James D. Hogan, a former high school AP English teacher who now works for a liberal arts college in North Carolina, spells out the dramatic changes in his state over the past few years. He reaches a considered and dire conclusion: “North Carolina is waging war against public education.”
He describes in horrifying detail how the state legislature and Governor has systematically attacked the teaching profession, literally driving experienced teachers out of the state, and opened every possible avenue for privatization and profiteering.
At a time when public education is under attack in many states (often with the silent assent or the active approval of the Obama administration), North Carolina may well be the worst and meanest state in the nation.
In this brilliant article, Hogan writes:
Let me begin by saying that I am often no fan of hyperbole. We live in an era in which blog titles like this one are used as click bait, lures to entice–and, really, to enrage–readers and provide as little meat on the figurative bone as possible.
But I really mean it when I say this: North Carolina is waging war against public education.
From the rise of mega-testing companies and the policies that mandate them, to the widespread adoption of common curriculum, to the years of economic struggle following the Great Recession, public schools have endured substantial stress, and they may very well look substantially altered by the end of this decade. The biggest change? Public education is wholly political, evenly divided and polarized by factions on the left and right. What I call war, others may call a revolution.
Make no mistake, however. Our state is dismantling its public education system. And it didn’t have to be this way–the pathway that brought us here was paved with underfunded budgets, tactical strikes against public school teachers, fundamental changes in how charter schools operate and how tax dollars can go to private or religious schools, and the erosion of our hallowed University of North Carolina. In other words, not the failure of public education.
Why? That’s the question I most often found myself asking. Why would our state government work so hard to threaten public education? Who could have the audacity, or the political capital, to take on such an assault?….
When North Carolina Republicans took control of the state government in 2012, they quickly set into motion a sweeping agenda to enact conservative social reforms and, more importantly, vastly change how the state spends its money. It was the first time in more than a century that Republicans enjoyed such political dominance in our state.
What brought them all to town? A good reason: in the 2011-12 budget year, North Carolina projected a multi-billion dollar deficit, enough to rank the state among the worst budget offenders in the country and bring a new slate of elected legislators to Raleigh. So Republicans, with a clear mandate to clean up the fiscal mess in November 2012, set to work righting the ship.
What does a state like ours spend money on? Public education, including higher education, consumes about a third of North Carolina’s budget. Health and Human Services, including the state’s Medicaid and unemployment programs, composes an even larger slice, about 37.5 percent.
Other state programs make up little bits and pieces: nearly 8 percent on transportation and highways, 5.5 percent on public safety, 9 percent on natural and economic resources.
In other words, if you want to make big cuts, public education is one of two really big targets.
After that landslide election in 2012, legislators began sharpening their knives.
A Fury of Budget Cuts
Among their first targets: reductions in unemployment benefits, cuts to public schools, including laying off thousands of teachers, and a massive, nearly half-billion dollar slash from the University of North Carolina.
Two years later, in the last budget cycle, 2014-15, the legislature provided roughly $500 million less for education than schools needed.
Later in the 2013 session, though, the most radical changes in state financing fell into place. Republicans reconstructed the state’s tax code, relieving the burden on corporations and wealthy residents. They continued to take aim at other parts of the education budget, cutting More at Four program dollars and decreasing accessibility for poor families. The state lost thousands more teacher and teacher assistant positions. The bloodletting was fierce. More on that in a minute.
Across the state, local education districts were faced with budget deficits of considerable proportion after legislators hacked away their funding. School systems raided fund balances, rainy day funds set aside for things like natural disasters, not political ones. Elsewhere, employees were furloughed, teachers were laid off, teacher assistants were forced to take other jobs or lose their classroom positions, and so forth. Non-personnel funding disappeared. Textbooks stayed in circulation another year. Buildings were patched together instead of replaced. Education Week called ours “The Most Backward Legislature in America.”
Republicans defended these austerity measures by saying that lower taxes would eventually yield fiscal growth. And they were right. This year, the government is enjoying a $445 million surplus–a clear victory in light of those multi-billion dollar deficits of yore–but still a statistically small number in light of the state’s $21 billion budget (about two percent), especially after considering that our state budget is still smaller than it was in 2011.
In fact, by 2014-15, North Carolina was still spending $100 million less on public education than it had before the economic recession. And over the past ten years, public schools added more than 150,000 additional students. No Republican legislator can honestly say that per pupil expenditures across the state have increased in the last six years.
Taking Aim at Teachers
Curiously, the Republican-held capital didn’t stop at defunding education. They also took aim at teachers.
NC teachers are prohibited by law from unionizing, but they did have a common advocacy group in the North Carolina Association of Educators. In 2011, the legislature passed a law targeting how the group collects dues from member teachers. Then-Governor Bev Purdue vetoed it. In 2012, the law made its way back to Purdue, who vetoed again–but the House overrode it during a sneaky, late-night vote. (The law was later found to be discriminatory, retaliatory, and a violation of free speech and thrown out by state courts.)
But with teacher’s main advocacy group effectively muzzled, the legislature was free to run rampant, and teachers quickly came under fire.
Teacher salaries fell to 46th in the nation and worst in the south after five years with zero pay increases. And when Republicans finally acted to increase teacher pay, they claimed to make the biggest pay hike in state history–but in reality only bumped up paychecks by an average of $270 per year. When you factored inflation into the mix, teachers were losing money.
Meanwhile, Texas and Virginia started actively recruiting North Carolina teachers to go work in their states. It didn’t take much to convince Tarheel teachers to flee–especially after some teachers discovered they earned substantially less money than when they started thanks to inflation.
In case pitiful paychecks weren’t enough to deter teachers from returning to work, the legislature next took aim at teacher tenure. The Republican-led proposal initially was to eliminate tenure altogether, but eventually they came up with a plan that would grant teachers pay raises for giving up their career status. It was, as I wrote then, a clever way of getting rid of veteran teachers.
Eventually, that compromise became law, and teachers state-wide began the effort of figuring out if their career status or their retirement pension was more important–and once again, the court stepped in and overturned the law. Another legislative overreach corrected by the courts.
(This year, just for kicks, the NC Senate is proposing an end to teacher healthcare coverage in retirement. “That’s something that should have been done a long time ago,” state Rep. Gary Pendleton said.)
The assault didn’t stop with the assaults on new and tenured teachers. It continued on teacher preparation programs, including the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program.
The Teaching Fellows program was arguably one of the best teacher prep scholarships in the nation; it celebrated a better retention rate than its federal cousin, Teach For America, and it produced droves of quality teachers who filled hard-up school classrooms. Its budget was a modest one, and yet Republicans uprooted it from the state budget and killed the entire program.
This year, with its final class of scholars graduating college, the program officially flat-lined. State Teacher of the Year Keana Triplett called the legislature’s shuttering of the Teaching Fellows “the single biggest mistake in public education.”
The result? Enrollment in teacher prep programs in the UNC system has dropped 27 percent in the last five years. A teacher shortage is just around the corner.
First, weaken schools. Then print parents a ticket out–and into for-profit schools….
Let’s review. With an unassailable, veto-proof majority, North Carolina Republicans seized control of this state and unleashed a devastating blow to public schools.
They have systematically pared budgets to the bone. They have insulted, antagonized, and demoralized teachers through stingy salary offerings–and they’ve muted the organization that had for many years protected them.
Make no mistake: this is a war against public education. Teachers are losing. I have been reading and writing about education in North Carolina for several years now, and while it might not always appear obvious, our state has formed a cohesive and coordinated attack against public schools.
Public education is at risk. And with every measure–every budget cut, every insult, every weakening–our school house slides toward complete devastation.