Gov. Pat McCrory speaks during a news conference in Raleigh, N.C., on May 9.  (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

For the past five years in North Carolina, conservatives have dictated education (and every other policy) at the state level — and for students and teachers, the result has been a mess. A December 2015 report by a division of the progressive North Carolina Justice Center, N.C. Policy Watch, called  “Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina” explains in detail how life has changed in the state as a result of conservative policies. With regard to education, it says spending per student has fallen 14.5 percent since fiscal year 2008:

In the 2013–15 biennial budget, the legislature’s allocation for public schools was more than $100 million below what the state budget office recommended as necessary to maintain the status quo and more than $500 million less (adjusted for inflation) than what was spent on public education in 2008. And the new budget for 2015–17 continues that trend with investments that remain well below  2008 pre-recession levels, spending roughly $500 less per student. In 2014, North Carolina ranked 47th in the nation in per-student spending.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have also embraced charter schools and school vouchers without appropriate accountability, and the teaching profession has been “battered,” as educators are being asked to do much more with much less. As the report says:

Barbara Dell Carter is not a social worker. Nor is she a nurse, psychotherapist, nutritionist or a special needs educator.

Carter is a second grade teacher. But in today’s classrooms in North Carolina, she’s expected to take on much more than planning lessons and teaching her students.

“And the needs of our students are just getting greater and greater,” said Carter, who teaches at Beaufort County’s John Cotten Tayloe Elementary School in Eastern North Carolina.

Carter says she and her colleagues must routinely assist students who have profound needs – emotional, academic and medical – even though they generally lack the training or resources to adequately address them.

As for the training they have received on addressing medical emergencies, Carter said, “We’ve watched some videos.”

Here is a post about the conservative assault on public education in North Carolina, written by Stuart Egan, a National Board-certified English teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District. He has taught all grades and levels of high school English and currently teaches AP English Language and Composition and Shakespeare 101 and 102. On his blog, Caffeinated Rage, Egan writes often about the assault on public education by lawmakers in his state who have lowered teachers’ pay, cut per-pupil spending and removed due-process rights for some teachers and class-size requirements, among many other things. A version of this appeared on his blog. He gave me permission to republish this.

By Stuart Egan

When Republicans won control of both houses in the North Carolina General Assembly in the elections of 2010, it was the first time that the GOP had that sort of power since 1896. The election of Pat McCrory as governor in 2012 allowed the Republicans to pass multiple pieces of legislation that have changed a once progressive state into one of regression. And nowhere is that more evident than in the treatment of public education.

What we have seen in North Carolina is a calculated attempt to undermine public schools with more than 20 actions that have been executed along three different fronts: actions against teachers, actions against public schools, and actions to deceive the public.

The GOP-led General Assembly has been using a playbook with pages from other states’ failed experiments.  Look at Ohio and its disastrous for-profit charter school implementation. Look at New York State’s unfair teacher evaluation system, which uses student standardized to determine how effective educators are. Look at Florida and the school grading system first initiated by former governor Jeb Bush, which has led to a revolt by superintendents. In fact, look anywhere in the country and you will see a variety of “reform” movements that are not really meant to “reform” public schools, but rather re-form public schools in an image of a profit-making enterprise that excludes the very students, teachers, and communities that rely on the public schools to help, as the Rev. William Barber, would say “create the public.”

Here’s what has been going on:

Actions Against Teachers

1. Teacher Pay — A recent WRAL report and documentary highlighted that in North Carolina, teacher pay has dropped 13 percent in the past 15 years when adjusted for inflation. That is astounding when one considers that we are supposedly rebounding from the Great Recession. Yes, this 15-year period started with Democrats in power, but it has been exacerbated by GOP control. Salary schedules were frozen and then revamped to isolate raises to increments of five+ years. As surrounding states have continued to increase pay for teachers, North Carolina has stagnated into the bottom tier in regards to teacher pay.

2. Removal of due-process rights — One of the first items that the GOP-controlled General Assembly attempted to pass was the removal of due-process right for all teachers. The courts decided that it would be a breach of contract for veteran teachers who had already obtained career status — but that did not cover newer teachers who will not have the chance to gain career status and receive due process rights.

What gets lost in the conversation with the public is that due-process rights are a protective measure for students and schools. Teachers need to know that they can speak up against harsh conditions or bad policies without repercussions. Teachers who are not protected by due-process will not be as willing to speak out because of fear.

3. Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Removed  Because advanced degree pay is abolished, many potential teachers will never enter the field because that is the only way to receive a sizable salary increase to help raise a family or afford to stay in the profession. It also cripples graduate programs in the state university system because obtaining a graduate degree for new teachers would place not only more debt on teachers, but there is no monetary reward to actually getting it.

4. The Top 25 percent were to receive bonus  One measure that was eventually taken off the table was that each district was to choose 25 percent of its teachers to be eligible to receive a bonus if they were willing to give up their career status which is commonly known as tenure. Simply put, it was hush money to keep veteran teachers from speaking out when schools and students needed it. To remove “tenure” is to remove the ability for a teacher to fight wrongful termination. In a Right-To-Work state, due process rights are the only protection against wrongful termination when teachers advocate for schools, like the teacher who is writing this very piece.

