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A teacher weighs in on the war on public education

Editor’s Note: On August 9, EdNC posted an article by James Hogan, “The war on North Carolina’s public schools,” which had been published in The Washington Post. Brenda Berg, the president and CEO of BEST NC, responded on August 12 with an article, “The real war on education in North Carolina.”  On August 14, Representatives Craig Horn and Rob Bryan addressed the issue, “Transforming education in North Carolina.”

As you can see on our about us page, EdNC wants you to know the range of perspectives that are influencing the conversation across our state. EdNC discloses when an article includes information about a board member or a financial contributor — and BEST NC is a financial supporter of our work. Supporters do not control our content.

Here is an analysis of these articles written by a teacher as an open letter to Brenda Berg.

Our hope at EdNC is that through this civic dialogue stakeholders become more aware of the different perspectives and reactions that exist statewide.

Ms. Berg,

I read with great interest your essay, entitled “The real war on education in North Carolina.” It was a carefully crafted response to James Hogan’s widely circulated op-ed piece, entitled “The war on North Carolina’s public schools,” in which he explained actions taken in the last few years by a GOP-led General Assembly that have seriously handcuffed the public school system in our state.

You are certainly right in many respects: There is a war on public education and much of the rhetoric surrounding this war is “built on half-truths” and masterfully spun double-speak.

You responded to Hogan’s arguments in a very professional and matter-of-fact manner, taking each of his supporting points and rebutting them with your own information. Yet, I would be remiss in not offering some clarification and insights as a veteran North Carolinian educator who has seen much in these last few years. In many instances, you have not only misinterpreted the data, you have also not explained the whole picture.

The first item you “debunked” from Mr. Hogan’s article was his assertion that “Among their first targets: … cuts to public schools, including laying off thousands of teachers… The state lost thousands more teacher and teacher assistant positions.”

You countered with numbers from the Department of Public Instruction about how the number of teachers in the state has actually increased since 2008. You said:

“We don’t know where Mr. Hogan finds evidence for the layoff of thousands of teachers. The North Carolina Statistical Profile from the Department of Public Instruction shows that in 2008, North Carolina had 97,676 teachers. Since 2008, the largest decline in the number of teachers employed in North Carolina was between 2011 and 2012, when the state employed 641 fewer teachers. There is no evidence that teachers were laid off; rather, it is more likely that vacant positions remained unfilled. In 2012, the state hired an additional 1,357 teachers and since then, the number of teachers has grown to 98,988 in 2014.”

With this use of numbers, you appear correct, but you are actually ignoring one very important item: growth of population. North Carolina has grown tremendously in the last few years. In fact, the number of teachers in 2014 should have been much higher to keep the same student to teacher ratio we had in 2008. Instead, high school class size caps have been removed statewide, and teachers are teaching more students per day.

Add to that your observation that vacant positions were unfilled. That in and of itself tells one there is no longer a teacher employed to “fill” that position. The duties remain, but now others have to assume them along with already growing responsibilities. Two teachers now are doing the work of what three teachers did in 2008. Attrition rates, early retirement, and reduction in force (RIF) are all real forces in schools today, and the effect is akin to layoffs.

Furthermore, do the numbers you refer to include all of the teacher assistants, media assistants, administrators, and other classified personnel who are no longer employed?

The next item you attempted to debunk involved state funding for schools. Mr. Hogan said, “Two years later, in the last budget cycle, 2014-15, the legislature provided roughly $500 million less for education than schools needed.”

You countered with the PolitiFact claim that “In fact, by 2014-15, North Carolina was still spending $100 million less on public education than it had before the economic recession.” Then you further explained:

“North Carolina is spending more today on public education than it did before the economic recession, even when adjusted for inflation. The public education appropriation for the 2014-15 school year is $11,013,800,000—a significantly higher number than the $9,406,300,000 allocated in 2007, just before the Great Recession. When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina is also spending more per pupil now than in any of the ten previous years, with the exception of 2009, a peak budget year.”

Again, you simplified the numbers. There is more there and much of it has to do with population increase and the need to educate more students.

