small class sizes, especially with low-income, high-risk students. And with funding cuts, she said, the choice is illusory; class sizes will increase almost by necessity.
“I see (crowding) on a day-to-day basis in a classroom,” Timmel said. “Some of the most vulnerable are falling through the cracks. The legislature has responded by saying, ‘Let’s take the cap off elementary, too.’ ”
Timmel has taught for decades on different levels. The Washington, D.C., native did her graduate teaching at Wake Forest and would later teach at Morehead State University and the University of West Florida. She worked for the Jesuit Social and International Ministries International office in D.C., and said that during the 1980s in particular she involved herself in advocacy against war, racism, human rights and other issues.
Family life tempered her activism; she moved to North Carolina about 10 years ago and has lived in Garner for nine.
On June 17, she returned to the protests, sticking to the gathering on the lawn outside; a condition of her release was to avoid the inside of the building. Asked about the perception of the protests as a left-fringe movement, she said that while the more liberal persuasions had a major role, not everyone fit the label. She also said it was important to have vibrant fringes in a society.
After saying that, she briefly chatted with a protester holding a sign reading “Conservatives for public education.”
“If the cuts they’re proposing go through, while the rest of the nation is in a ‘race to the top,’ we will win the race to the bottom,” Timmel said.