Editorials

As N.C. teachers rally, lawmakers should listen

Thousands of teachers crowd Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, N.C. Wednesday, May 16, 2018 as they march to the N.C. Legislative building during the  "March for Students and Rally for Respect," the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history.
Thousands of teachers crowd Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, N.C. Wednesday, May 16, 2018 as they march to the N.C. Legislative building during the "March for Students and Rally for Respect," the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history. cliddy@newsobserver.com

How many teachers does it take for a legislature to learn?

On Wednesday as many as 20,000 North Carolina public school teachers are expected to deliver a simple math lesson to lawmakers: If you put less in, you get less out.

The quality of a school and the success of its students are not only a function of money. There also must be inspiration, experience and dedication. But without adequate funding, schools run short not only of their tangible needs, but of these vital intangibles as well. Inspiration gives way to frustration, experience shrinks as teacher turnover rises and dedication is eclipsed by demoralization.

Across North Carolina, teachers have resisted those negative turns, but after years of budget austerity and policy changes that have stung and belittled teachers, they have had enough. Like teachers in other Southern states where school funding has been squeezed to allow for bigger tax cuts, North Carolinaʼs teachers are fed up and showing up. When the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday, lawmakers will find that their stingy allocations for public schools have not produced savings, but a sea of red – thousands of teachers wearing that bold color in the name of #RedForEd.

A growing need

By now the numbers are familiar:

• When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina's average teacher pay is 9.4 percent less than it was in 2009.

• North Carolina teacher pay ranks 37th in the nation and is $9,600 below the national average.

• Per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, is 12 percent below the pre-recession level and ranks 39th nationally.

• There are fewer teachers per student than in 2008 and schools have lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants due to state budget cuts.

• Teachers have lost longevity pay, pay for advanced degrees and protection from arbitrary dismissal.

• As wealthier counties increase local teacher pay supplements to offset losses in state funding, poorer counties are increasingly unable to attract or retain teachers. Some classes are staffed by substitutes for the entire school year.

• Textbook funding is down by more than half. Some books are outdated and held together by tape. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars of their own money on school supplies.

These shortages are made all the more reprehensible by the state's growing capacity to do more as the national and state economies have recovered. Instead of adequate education funding, the legislature has chosen the easy, but ultimately costly, path of sharply cutting taxes in a way that primarily benefits wealthy individuals and profitable corporations, both of which are enjoying a similar windfall from federal tax cuts.

Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, was in Raleigh Tuesday to give a talk entitled: "Can state lawmakers break their most dangerous policy addiction?" Namely, a craving for tax cuts. Some states, such as Kansas, have realized that reflexively cutting taxes doesn't bring an economic boom that offsets the loss in state revenue.

"You can see that over time as people felt the impact (of tax cuts) in their communities, they started to see through that storyline and recognized they that they had to reverse course," Leachman said in an interview.

North Carolina teachers and parents are seeing through that storyline too, but legislative leaders won't give it up. They plan to go ahead with another round of tax cuts in 2019 that will cost $900 million a year and boost the overall cost of tax cuts since 2013 to $3.5 billion annually.

Legislative leaders supported increases in teacher pay, especially for new teachers. And teachers are scheduled to receive about a 6 percent average pay increase in 2018-19 under the biennium budget. But the increase bypasses teachers with more than 25 years of experience and barely keeps up with what most teachers have lost to inflation. Meanwhile, higher insurance premiums have many teachers taking home less pay. What's needed is a series of scheduled pay hikes across the board that will take North Carolina teachers' pay up to the national average.

