Weekly Briefing

Another budget cut that ought to bring an apology

Lawmakers slash teacher training program in response to ridiculous, ideological attacks

North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis has been on a speaking tour of sorts lately. Over recent weeks, Tillis has turned up in several communities to hold forth on various topics, including the 2011 legislative session. For the most part, his presentations have featured recitations of the kind of standard conservative talking points that one would expect.

Interestingly, however, at a couple of meetings, Tillis has also offered up something that one might not have expected – an apology of sorts for at least some of the funding cuts to public education that his budget inflicted. Tops (apparently, anyway) on the “oops!” list: the lame decision to slash the state Teaching Fellows program that provides college scholarships for bright high school students if they promise to teach for four years after they graduate.

The successful program has enjoyed broad, bipartisan support for years and has helped spur many a smart, young person to pursue a teaching career. Unfortunately, it seems also to have run afoul of the ideological police in the right-wing “think” tanks who decided at some point that it was really a recruiting ground for the vast, left-wing conspiracy (this, despite the fact that the group that administers it – the N.C. Public School Forum – is about as mainstream as a nonprofit can get).

Tillis now seems to acknowledge that he screwed up when he okayed elimination of the Fellows program and is apparently open to restoring the funding next year. In essence, the Speaker pretty much admitted that he and his budget team threw the program overboard as a sop to the far right and now, having been exposed, is backtracking. Let’s hope he follows through on the about-face as quickly as possible.

And let’s hope also that, while he’s at it, he does a turnaround on a closely related item: funding for the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Inspiring excellence

Though perhaps not as well-known to the public as the Teaching Fellows Program, NCCAT (or “N-Cat” as it’s sometimes referred to) is precisely the kind of public program that our education system desperately needs.

Based in the far western mountain town of Cullowhee (with a smaller eastern campus in an old Coast Guard station on Ocracoke Island – a factor that may, in part, explain the program’s relative lack of notoriety), N-Cat is a school for teachers. It was founded in the mid-1980’s with a simple, straightforward and utterly logical mission: “to keep our best teachers teaching.”

To accomplish this ambitious and patently essential objective, N-Cat provides top-flight professional support via an array of seminars and other training initiatives. There are programs designed for beginning teachers, interdisciplinary seminars for experienced teachers, and even an initiative to aid and support principals. Subject matter runs the gamut, but seems to be almost universally informative, creative and fun. At its zenith, the Center served 5,000 school teachers throughout the state each year

Beyond the direct benefits of high-level instruction and guidance, however, are at least two other obvious and critically important side-benefits.

Number One is the way it brings professionals together who would not ordinarily interact. N-Cat alums report time and again of the enormous benefits of having uptime (and downtime) to talk with, exchange ideas and learn from peers around the state. If you think about it for even a minute, it make’s obvious sense: there is a tremendous benefit for professionals in just about any field in knowing the situations their peers confront and how they handle them. This is especially important in education, where for most teachers, professional development beyond the walls of their school (or certainly the lines of their school district) is exceedingly rare.

A second benefit is just the simple matter of making teachers feel appreciated. The plain truth, of course, is that teaching is one of America’s most demanding professions. Most teachers in North Carolina make comparatively low wages for a professional and get few “perks” as a matter of course. Schedules are dictated by the school day, free time is very limited. Travel is essentially nonexistent.

N-cat makes a tiny dent in this reality by providing teachers with a few days at a nice place to learn, clear their heads and recharge their batteries. Though hardly luxurious, the facilities are clean and nice and located in scenic places. Attendees get a chance to get away from their routines and to feel a little special – to have a “business trip” like other professionals.

One need only read or watch a few of the heartfelt testimonials from N-Cat alums to get a feel for the obvious impact that the Center has had.

Arousing the ire of the ideologues

Unfortunately, all of this business about teachers getting away from the rat race for a few days and coming together to think outside of their boxes with peers was too much for the Grinches at the Locke Foundation and Pope Civitas Institute. Over the last couple of years, a Locke staffer (the same person who once worked for the scandalous hate-rag, World Net Daily), has written multiple pieces in which he has attacked N-Cat as some kind of posh resort and repeatedly referred to is as a “teacher paradise.” This is from an article just last month:

“As Carolina Journal reported in 2009, the teacher retreat has many accommodations of a mountain resort, including a 48-room lodge, indoor amphitheater, a health and wellness facility, an extensive art collection, and even a Hershey’s Kiss on each teacher’s pillow in the morning.”

Heaven forbid! Exercise machines!? Candy!? Art on the walls!? What’s next – clean sheets and extra toilet paper?    

The Locke and Civitas articles also make much of the “scandalous” fact that N-Cat covers the cost for teachers to attend and (shockingly!) pays for a substitute during their brief absence (rather than making the teachers pay for one themselves). The Civitas piece even makes this remarkable statement:

“While encouraging individuals to enter teaching and offering professional development are laudable goals, there is no compelling reason why teacher training should be financed by state taxpayers. In the end, the need for state-financed training programs is questionable.” (Emphasis supplied).

In any sane world, these kinds of shoddy, small-minded, can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees “reports” would have landed in the circular file where they belong. Unfortunately, in the new, Alice-in-Wonderland General Assembly of 2011, where ideologues know the price of everything and the value of nothing, the drum banging has had an effect.

During the 2011 budget debate, N-Cat staff and supporters rode a mysterious, up and down roller coaster. First it was a 10% cut, then complete elimination. Ultimately, lawmakers opted to slash N-Cat’s $6.1 million appropriation in half.

Going forward

The results of this enormous cut are not surprising. N-Cat has had to dramatically reduce its staff and services. Close to 40 people have been or will be let go. Seminars and programs have been cut way back. Far fewer teachers will now be able to travel to N-Cat sites and instead, more and more services will be provided at local school district offices.

Thus, while a lot of good things will still be accomplished, much of the central point of the program – providing a mechanism for lots of teachers to get away from their usual surroundings and interact with their peers from around the state – is being lost. It’s a safe assumption that teacher quality and retention rates will suffer in turn.

In other words, like the shortsighted attack on the Teaching Fellows program, this is just plain stupid; a case of lawmakers allowing mean-spirited ideologues to make state policy based on their petty prejudices and half-baked “research.”

Let’s hope that legislative leaders quickly recognize the error of their ways and reverse the cut at the earliest opportunity.  North Carolina may have a long way to go in bridging the partisan divides that afflict it, but surely this is one program that all reasonable people can agree is essential and worth our money.

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