Let me use an analogy. Say in 2008, a school district had 1,000 students in its school system and spent $10 million dollars in its budget to educate them. That’s a $10,000 per-pupil expenditure. Now in 2015, that same district has 1,500 students and the school system is spending $11.5 million to educate them. According to your analysis, that district is spending more total dollars now than in 2008 on education, but the per-pupil expenditure has gone down, significantly by over $2,300 dollars per student or 23 percent.

A WRAL report from this past school year stated, “In terms of per-pupil spending, an NEA report ranks North Carolina 46th in the United States in 2014-15, up from 47th in 2013-14. But spending actually drops from $8,632 to $8,620 per student from last year to this year.” According to Governing magazine, even the Census Bureau confirms that we are spending less per student than in years past.

Mr. Hogan stated next, “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.”

Your rebuttal was:

“We find no evidence that supports Mr. Hogan’s claim that the teachers received on average a $270 increase in salary. The average salary for a North Carolina teacher in 2013, the year before the raise was added, was $44,990. If you multiply this number by the average percent raise, 6.9 percent (according to calculations from Fiscal Research), teachers received on average an additional $3,104 dollars on their annual paycheck, plus benefits….

In 2014, the General Assembly passed an average 6.9 percent raise for teachers. This year, both the House and the Senate have proposed additional teacher raises averaging 4 percent. Combined, this nearly 11 percent average raise makes significant progress toward addressing the 17.4 percent decline (adjusted for inflation) in salaries teachers experienced between 2003 and 2013.”

The operative word here is “average.” Beginning teachers saw an average pay hike of more than 10 percent, yet the more years a teacher had, the less of a “raise” was given. The result was an AVERAGE hike of 6.9 percent, but it was not an even distribution. In fact, some veterans saw a reduction in annual pay because much of the “raise” was funded with what used to be longevity pay. And as a teacher who has been in North Carolina for these past ten years, I can with certainty tell you that my salary has not increased by 6.9 percent.

Mr. Hogan’s claim that there was only an average salary increase of $270 comes when one takes the actual money allocated in the budget for the increase and dividing that evenly across the board. 

That raise you refer to was funded in part by eliminating teachers’ longevity pay. Like an annual bonus, all state employees receive it—except, now, for teachers—as a reward for continued service. Yet the budget you mentioned simply rolled that longevity money into teachers’ salaries and labeled it as a raise.

In the point about out-of-state teacher recruitment, Mr. Hogan said, “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…”

You responded:

“Relatively few North Carolina teachers are leaving to teach in other states, and fewer are leaving now than before the economic recession. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s 2014 Teacher Turnover Report reports that only 455 left for this reason in 2014—just three percent of the 13,616 teachers who left their jobs last year. The percentage of teachers “fleeing” to other states was actually higher before the recession, as 3.5 percent of teachers in 2008 left to teach in other states.”

Editor’s Note: This paragraph in Berg’s original article has been corrected. It now states: 

Relatively few North Carolina teachers are leaving to teach in other states, and rates have been relatively consistent since the economic recession. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s 2014 Teacher Turnover Report reports that the percentage of teachers leaving for other states rose slightly in 2014 (734, or 5.4 percent) with fewer leaving (341, or 3.5 percent) in 2012, consistent with the rate in 2008 (467, or 3.5 percent).

Teachers are not simply leaving North Carolina to teach in other states; many are leaving the profession altogether. The 2014 Teacher Turnover Report only states the information given to DPI. Not all teachers who leave teaching jobs take the survey, but from what I have witnessed, many teachers leave the profession because they cannot simply afford to raise a family on a North Carolina teacher’s salary. Younger mothers cannot afford day care, and teachers in border counties are easily lured to other states. They do not have to be recruited.

Furthermore, other states like Texas have had recruitment fairs in the state, and highly publicized ones at that. Most notably were a couple done by the Houston Public Schools, who are now led by Terry Grier, the former Guilford County superintendent. He knows the conditions in North Carolina and took advantage of the situation. While he may not have taken entire faculties with him, the fact that he was actively recruiting in North Carolina shows how conditions have deteriorated in this state.

