Public Education in the Cross Hairs

Confirmation of Betsy DeVos and GOP attacks on N.C. public schools pose an existential threat to public education

By Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood and Michael M. Barrick 

LENOIR, N.C. – The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the U.S. Secretary of Education yesterday by the U.S. Senate – made possible only by a tie-breaking vote by Vice-President Pence – has put the public’s schools across the nation in the cross hairs of those seeking to eventually destroy them.

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This is not only because she supports all the efforts to starve the public schools of funding, she is clearly not competent for the job. Those who voted to confirm her either ignored her pathetic attempts to answer questions during the confirmation hearings – even when she had cheat notes – or want to destroy the public schools. We suspect both are true.

Combine that with the attacks upon North Carolina’s public schools by former Governor Pat McCrory and the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly, it is clear that the Tar Heel state’s history of supporting and funding public education has essentially been reversed. Public education is now squarely in the cross hairs of those wishing to destroy it.

This can’t stand. There are many reasons that McCrory lost is re-election bid, but one is clearly because he simply lied about how his policies were impacting students and teachers. You need not take our word for it. Simply ask any teacher.

The problem with the story being fabricated by the GOP is that too many of us know teachers. We call them wife, husband, mom, dad, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, grandma, grandpa, friend – and teacher! We watch them go out the door at 6:30 a.m. and not return home until dusk. Those who have taught – who have managed a classroom full of a couple of dozen children at any grade level at any school – know just how much work is involved in teaching. It is not just a job. It is a vocation, a calling.

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Hence, the strategy of the GOP to undermine the public’s schools is an insult not only to teachers; it is an assault upon the future of our state’s children and the rich history that, at one time, had North Carolina’s public schools the envy of much of the nation.

The Republicans have overreached. Hence, every person, every social-justice organization, and every public policy organization monitoring the GOP’s actions must work closely together in actively opposing these assaults upon public education.

Consider this:

  • Teachers often purchase their own school supplies;
  • Our most experienced teachers are neglected the most in the budget that was passed in 2016 by the overwhelmingly Republican North Carolina General Assembly;
  • Classroom size is putting a strain on teachers already micro-managed by Raleigh;
  • Teachers and their students need more classroom assistants; and,
  • The privatization movement supported by DeVos and the GOP-controlled General Assembly is designed to starve public schools that are already poorly funded.

We are committed to working with and supporting those wanting to restore North Carolina’s public education system to its former prominence and student-focused outlook. We are not alone, as county superintendents, administrators, teachers and support personnel we’ve talked to all tell the same story – they and the children they serve are under assault.

Rather than relying upon veiled attempts to privatize the schools through vouchers, charter schools and tax credits, it is time, again, to work in a bi-partisan manner to properly fund and promote public education. Our administrators, teachers and support staff work tirelessly. Parents give of their time and resources. Children give their best.

Meanwhile, our students are at the mercy of politicians undermining the work of those charged to provide our state’s children with the education guaranteed them by the North Carolina Constitution. This is not consistent with North Carolina values. We vigorously support public education, and will expose those engaged in shenanigans to undermine it. 

History

At one time, North Carolina was second to none in its commitment to public education. From visionaries such as Appalachian State University founders Blanford B. Dougherty and his brother Dauphin D. Dougherty, to former Democratic governors Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford – who have been recognized for their innovative and robust support of public education – North Carolina’s best leaders have always worked to ensure that our children received their constitutionally-guaranteed public education.

Indeed, Appalachian State University (ASU) is an example of our state’s commitment to public education. The brothers Dougherty founded what we now know as ASU as a teacher’s college in 1899. Over time, it grew and in 1971 became part of the University of North Carolina system. The reason the Dougherty brothers founded the college was because they believed that the children living in the rural mountain counties of the High Country deserved to have well-trained teachers who had lived among them. It was that spirit that existed across the Tar Heel State which led similarly-minded individuals to organize what eventually became the North Carolina’s graded public schools in the mid-19th Century.

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This 150-year sacred commitment to our state’s children has been undermined by just a few years of Republican control in Raleigh. Our teachers, our students, and our state deserve better. The confirmation of DeVos to serve in President Trump’s cabinet clearly exacerbates the problem. Indeed, together, they pose an existential threat to public education. 

