6/18/12 Lawmakers gambling with state’s future

Lawmakers gambling with state’s future
By Matthew Townsend The Times-News 6/18/12     
Reprinted with permission.

  Sometimes telling the difference between the state Senate and the gambling parlors they allow to go untaxed is an increasingly difficult task. Protecting “sweepstakes” across the state, the budget passed by the Senate shows no hint of ending years of deep cuts to education and folds on any opportunity to increase revenue for our struggling public schools. If Senate leaders get their way, schools will see more massive cuts, teacher protections will disappear and North Carolina teachers will be the only state employees to go without a pay raise next year. Meanwhile, sweepstakes vendors will rake in close to $2 billion.

   Education agencies all across the state can’t afford to take any gambles; they are expected to return $429 million to state coffers next year and absorb the loss of another $258 million from the Federal EduJobs stimulus. If this disastrous Senate budget becomes law, Alamance County will have to return $6.4 million as our share of discretionary cuts, weather the complete loss of federal stimulus funds and pray the cuts in local funding aren’t too deep. As our superintendent shared recently, these “discretionary cuts” become real people and real opportunities for our students. Last year’s cuts cost the state 4,840 educators. If this Senate-approved budget becomes law, how many will be lost to North Carolina this year?

   For the teachers that manage to keep a job, the proposed budget adds insult to injury by denying them any raise and instituting a 1.2 percent pay raise for all other rank-and-file state employees, Senators included. Like a cheap parlor trick, the budget provides a clause that permits school districts to use “teacher raises” to fill the massive funding shortage coming our way. Senators plan to look bewildered when asked why teachers went another year without a raise — the same way they don’t seem to know how our children lost almost 5,000 educators last year. If a penny saved is a penny earned, the General Assembly has made a fortune off of teachers.

   Indeed, on top of the financial toll and damaging legislation, prospective teachers have one less reason to enter education and North Carolina teachers have one more reason to seek other opportunities. The Senate has buried a 40-page, $47 million bill inside of the budget that will retain thousands of third-graders and end career status for teachers. Apparently, we can’t replace eight-yearold textbooks, but we can retain ranks of third graders who struggle to read and commit to a decadelong “teacher shuffle” to deal with the consequences. Could we fund a basic education and our present obligations first?

   When I started teaching in Alamance County, the middle school where I work offered Spanish, Dance, Culinary Arts, Technology Education and a curriculum facilitator to help children grow. I’ve watched these positions — and wonderful, talented people behind them — leave the school. I’ve seen teacher salaries go from above average in the nation to the bottom of the pile, and incredible colleagues move out of state and out of district. Ask a teacher you know what changes they have seen in the school system. They’ll tell you about opportunities that have been lost to children and the strain on their personal budgets. Across the entire state, the pain in our schools is real. Our children need more support than ever and our teachers are equipped with less and less to tackle the challenges. If the Senate wants to cut schools down to the three “R’s,” they seem to have a great plan: Reductions in funding, resignations of educators and retention of children.

   The budget the Senate passed also attacks career status (often referred to as tenure), a position teachers earn through exemplary performance over a five-year period that’s similar to a lawyer becoming a partner in a firm. Before teachers had career status, educators could be fired for political or religious reasons, to make way for someone with a connection or for any arbitrary reason. Today, teachers can be fired for failing to do their job, but not just to make way for a volleyball coach, a principal’s best friend, a fellow church member or to please a parent whose child received a B on their report card. Forcing career teachers to concentrate their energies on developing “fire resistant” relationships with their principal and pleasing every possible parent instead of delivering inspired teaching is not a recipe to raise teacher standards; it’s a gamble that could lead to more problems. We can easily fire bad teachers now. Teacher tenure is a necessity for stability and great teaching. Without career status, this could very likely be the last teacher opinion you’ll ever see in The Times-News.

   The Senate may not have hearts for us teachers, but their constituents haven’t grown heartless. Everyone has had a teacher who made a difference in their lives. Many of us have had a teacher who was their hero. The Senate continues to attack teachers and erode our children’s future, taking a gamble that we won’t catch on to what is really happening.

   I hope North Carolinians will do the right thing and tell those who would attack education and rob our children’s future, “No dice.” The time has come to tell the full house that North Carolinians can and should choose our children over gambling parlors.

   Matthew Townsend, of Mebane, is a middle school teacher in the Alamance-Burlington School System