So many teachers left the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System this past year (some estimate that it was more than 1,000), that the school system participated in over 50 job fairs, according to a May 25th WBTV report. As of two weeks ago, over 300 positions were still posted. And the CMS system is in a border county. Just look in York County, SC and see how many of their teachers were formerly employed by our state.

Ironically, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system is in the home district of Rep. Rob Bryan, who responded to Mr. Hogan’s essay himself with Rep. Craig Horn in an op-ed  entitled “Transforming education in North Carolina. Rep. Bryan is reported to be crafting legislation for an Achievement School District like the one in Tennessee as an option to takeover low-performing schools. 

Of further interest, BEST NC lists Tennessee as a model example of education improvement even calling it an “inspiration” to their “vision” in the Proposed North Carolina Education Vision found on BEST NC’s website. If you look at the list of NC EDUCATION 2020 VISION WORKING GROUP CO-CHAIRS, you will see that Rep. Rob Bryan is on a committee to explore compensation, evaluation, and retention of teachers. Rep. Craig Horn is listed on a committee chaired by you, Ms. Berg, for accountability, transparency, and communication.

Mr. Hogan does make mention of the Teaching Fellows Program that was abolished by this current NCGA. He claims “The Teaching Fellows program produced droves of quality teachers who filled hard-up school classrooms.”

You countered with:

“Most Teaching Fellows did not teach in hard-to-staff areas of North Carolina. In the Public School Forum’s Teaching Fellows Report from earlier this year, the Forum reported that ‘Teaching Fellows taught in schools and classrooms with greater concentrations of higher-performing, lower-poverty students’ and “tend to be clustered in the larger metropolitan areas where teacher recruitment overall has historically been less problematic than in the state’s poorer and rural districts.'”

I will agree with your observation that not all of the Teaching Fellows went to hard-to–staff areas. In fact, hard-to-staff areas have a harder time recruiting teachers, period. Maybe the issue you need to address here is not the fact that these poorer and rural districts are harder to staff, but why they are hard to staff. You said they are “poorer,” which means there may be no local supplement for teachers. But the fact that they are poorer has an effect on the very students in the schools that cannot simply be alleviated by schools themselves. When you say the word “poorer” in referring to an area, then you must start looking at the effect that poverty can have on a public school system.

Additionally, there are still several Teaching Fellows in my own school, and I am forever grateful for their professionalism and passion to teach.

Mr. Hogan also claimed, “The Teaching Fellows program…budget was a modest one, and yet Republicans uprooted it from the state budget and killed the entire program. The result? Enrollment in teacher prep programs in the UNC system has dropped 27 percent in the last five years.”

You came back with:

“The number of students in UNC system education programs reached a peak in 2010, but it has declined since. This decline started while Democrats were in office and cannot be solely attributed to the actions of a Republican-led legislature or the elimination of the Teaching Fellows program… Hogan implies that the decreased enrollment in teacher programs is the direct result of the elimination of the Teaching Fellows program. However, the program only prepared about three percent (3%) of the 10,000 teachers North Carolina hires every year.”

Again, you are correct to a certain extent. The abolishment of the Teaching Fellows program did not single-handedly cause the teacher candidate shortage, but it had name recognition and a great reputation. Abolishing it showed other potential teachers that recruiting our own to become teachers in our schools was not a priority.

We are experiencing a shortage of teacher candidates in our education programs here in the state, which is disconcerting because we have one of the best public university systems in the nation. On your list of BEST NC stakeholder participants, you have a few university faculty members and UNC Board of Governors members. Ask them about this decrease.

Furthermore, you claim in your essay that the NCGA has allocated a provision where they would provide scholarships to potential teachers as a recruitment tool to attract and keep great talent. Is that not what the Teaching Fellows Program did in the first place?

And who would want to become a teacher in North Carolina as a Teaching Fellow or not when the current General Assembly has:

  • removed longevity pay,
  • taken away due-process rights from new teachers,
  • denied a pay increase for graduate degrees, and
  • discussed removing health benefits for retirees.

Those reasons alone would cause a dramatic decrease in enrollment in teacher education programs in any state.  