An outpouring of teachers

Teachers will protest putting tax cuts ahead of education funding Wednesday with their presence in and around the state Legislative Building. At least 38 school districts have canceled classes because so many teachers have taken the day off to go to Raleigh. Some Republican lawmakers and party leaders have criticized the protesting teachers for leaving their students for a day. Instead of criticizing the teachers, who as a group are devoted to their students, legislators should meet with the teachers with an open mind and hear their concerns.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, has put forth the proper response to these years of poor funding with an ambitious budget proposal. He would increase the $270 million already budgeted in 2018-19 for teacher raises by nearly $100 million. That boost would be part of a plan to have North Carolina's teacher pay reach the national average in four years. He would also add $25 million to provide more textbooks and digital equipment and $40 million to hire more school support personnel, including nurses and counselors.

In a joint statement, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore dismissed Cooper's plan. They said, "Roy Cooper has dutifully followed the same failed tax-and-spend policy playbook that led to furloughed North Carolina teachers, massive education cuts, hiring freezes for state employees and frozen teacher salaries the last time Democrats were in charge."

Berger touts the Republican lead effort to raise teacher pay and spending on education during a press conference at the Legislative Building on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C.

Cooper has made a serious proposal. Instead of dismissing it out of hand with tired partisan statements, legislative Republicans should give his proposals a fair hearing. For example, more nurses and counselors might be our most effective approach to reducing school shootings.

The Republican claim that unsustainable spending on schools led to education cuts is a canard. State government here as throughout the United States experienced sharp revenue losses during the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression. Republicans rejected an extension of a temporary sales tax increase proposed by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue that would have softened the blow to school funding. Meanwhile, most states have restored school funding to pre-recession levels while North Carolina has persisted in an austere approach in a healthy economy.

Thousands of N.C. teachers march up Fayetteville Street toward the State Capitol and the Legislature Wednesday, May 16, 2018.

Futures at risk

Apart from sniping at teachers over a day of lost class time, Republican leaders have shown no intention of listening to the message teachers are so urgently bringing to Raleigh. That is a mistake and a disservice to the teachers and the public at large. A notable exception to this cold-shoulder approach is state Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who heads the House Education Appropriations Committee. He makes a real effort to listen to teachers and assess what is politically possible in terms of more funding. Notably, he has agreed to serve on the panel of a N&O forum on Thursday that will explore how to better support teachers.

Berger and Moore would do well to join Horn in listening to teachers as dedicated public servants serving a common and essential mission rather than resisting them as political opponents and special interests seeking more public funds.

Moore addresses the State budget surplus, and the proposed 6.2% pay increase in the current budget for teachers during a press conference on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C.

Though teachers are at the center of the rally, they are not really the center of the issue. They are coming to Raleigh as advocates for children who do not realize and cannot protest how their future prospects are being diminished by an education that was not what it could be and what it should be.

A child has only one chance at childhood, those fleeting years when understanding takes root and curiosity grows. Assuring that those children receive a “sound basic education” is more than a line in the state Constitution. It is the obligation of one generation to the next. Thousands of teachers will teach that lesson Wednesday.

*****

After Wednesday’s March For Students and Rally for Respect in Raleigh, join us Thursday evening at a N&O Community Voices forum on how North Carolina can help its teachers. The forum will feature five panelists, some familiar with what teachers need and others who know what North Carolina can afford.

The panelists will be:

Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who heads the House Education Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee.

Kristin Beller, a kindergarten teacher at Raleigh’s Joyner Elementary Magnet School and a board member of the North Carolina Association of Educators. She is president-elect of the NCAE’s Wake County chapter.

Lauren Genesky, a national board certified English teacher at Raleigh’s Millbrook High School and a former finalist for Wake County Teacher of the Year.

Michelle Burton, a Durham Public Schools teacher and school librarian with 23 years experience working in schools in Wake, Durham and Alamance counties.

Kristopher Nordstrom, an education policy and finance consultant at the NC Justice Center who spent nine years as fiscal analyst for the General Assembly specializing in public education.

What: N&O Community Voices forum on teachers

When: 7 - 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 17

Where: NC Museum of History, 5 E Edenton St., Raleigh

The event is free and open to the public. Please register for a ticket at www.eventbrite.com

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