Educators from across the state came together Saturday to find their voice and tell Raleigh lawmakers what they think will keep public schools strong.
Schools are not broken, said Karyn Dickerson, an English teacher at Greensboro’s Grimsley High School and the state’s Teacher of the Year.
“We need the voices of the teachers at the table … because they’re the ones who best understand what we need in our individual schools and in our communities and in our state,” Dickerson told roughly 250 people attending a forum in the McKimmon Center at N.C. State University.
The forum – Keeping North Carolina Public Schools Strong – was a first for Raleigh-based Public Schools First NC, a nonpartisan public education advocacy group. It opened with a panel discussion among four state lawmakers that at times received hearty applause and, in the case of Republican Rep. Paul Stam, reluctant applause and growing dissent.
Stam, of Apex, said there is still more that can be cut from administrative and other non-classroom spending. The state also could offer less-expensive retirement and health insurance plans, he said.
Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat, said lawmakers have cut class sizes, laid off teacher assistants and approved more state-funded vouchers for private school. The legislature will consider paying new teachers more money, but veteran teachers haven’t had a raise in years, he said.
School vouchers save money, Stam said.
“Stop talking about how it diverts resources,” he said. “The big cost to public education is the extra billion we spend for class size reduction past the grades where it is actually shown to have any significant effect. That is the enemy of teacher compensation.”
Lawmakers will return to Raleigh for their short session at noon May 14.
Gov. Pat McCrory has said he would seek raises for teachers and that state employees could get raises next year. If approved, it would be the second raise since 2008. However, state budget analysts estimated Friday that the state could face a $445 million budget shortfall when the fiscal year ends June 30.
Rep. Rosa Gill, a Raleigh Democrat, said more money is needed for early childhood education.
“If you really want to destroy public education, keep repeating over and over again that schools are failing and the system needs to be replaced,” Gill said.
State Rep. Tom Murry, a Wake County Republican, also took part in the panel discussion.
Many teachers wore red to the forum as part of the Red4EdNC campaign to support public education and local schools.
Republican lawmakers eliminated teacher tenure and expanded charter schools last year. A draft “open enrollment” bill could let students attend any public or charter school in the state for free. Meanwhile, the state is 46th in the nation for teacher salaries and 48th in per pupil spending.
Keynote speaker David Kirp, a professor of public policy with the University of California at Berkeley, advised state educators to do a better job of promoting their schools. The worst place to be is on the defensive, he said.
“Find the success stories. Find the ‘why it matters’ stories and connect them to what needs to be done,” said Kirp, a former newspaper editor whose book “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” won the 2014 Outstanding Book Award from the American Educational Research Association.
One such story is the East Durham Children’s Initiative, said David Reese, the nonprofit group’s president and chief executive officer. EDCI works with children and families in a 120-block area of East Durham and is modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, originally a charter school program.
East Durham is one of the city’s poorest areas, with a high level of crime, poverty and at-risk students, Reese said.
“As long as you have high-quality intervention, as long as you’re a community that cares and as long as you have the collective willpower to ensure that your children have success, we believe this model will work,” he said.