Mr. Hogan then explained that “More than 700 of the state’s public schools (nearly thirty percent) received a score of D or F. Many parents struggled to understand how so many schools could so quickly fail. But instead of demonstrating the quality of a school, the state’s new grading measure much more accurately described the socio-economic status of its enrolled students–nearly every one of the state’s “failing” schools were considered high-poverty schools.”

You countered with:

“Using ‘growth’ as an alternative measure, which is not based on socio-economic status, there are 591 schools across the state that are failing to meet growth. These schools did not ‘so quickly fail’—these schools were failing for a very long time, but remained virtually ignored. While the current letter grades are an imperfect measure (there are 86 D and F schools that exceeded growth, for example), we hope these grades will compel North Carolina to take a positive, comprehensive approach to improving public schools.”

“Growth” is an interesting word here. Since I have been in the state, the measurement standards of schools have changed so much that to compare “growth” in student achievement from 2005 to gains/losses today is like using different rulers which have completely different units of measure. We have endured No Child Left Behind, the ABC’s, Race to the Top, and a host of different accountability measures and assessment tools. None seem to stick because none seem to be completely valid.

But I think the point that Mr. Hogan is making is that the letter grading system used by the state literally showed how poverty in our state affects student achievement. Allow me to refer to an op-ed I wrote about the Jeb Bush school grading system adopted by North Carolina. It stated:

“What the state proved with this grading system is that it is ignoring the very students who need the most help — not just in the classroom, but with basic needs such as early childhood programs and health-care accessibility. These performance grades also show that schools with smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction are more successful, a fact lawmakers willfully ignore when it comes to funding our schools to avoid overcrowding.”

You seem to claim that schools have not been meeting “growth” for quite a while. That simply tells me that we have been ignoring factors that affect a student’s ability to achieve before they even get to school. Even with some recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-09, we still have an enormous amount of NC’s children in poverty. How can students “grow” in school when they cannot even “grow” in their homes?

Poverty is a huge issue that sits at the root of what ails public schools in our state. Last August, Business Insider published a report from the Brookings Institute highlighting the 15 cities where poverty is growing fastest in the nation. Greensboro-High Point tied for 10th, Winston-Salem tied for 8th, and Raleigh tied for 3rd with Charlotte. The Washington Post (where you first read Mr. Hogan’s article) published a study this past year by the Southern Education Foundation that found an incredibly high number of students in public schools live in poverty. And just in April, the journal Nature Neuroscience published a study that linked poverty to brain structure and academic achievement.

We cannot focus on growth when we must focus on what obstacles are in the way of students’ abilities to learn.

Finally, Mr. Hogan said, “We’re five weeks overdue on the budget, and some legislators are saying the budget might not be settled until Labor Day.”

You countered with:

“In the past 15 years, North Carolina has passed a budget on-time just four times, and two of those were on the final day of the fiscal year. We still haven’t approached the 88 extra days it took in 2001 or the 92 days it took in 2002. We agree with Mr. Hogan that passing a budget after the beginning of the school year does not benefit schools or students. But what matters more is whether the final approved budget results in a better budget for education.”

Ms. Berg, that’s no excuse. That’s validating a negative with past negatives.

Any of the business leaders on your board of participants or in your stakeholders’ pool would be aghast if their budgets were not established on time. This delay on the state budget costs the taxpayers money and jeopardizes our schools’ ability to plan for a school year that has already started in much of the state.

After looking through the Proposed North Carolina Education Vision on the BEST website, I agree that it will take a concerted effort on all public school stakeholders’ parts to help heal what ails our schools. And I applaud the numbers and rank of people you have participating in the BEST NC discussions, but I still believe that the biggest obstacle we have as a state to achieving a highly ranked public school system resides on West Jones Street in Raleigh within the Legislative Building. Because until they act, the very students you claim to be advocating for will still suffer.

In conclusion, you said toward the beginning of your essay that “opinion articles that oversimplify this complex issue” and “demoralize dedicated educators” are the real war on North Carolina’s education system.

Ms. Berg, if that is true, then you are waging the war as well.


Stuart Egan

Stuart Egan is an English teacher at West Forsyth High School in Winston Salem, North Carolina.