State legislators should listen to devoted teachers

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How many teachers does it take for a legislature to learn?

On Wednesday, as many as 20,000 North Carolina public school teachers delivered a simple math lesson to lawmakers: If you put less in, you get less out.

The quality of a school and the success of its students are not only a function of money. There also must be inspiration, experience and dedication. But without adequate funding, schools run short not only of their tangible needs, but of these vital intangibles as well. Inspiration gives way to frustration, experience shrinks as teacher turnover rises and dedication is eclipsed by demoralization.

Across North Carolina, teachers have resisted those negative turns, but after years of budget austerity and policy changes that have stung and belittled teachers, they have had enough. Like teachers in other Southern states where school funding has been squeezed to allow for bigger tax cuts, North Carolina’s teachers are fed up and showing up.

By now the numbers are familiar:

• When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina’s average teacher pay is 9.4 percent less than it was in 2009.

• North Carolina teacher pay ranks 37th in the nation and is $9,600 below the national average.

• Per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, is 12 percent below the pre-recession level and ranks 39th nationally.

• There are fewer teachers per student than in 2008 and schools have lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants due to state budget cuts.

• Teachers have lost longevity pay, pay for advanced degrees and protection from arbitrary dismissal.

• As wealthier counties increase local teacher pay supplements to offset losses in state funding, poorer counties are increasingly unable to attract or retain teachers. Some classes are staffed by substitutes for the entire school year.

• Textbook funding is down by more than half. Some books are outdated and held together by tape. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars of their own money on school supplies.

These shortages are made all the more reprehensible by the state’s growing capacity to do more as the national and state economies have recovered. Instead of adequate education funding, the legislature has chosen the easy, but ultimately costly, path of sharply cutting taxes in a way that primarily benefits wealthy individuals and profitable corporations, both of which are enjoying a similar windfall from federal tax cuts.

Legislative leaders supported increases in teacher pay, especially for new teachers. And teachers are scheduled to receive about a 6 percent average pay increase in 2018-19 under the biennium budget. But the increase bypasses teachers with more than 25 years of experience and barely keeps up with what most teachers have lost to inflation. Meanwhile, higher insurance premiums have many teachers taking home less pay. What’s needed is a series of scheduled pay hikes across the board that will take North Carolina teachers’ pay up to the national average.

Apart from sniping at teachers over a day of lost class time, Republican leaders have shown no intention of listening to the message teachers are so urgently bringing to Raleigh. That is a mistake and a disservice to the teachers and the public at large. A notable exception to this cold-shoulder approach is state Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who heads the House Education Appropriations Committee. He makes a real effort to listen to teachers and assess what is politically possible in terms of more funding.

Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore would do well to join Horn in listening to teachers as dedicated public servants serving a common and essential mission rather than resisting them as political opponents and special interests seeking more public funds.

Though teachers are at the center of the rally, they are not really the center of the issue. They are coming to Raleigh as advocates for children who do not realize and cannot protest how their future prospects are being diminished by an education that was not what it could be and what it should be.

A child has only one chance at childhood, those fleeting years when understanding takes root and curiosity grows. Assuring that those children receive a “sound basic education” is more than a line in the state Constitution. It is the obligation of one generation to the next.