In education in North Carolina, all that glitters is not gold

With the school year starting, I’m reminded of a former student I bumped into who is now teaching. She was looking forward to the pay raises that were coming her way.

She’s not the first teacher who has fallen under the spell of the legislature. Let’s look at the real cost of these raises on public education.

Because of funding cuts by the legislature, Wake County faces a $17.5 million deficit. These cuts mean poorer transportation, less money for hiring teachers, fewer technology facilitators and dirtier schools. In Durham, a $15 million budget gap means losing 50 teacher assistants and 100 central service employees. In other words, the legislature is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The same subterfuge is pervasive in our colleges and universities. In the department where I teach, 20 percent budget cuts have meant increasing student tuition, firing more than 12 nontenured faculty, excellent teachers with deep roots in the community – some of whom had served the university for over 10 years – and reducing upper level courses being taught each semester. In other words, students are paying more and getting less.

A recent New York Times article documenting the decline in support for higher education by some state legislatures put it bluntly: “Students who once could afford high-quality educations at their state public universities now pay nearly twice what they used to pay, part of the driving force behind a $1.27 trillion student debt bill.” If you asked faculty members in my department whether they would trade their meager raises (some of which is offset by increased health care costs) to restore the state budget cuts, they would overwhelmingly choose full funding.

I am not surprised by these funding tricks. The courts have overturned other tricks by this legislature, such as denying voting rights to minorities and gerrymandering state and county election districts.

I am also not surprised by the silence of UNC administrators (with the exception of Shaw University’s president and the dean of Chapel Hill’s Law School). UNC administrators have not shared in the sacrifices facing faculty and students. In fact, some of their salaries have waltzed them into the 1 percent.

I am surprised by the opposition party in our legislature. I have not seen one media ad exposing the duplicity behind the boasts of the legislature and the governor as champions of teachers. Perhaps it’s time to let teachers and other citizens know all that glitters is not gold.

Robert Siegel of Raleigh is associate professor of English at East Carolina University.