AT THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR: Sacrificing stability in our schools

November 1, 2013

Education advocates often characterize the dismantling of our public schools through privatization as death by a thousand cuts. The draining of money from traditional public schools to unaccountable charter schools, for-profit charters and “education management organizations” as well as the delivery of public money to private schools in the form of vouchers all contribute to the bloodletting.

The 2013 session of the General Assembly, however, brought cuts both figuratively and literally through the blade of harmful legislation. Lawmakers diverted funding to charters, which became more unaccountable with diminished public oversight, and birthed a new program of vouchers for private schools. Traditional public schools also lost a lot money the old-fashioned way; through the underfunding of the public investment in those schools. These reductions to important educational programs and diversions of funding were not, however, the only way the General Assembly sought to dismantle public schools; there was also an attack on school personnel.

As more and more people have discovered in recent months, teachers were victimized in the so-called “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013” – a new law was that slapped onto the state budget rather than working its way through the legislative process through committees and chamber debates. The law eliminates career status for teachers (which offered some protection against arbitrary firings) and offers them instead only one, two or four-year contracts. Most teachers will receive one-year, take-it-or-leave-it deals. The decision as to which teachers will get which kinds of contracts will, itself, be based an arbitrary percentage division of teachers in various school districts. Only 25% will receive four-year contracts.

This change, effectively, reduces most of North Carolina public school teachers to the status of temporary employees. Obviously, there is little-to-no incentive for a teacher to stay in a system in which he or she is disrespected so. Teacher pay has plummeted to 46th in the nation. When coupled with the loss of employment protections like tenure, this creates the likelihood that there will be even higher teacher turnover in our schools as more and more teachers leave the profession or move to states with fairer pay.

Interestingly, recent college grads who participate in the program known as “Teach for America” (TFA) will receive longer contracts (two years) and more job security than teachers who plan to make teaching their profession. But, of course, teachers on one-year contracts with significant training and TFA employees with two-year contracts and five weeks of training both present the same problem: school instability. We know that the stability of a school is essential for high levels of student achievement. The revolving door will just lead to a situation in which large numbers of inexperienced teachers work for very little money and receive little-to-no respect. The results for kids are predictable.

Unfortunately, teachers are not the only school personnel to be harmed by the inaccurately-named “Excellent Public Schools Act.” Superintendents must now deal with the logistical nightmare of providing contracts for huge numbers of teachers and choosing which ones are in the top 25%. In large school districts like Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, it is hard to fathom how superintendents will be able to manage so many contracts without lots more staff.

And while local school boards may alter their Superintendent’s list, this should not give anyone much comfort as many boards themselves have been targeted for micromanagement by County Commissioners and the General Assembly. Do we really want commissioners and legislators overseeing teacher contract decisions?  

To add a little bitter icing to the cake for teachers and overall school stability, lawmakers also eliminated the jobs of thousands of teacher assistants.

The bottom line: It’s hard to understand how students can receive a high-quality education -- much less the sound, basic education that is constitutionally required -- when everything and everyone around them is buffeted by a whirlwind of disruptive policy changes.

During the voucher debate in the General Assembly, many supporters of the idea alleged how important the legislation was for struggling and at-risk students. But, of course, the reality is that the vast majority of North Carolina’s students, including those at-risk, continue to attend traditional public schools.

If the General Assembly genuinely cared about students, especially those most at-risk, it’s hard to see why it reduced resources and personnel, created such logistical chaos for superintendents or spurred new power struggles between school boards and county commissioners. Indeed, while it would be nice to take lawmakers at their word that they truly value our public schools, the repeated cuts (both literal and figurative) to overall school stability indicate the existence of a very different and very troubling alternative agenda.  

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