Public schools advocates call for action on education

May. 30, 2013 @ 09:38 PM

One after another, present and former politicians and educators tore into a long list of Republican-sponsored bills in the General Assembly which, they said Thursday afternoon outside the Lee County Courthouse, could destroy public education and set North Carolina back by generations.

Led by former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Democrat who also served as the state’s head education official for two terms, the speakers also included Democratic Rep. Deb McManus from Chatham County, West Lee Middle School teacher Sondra Shover, N.C. Association of Educators Vice President Mark Jewell and former Democratic Rep. Jimmy Love, who is now attorney for the Lee County Board of Education.

They mentioned a variety of legislation now being debated — which would lift class size limits, fund private school vouchers from public education coffers, abolish teacher tenure, end higher pay for teachers with a master’s or other advanced degrees, eliminate teacher assistants and establish an A-F grading system for schools.

The speakers said the rhetoric surrounding teachers and public education in general is dangerously, and mistakenly, negative.

Etheridge wondered how legislators could believe their actions would increase the quality of public education, adding that he had never before seen “such a public onslaught” against teachers and education funding.

“You hear the other side talking about what we ‘spend,’” he said “You spend on prisons. You invest in education.”

Shover, a language arts teacher with 19 years of experience in addition to a master’s in education, said she thinks teachers do need to be accountable. But she said the current system — and changes that are being proposed — make teachers accountable for things that are out of their hands, such as uninvolved parents or students who lack motivation or prior preparation.

“Value our work with a professional salary,” she said, noting that recently teachers have gotten one small raise while also being forced to pay more than that raise for their benefits.

In addition to attacking bills that would end advanced degree benefits [although she would be grandfathered in] and tenure [”I have tenure. That does not mean I can’t be fired. It means that I have due process.”], she also said she wasn’t so fond of the A-F scale. Such an idea would be acceptable, she said, if it had a sensible rubric. However, she gave the Senate an F for their effort in passing the bill, which she said appears to have had little to no input from people who would actually be affected by it. She didn’t mention how she would grade the House, which devised a less strict version.

While most in the crowd of about 20 seemed ideologically aligned with the speakers, who were on their 10th stop around the state in a tour sponsored by Public Schools First N.C., at least one person was not. A woman interjected while Etheridge was showing a chart comparing North Carolina’s teacher pay to surrounding states, all of which are higher. She said he wasn’t giving proper context, but he asked her to not interrupt and said that she would be able to speak when he was done. However, she never tried to speak out again, and it’s unclear if she remained at the event.

McManus stepped up to the podium later to talk about what she’s seen both behind the scenes at the General Assembly and on the front lines as an educator and as the mother of a young teacher who often wonders if her love of the profession is worth enduring the budget cuts and verbal barbs. One thing McManus said especially concerns her is the voucher program, which would take money from public schools to give poor families $4,200 toward sending a child to private school.

“Right now it’s for low-income students, but it’s no secret that [Republican legislators] have said they intend to expand that next year,” she said. “This is opening the door.”

She said most private schools cost far more than $4,200, so the bill would eventually be used primarily by people who already send their kids to private school to get a discount. And for areas which have no private schools, the bill would subject students to public schools with less funding without having the ability to find another option, she said.

Love called the various bills a pre-meditated conspiracy to dismantle the public school system and echoed the others in calling the audience to arms.

“If we don’t do something about it this next election, it’s going to be hard to ever recover from the damage that’s been done,” he said.

And Jewell, who was a two-time teacher of the year in Guilford County in addition to his work with the statewide teachers group, said supporting public education shouldn’t be framed as a Democratic issue.

“Public education is not partisan,” he said. “We all thrive when those students do well.”