North Carolina’s Downward Public School Spiral

Deborah R. Gerhardt for “Citizen of the First Part of 2014” for detailing in this Slate magazine essay the downward spiral of public education in North Carolina and also for acting to reverse it. She writes:

North Carolina’s intentional assault on public education is working. It is pushing our best teachers out. In 1997 the state ranked 42nd in teacher pay. The year before, Gov. Jim Hunt had run on a platform to invest in public education. After he was elected, he worked with the Republican House Speaker to focus on excellence in teaching and raised teacher salaries up to the national average in just four years. That bipartisan investment paid off. In the 1990s our public student test scores rose more than any other state’s. North Carolina became known as “the education state.” As recently as 2008, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the nation.

Things can change quickly, especially if you’re not looking. Now, the brand that attracted us—“the education state”—sounds like a grim joke. After six years of no real raises, we have fallen to 46th in teacher pay. North Carolina teachers earn nearly $10,000 less than the national average. And if you look at trends over the past decade, we rank dead last: After adjusting for inflation, North Carolina lowered teacher salaries nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012, while other states had a median decline of 1 percent. A first-year teacher in North Carolina makes $30,800. Our school district lost a candidate to a district in Kentucky because its starting salary was close to $40,000. It takes North Carolina teachers more than 15 years to earn $40,000; in Virginia it may take only four. Gap store managers on average make about $56,000.

If you talk to a teacher in North Carolina, you will hear the bitter truth of how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Most teachers . . . work at least one extra job.  An elementary school teacher told me that his daughters do not have the chance to play soccer or cello like his students. He has no discretionary income left to spare.

How did this happen? Both political parties share responsibility. When the recession began, the Democrats in power froze teacher pay. After years of salary stagnation, in 2013, Republicans made the following changes: Job security in the form of tenure was abolished. Extra pay for graduate degrees was eliminated. A new law created vouchers so that private academies could dip into the shrinking pool of money that the public schools have left. While requiring schools to adopt the Common Core standards, the legislature slashed materials budgets. According to the National Education Association, we fell to 48th in per-pupil expenditures. State funds for books were cut by about 80 percent, to allocate only $14.26 a year per student. Because you can’t buy even one textbook on that budget, teachers are creating their own materials at night after a long day of work.

As if that weren’t enough, the legislature eliminated funding for 5,200 teachers and 3,850 teacher assistants even though the student population grew.  North Carolina public schools would have to hire 29,300 people to get back up to the employee-per-student ratio the schools had in 2008. The result?  Teachers have more students, no current books, and fewer professionals trained to address special needs, and their planning hours are gone now that they must cover lunch and recess.

For public school teachers in North Carolina, the signals sent by this legislation are unambiguous: North Carolina does not value its teachers.

Free-market loving Americans argue that workers are motivated by pay, but by remaining ignorant of what it’s like to be a public school teacher, many convince themselves teachers are paid more than adequately. They argue that teachers only teach for nine months meaning $30,800 is more like $41,000. What they fail to realize is that to sustain their energy over the course of decades, hard working teachers need to decompress for awhile afterwards. Also, the best teachers use portions of their summers to refine their curriculum and craft.

Also, as their pay lags their peers in the rest of the country, teacher quality in North Carolina will steadily decline. This will give those whose default is to denigrate teachers even more fodder. A self-fulfilling prophecy. Pay teachers less. Get weaker candidates. Criticize them more.

Somehow people who think of “x” and “y” supply and demand curves as biblical, don’t think improving teacher pay matters.

It takes 15 years to make $40,000. That statistic is depressing enough to turn the most ascetic of talented college graduates from the profession. Every other state legislature in the country should be studying North Carolina as a lesson in what not to do to attract and retain excellent teachers and families that value public education.

Most institutions of higher education understand the importance of investing in faculty excellence*. Consequently, they’re intentional about it, thus sabbatical programs, teaching loads that are about one half of public school teachers, and financial support for professional development. In contrast, it’s nonsensical that public school teachers are supposed to help the U.S. retain it’s precarious lead in the global economy, under much greater scrutiny than ever before, for $30,800 a year.

* Granted, I’m part of a dying breed, a tenured professor, if I was an adjunct, piecing together a living by driving to two, three, or four different universities every week (thus the moniker “freeway flyers”), without benefits, my perspective would obviously be less generous.

The Panacea for What Ails our Schools

A five-day in a row “Back to School” series.

The panacea for what ails our schools. Depending upon who you read/talk to:

1) more rigorous course requirements (especially in math) coupled with high stakes standardized exams like in Japan;

2) firing incompetent teachers determined largely by students’ scores on standardized exams;

3) wireless laptops, smartboards, smartpens, and related personal technology;

4) small schools.

File these ideas under “one good idea quickly implemented will fix things”. In actuality, reinventing schooling will require decades of intelligent, caring, hard working people piecing together good ideas and adapting them to differing contexts.

But I’ll play along with the conventional way of thinking. The “big idea” that I believe has more potential than the four listed above to serve as a catalyst for medium and long-term positive change? Radically redesigned report cards. More on that tomorrow.