The importance of an honest examination of teacher pay

Let’s take a look at an independent analysis by NC Policy Watch.

We need to change the dialogue on teacher pay.” – Kris Nodrstrom of NC Policy Watch

Teachers are underpaid. As Kris Nordstrom reports in this article for NC Policy Watch, “Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum understand that teachers are the most important classroom factor when it comes to improving student performance. Unfortunately, their policies over the past decade have failed to reflect this understanding. North Carolina’s average teacher pay ranking has fallen from 22nd in FY 03-04 to 41st in FY 15-16, and enrollment in teacher preparation programs is plummeting.”

Regarding claims by the GOP that teacher salaries are improving, Nordstrom notes, “To truly determine the salary required to attract and retain talented candidates to the teaching field, the important measurement is how compensation compares in relation to alternative careers with similar educational requirements. That is, the salaries of North Carolina teachers are best compared against the salaries of other professionals in North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree or higher. This metric avoids the weaknesses of traditional state rankings and is more aligned with the data a talented university student considers when deciding which profession to pursue.”

Nordstrom concludes, “We need to change the dialogue on teacher pay. Policymakers should stop focusing on North Carolina’s ranking compared to other states and instead focus on making teacher salaries competitive with the salaries offered by other similarly-educated professions in North Carolina. Based on this measure, North Carolina’s teacher salaries are even more inadequate than previously thought. While creating a competitive teacher salary schedule would require significant investment, the required revenue could be realized by repealing recent years’ tax cuts that have largely benefited the wealthy and powerful. Policymakers should also feel urgency to act, as the teacher wage penalty has been increasing over time, and the benefits of a higher-achieving teacher force will benefit all students, particularly disadvantaged students who are less likely to be taught by the most experienced and effective teachers.”

We agree. It’s time to quit using poor metrics when determining our salaries for public school teachers and other employees. It is time to treat them like the professionals that they are.

In addition to underpaying teachers, there are now 7,000 fewer teacher assistants in the North Carolina public schools, even while our population grows rapidly.

North Carolina consistently ranks near the bottom (presently 44th) in the nation in per-pupil spending.

Standardized testing is out of control. Teachers are beholden to legislators who have absolutely no experience in education and have hence created classroom environments where administrators, teachers and students are more concerned about teaching to a test than teaching critical thinking.

Meanwhile, Charter Schools operate with impunity. They are often run by for-profit organizations that look at children as a commodity, not a student; no background checks are required for teachers; there are not standards for teachers; and, they are not required to enroll special needs students. 

Conclusion

It is time to recognize that the state of North Carolina can – and must – treat our teachers and other educational professionals with more respect.”

It is no longer in doubt that the Republican Party does not value teachers or public education. This spells doom for the children of our state. It is time we return to the real North Carolina value of vigorously supporting our public schools.

It is time to develop a teacher pay structure consistent with that outlined by NC Policy Watch.

It is time to provide teachers with the assistants they need to serve our children.

It is time to move North Carolina to the top of the nation in terms of per-pupil funding.

It is time to establish a teacher-recruitment program in partnership with our university system.

The example set by ASU founders B.B. and D.D. Dougherty is one we should continue to emulate today.

It is time to recognize that the state of North Carolina can – and must – treat our teachers and other educational professionals with more respect. Anything short of that threatens the quality of education received by our state’s children.

That’s simply unacceptable. Again, though, don’t take our word for it. Ask any teacher. 

© Michael M. Barrick, 2016-17

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About the Authors

Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 1970. He has devoted his career to helping veterans and others with spinal cord injuries maximize their ability to function independently. He has also been very active in the Baptist faith, having served as a Trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, and staying active in a local congregation wherever his vocation has taken him. He was the Democratic Candidate for N.C. Senate District 45 (Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell and Watauga counties) in 2016.

 Michael Barrick has taught in two public high schools and two community colleges; he has been a Communities-in-School mentor, served on the Caldwell County Board of Education and was the Republican nominee for North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2000. His understanding of Catholic teaching on social justice informs his writing.