There are some very clear lines being drawn in the current education debate in North Carolina and the battle is not just about whether the General Assembly actually increased funding for education this year or slashed it.
For the record again, the budget passed by the General Assembly this year spends $117 million less than the state budget office said was needed to keep education services at the same level as last year. And it spends $562 million less than was spent on public schools in 2008 when adjusted for inflation.
You don’t need to know those numbers to understand the cuts. Every day continues to bring more stories from local school systems about teacher assistant layoffs, larger class sizes, and less money for supplies.
And as Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson pointed out this week, textbooks cost between $35 and $86 dollars each, yet the budget provides schools with a total of only $15 per student for books.
But the debate is no longer a numbers dispute. It’s about public education itself and more specifically the teachers in the classrooms.
A column by Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger is appearing in newspapers across the state blasting critics of the education budget as dishonest and saying that members of the N.C Association of Educators are only interested in “money for their union members” and “lining their own pockets.”
Another Republican Senator wrote hatefully of “educrats” misrepresenting the facts about the budget. A long and overheated rebuttal to criticisms of the budget that is posted on many lawmakers’ cookie-cutter websites says that teachers shouldn’t complain about their low salary because they get health care benefits and summers off.
The tone is unmistakable. Some of the folks now running things in Raleigh believe teachers are the problem, even the enemy, and ought to stop complaining that they are paid less than their counterparts in almost every other state.
Never mind that it takes 15 years for a teacher to make $40,000 a year or that they have more students in their classes and less support in their schools. Their whining is the problem.
The other side of the debate, the one appalled by the deep cuts to public education, sees teachers differently, as valuable and underappreciated and underpaid public servants doing one of the most important jobs in the state under increasingly difficult conditions.
There are numerous columns and letters to the editors by teachers, administrators, and supporters of public schools pointing that out every day in their local papers. And there are news accounts too, like a story in USA Today this week about Hannah Martin, a second year teacher in Wake County who makes $34,000 a year and takes as many babysitting jobs as she can to buy supplies for her class. Lining her own pockets she is not.
Martin’s story is hardly unique. Teachers in every school district are buying classroom supplies, scrambling to help more students because they lost their teacher assistant, and figuring out ways to cover course material when all their students don’t even have a textbook to follow along.
Their reward for their dedication and resilience is no pay raises, a shift to temporary contracts and an end to a pay supplement if they continue their education and earn a master’s degree.
If you believe that the teachers in your local schools are the problem and only interested in lining their own pockets, you are likely to agree with Senator Berger and be happy with what the General Assembly and Governor McCrory have done this year.
If you believe in the teachers trying to help your children and value their hard work every day, you are almost certainly upset at the cuts to public schools that are making teachers’ jobs more difficult.
It’s not that complicated really. You either support teachers or you don’t. Senator Berger and his colleagues clearly do not.