Education

State Superintendent June Atkinson decries state budget, vouchers, and low teacher pay

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Schools chief sees great progress yet continues to hear mantra ‘our schools are broken.’

“Why is it that as a whole we are doing better in education than we ever have, yet at the same time, public opinion [of our schools] is dropping,” Atkinson asked audience members at a luncheon hosted by NC Policy Watch on Wednesday.

Pointing to North Carolina’s high school graduation rate of 82.5 percent, the highest ever since the state began tracking that data, as well as the lowest dropout rate on record, Atkinson wondered if the ‘our schools are broken’ mantra has persisted “because there is a concerted effort to privatize public education in our state?”

“I’ll leave that for your decision,” she said before launching into a laundry list of ways in which North Carolina has decided to disinvest in two of its greatest assets: its educators and its public schools.

This budget does not offer the value we need for better public schools

The 2013-15 biennial budget that North Carolina’s state legislature passed in July spends close to $562.5 million less on K-12 public education than the state did in 2008, after you adjust the budget numbers for inflation. At the same time, student enrollment has increased considerably since then and teachers have only had a one-time salary adjustment of 1.2 percent during the past seven years.

Atkinson compared this budget to an experience she had when she was younger, trying to eke out as many trade-in dollars as she could from a busted Chevy Impala in the hopes of getting a sizable down payment for a new car.

“I had two tires in bad shape, two tires in good shape, a faded vinyl top but a good paint job,” described Atkinson about her Impala. But the car dealer wasn’t buying what she was offering.

“The moral of the story is that [the dealer] did give me the value that I needed for a down payment for a new car—and that’s the way that I look at the budget that we have.

We do not have a substantial down payment in the education of our 1.5 million children that we have in our state, no matter how much people want to paint a rosy situation of our budget.”

It’s important to look back to the 2009-11 budget process to understand just how dire the situation is for public education. With that budget, teachers received no raises, they took furlough days to reduce layoffs, teacher assistants were eliminated, there were huge cuts to textbooks and instructional supplies, and dollars for professional development were axed.

“Teachers were very kind at that time and willing to tighten their belts,” said Atkinson. But the fiscal cliff was soon to be upon everyone, she warned at the time. Stimulus dollars and the $400 million Race to the Top grant allowed DPI to plug many of the holes that the state budget left gaping wide open.

Instead of trying to make up for what was hoped to be temporary cuts made in the 2011 budget, lawmakers chose once again to cut teacher assistants, instructional supplies, and professional development for 2013-15.

Textbooks typically cost anywhere from $35 to $86 each, yet this budget contains just $15 per student for textbooks.

And once again, teachers received no raises.

“We had hoped the state would make a stronger investment in public education [this year] – but they did not,” Atkinson said.

The impact on educators—and, ultimately, on our students

Today, there are fewer adult educators working in North Carolina’s public schools than there were six years ago—even though the state’s schools must now accommodate an additional 33,000 more students.

“School districts have had to eliminate 17,278 positions between 2008 and 2012,” said Atkinson. Of that figure, 6,178 were layoffs.

That’s the starting point public education was working with when this budget cycle came around.

The 2013-15 budget eliminates funding for approximately 5,200 teaching positions, leaving local school districts to come up with other funds to save those teachers or cut them. A 21 percent reduction in funds for teacher assistants could come to a loss of 3,800 teacher assistant positions.

The bottom line: North Carolina will have fewer educators to serve a growing student population that has a more diverse set of needs than ever before. And if and when the state does begin to restore funding for teaching positions, it may be very difficult to find any willing candidates.

“How are we going to attract the best and brightest teachers to North Carolina when our salary is among the lowest in the nation,” asked Atkinson.

North Carolina ranks 46th in teacher pay and dead last in salary growth over the past decade, at a time when health care premiums have been on the rise.

Five years ago, a starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree was $35,000. Today that figure is $31,000.

To add insult to injury, this year lawmakers removed the salary supplement for teachers with master’s degrees. “Of all industries, education should reward lifelong learning,” said Atkinson. “And there is plenty of evidence to show that a master’s degree in a teacher’s area of study really makes a difference in student achievement.”

Atkinson’s favorite among all the insults: school vouchers

In case you missed it, at the end of the legislative session this summer, lawmakers inserted the contents of the House’s school voucher bill, dubbed “Opportunity Scholarships Act,” into the budget bill. The language provides $10 million for parents to send their children to private schools.

Atkinson made it clear that her frustration is not with the parents who want to send their students to a private school or to homeschool their children, but rather with the lack of transparency and accountability associated with vouchers.

Private schools receiving tax dollars by way of school vouchers will be obligated to administer one standardized test to students each year, beginning in the third grade. But student performance on standardized tests, along with graduation rates, does not need to be made publicly available unless a private school has 25 or more students who receive vouchers.

“When you look at that legislation, there’s no way [for parents] to make comparisons,” Atkinson explained, pointing to the fact that private schools are not obligated to test their students using the same instruments that public schools use. “You’re asking parents to buy a pig and a poke.”

And, Atkinson explained, not all standardized tests are alike. “If our end-of-grade and end-of-course tests are good enough for our public school students, then they should be good enough for private schools receiving tax dollars.”

To invest in public education, or to privatize?

Atkinson told the group that she had an Aha! moment about five years ago, when she was taking a break from her knitting. She had heard a Harvard professor discuss the increased media attention to teachers since the early 2000s.

Then, one Saturday, she “heard a commentator on television talk about how bad our teachers are and how public education is failing our children,” she said.

“I was appalled by that statement, because what she described as noncaring teachers I wasn’t seeing in our state.”

Atkinson said that the mantra that our schools are broken has taken hold in the mainstream media, leading her to see that folks typically reside in one of two camps (with some variation): those who want to privatize education and let the market take over, and those who recognize that public education is the great equalizer, and it’s important to invest in our public schools.

Atkinson is clearly in the latter of the two camps.

Looking ahead, the state superintendent wants to work with North Carolinians to work toward these seven goals in the context of the current budgetary and policy environments:

  • Get more kids into Pre-K, especially the most vulnerable;
  • Give our teachers a raise;
  • Pay our teachers for furthering their education and obtaining master’s degrees;
  • Use teacher evaluation instruments to improve outcomes instead of using them as a “gotcha” tool;
  • Make all teachers eligible for 4 year contracts, instead of just 25% of teachers;
  • Fund technology so we can move closer to personalized technology for every child;
  • Move to an assessment system that takes a “motion picture” of growth over time, instead of a snapshot of student performance on a given day.

Asked by one audience member if she has had the opportunity to discuss public education in a one-on-one conversation with the Governor, Atkinson responded that she’s had several occasions to talk with him, and that she was pleased he said on a TV program recently that not giving teachers raises is inexcusable.

Given that McCrory has publicly supported raises for highly qualified state employees in recent days, perhaps Atkinson may be able to count on the Governor’s full backing for raises for teachers going forward.

Questions? Comments? Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or lindsay@ncpolicywatch.com.