Progressive Voices

School cuts become personal

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It’s one thing to talk in the abstract about North Carolina being 46th in teacher pay. It’s another thing when your 7th grade daughter brings home a letter from a 10-year veteran teacher at her school explaining that it has become financially untenable for him to support his family and that he is leaving to find work in another state. Just to be clear, this is an excellent language arts and social studies teacher. My daughter says he’s great at making language arts interesting, which isn’t easy. And his departure in the middle of the school year leaves a great void that won’t be easy to fill.

This teacher has already sacrificed a lot to do what he loves. He holds a second job on the side and rarely sees his wife and two young children, yet he inspires kids from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds to embrace literature, creating an award winning poetry group almost every year. His students exceeded expected growth on standardized testing. Yet, as he’s done all of this, his family has burned through their savings, and his own children qualify for food assistance and Medicaid. His family has done their best to hang on so he can teach. Now, they’re completely tapped out. They’re moving to Ohio where instead of $38,000 a year for 10-years experience and a Master’s degree, he can support his family with one teaching job that pays between $65,000 and $70,000. Our loss will be Ohio’s gain.

To replace him, the state will only offer a short-term contract at an abysmal salary, with little support for professional development, no reward for an advanced degree, and ever-growing expectations for performance.

This is the first time North Carolina’s massive backslide in public education has directly affected my family, but it’s not the first time something like this has affected others. I am sure that many more children in our state’s public schools lose a highly qualified, effective teacher over the coming year.

The misguided, short-sighted dismantling of public education and its complete disrespect for teachers makes absolutely no sense. It negatively affects every single child in North Carolina. At the 10,000-foot level, we know that investing strongly in public education makes for a stronger economy, more opportunities, and a higher standard of living across the board.

But forget the 10,000-foot level. Public education matters for individual families. What parent doesn’t want to send their kid to a great school with great teachers? And if its’ something we all want, then why on earth shouldn’t we invest in it together? We know that good schools depend on good teachers, so why are we running them off?

The sad news is that because of the low rates of teacher pay, the cuts in raises for those with advanced degrees, and the continual pressure to do more with fewer tools and assistance in the classroom, it will be a miracle if the person that replaces my child’s teacher is anywhere near as qualified or as effective. Good teachers aren’t just widgets you can plug into a slot. Teachers are highly-trained, dedicated, human beings who need and deserve to feel valued and supported as they provide their incredibly vital services for our society. Teachers need tools, resources, ongoing professional development opportunities. Teachers deserve respect.

We deny teachers all of these things with our current education funding strategy, and we do so at the expense of our students and our state’s future.

Betsey Russell is a nonprofit communications consultant who lives in Asheville.