5. Standard 6  In North Carolina, we have a teacher evaluation system that has an unproven record of accurately measuring a teacher’s effectiveness. The amorphous Standard 6 for many teachers includes a “value-added measure” called Assessment of Student Work.

I teach multiple sections of AP English Language and Composition and am subject to the Assessment of Student Work (ASW). I go through a process in which I submit student samples that must prove whether those students are showing ample growth. In June of 2015, I uploaded my documents in the state’s system and had to wait until November to get results. The less than specific comments from the unknown assessor(s) were contradictory at best. They included:

Alignment

Al 1 The evidence does not align to the chosen objective.

Al 4 All of the Timelapse Artifacts in this Evidence Collection align to the chosen objectives.

Growth

Gr 1 Student growth is apparent in all Timelapse Artifacts.

Gr 2 Student growth is apparent between two points in time.

Gr 3 Student growth is not apparent between two points in time.

Gr 4 Student growth samples show achievement but not growth.

Gr 9 Evidence is clear/easily accessible

Gr 10 Evidence is not clear/not easily accessible

Narrative Context

NC 1 Narrative Context addresses all of the key questions and supports understanding of the evidence.

NC 4 Narrative Context does not address one or more of the key questions.

These comments did not correspond to any specific part of my submission. In fact, I am more confused about the process than ever before. It took over five months for someone who may not have one-fifth of my experience in the classroom to communicate this to me. If this is supposed to supply me with the tools to help guide my future teaching, then I would have to say that this would be highly insufficient, maybe even “unbest.”

6. Push for Merit Pay  The bottom line is that merit pay destroys collaboration and promotes competition. That is antithetical to the premise of public education. Not only does it force teachers to work against each other, it fosters an atmosphere of exclusivity and disrespect. What could be more detrimental to our students?

Those legislators who push for merit pay do not see effective public schools as collaborative communities, but as buildings full of contractors who are determined to outperform others for the sake of money. And when teachers are forced to focus on the results of test scores, teaching ceases from being a dynamic relationship between student and teacher, but becomes a transaction driven by a carrot on an extended stick.

7. “Average” Raises — In the long session of 2014, the state General Assembly raised salaries for teachers in certain experience brackets that allowed them to say that an “average” salary for teachers was increased by over 7 percent. They called it a “historic raise.” However, if you divided the amount of money used in these “historic” raises by the number of teachers who “received” them, it would probably amount to about $270 per teacher.

That historic raise was funded in part by eliminating teachers’ longevity pay. Similar to an annual bonus, this is something that all state employees in North Carolina — except, now, for teachers — gain as a reward for continued service. The budget rolled that money into teachers’ salaries and labeled it as a raise. That’s like me stealing money out of your wallet and then presenting it to you as a gift.

8. Health Insurance and Benefits  Simply put, health benefits are requiring more out-of-pocket expenditures, higher deductibles, and fewer benefits. There is also talk of pushing legislation that will take away retirement health benefits for those who enter the profession now.

9. Attacks on Teacher Advocacy Groups (NCAE)  Seen as a union and therefore must be destroyed, the North Carolina Association of Educators has been incredibly instrumental in bringing unconstitutional legislation to light and carrying out legal battles to help public schools. In the last few years, the automatic deduction of paychecks to pay dues to NCAE was disallowed by the General Assembly, creating a logistical hurdle for people and the NCAE to properly transfer funds for membership.

10. Revolving Door of Standardized Tests  Like other states, we have too many. In my years as a North Carolina teacher (1997-1999, 2005-2015), I have endured the Standard Course of Study, the NC ABC’s, AYP’s, and Common Core. Each initiative has been replaced by a supposedly better curricular path that allegedly makes all previous curriculum standards inferior and obsolete. And with each of these initiatives comes new tests that are graded differently than previous ones and are “converted” into data points to rank student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Such a revolving door makes the ability to measure data historically absolutely ridiculous.

Actions Against Schools

11. Less Money Spent per Pupil  The argument that Gov. McCrory and the GOP-led General Assembly have made repeatedly is that they are spending more on public education now than ever before. And they are correct. We do spend more total money now than before the recession hit. But that is a simplified and spun claim because North Carolina has had a tremendous population increase and the need to educate more students. N.C. Policy Watch says per-pupil spending has declined 14.5 percent since fiscal year 2008:

12. Remove Caps on Class Sizes  There is a suggested formula in allotting teachers to schools based on the number of students per class, but that cap was removed. House Bill 112 allowed the state to remove class size requirements while still allowing monies from the state to be allocated based on the suggested formula.

Some districts have taken to move away from the 6/7 period day to block scheduling. Take my own district for example, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. When I started 10 years ago, I taught five classes with a cap of 30 students. With the block system in place, I now teach six classes in a school year with no cap. The math is simple: more students per teacher.

13. Amorphous Terms  North Carolina uses a lot of amorphous terms like “student test scores”, “student achievement”, and “graduation rates”, all of which are among the most nebulous terms in public education today.

When speaking of “test scores,” we need to agree about which test scores we are referring to and if they have relevance to the actual curriculum. Since the early 2000’s we have endured No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives that have flooded our public schools with mandatory testing that never really precisely showed how “students achieved.” It almost boggles the mind to see how much instructional time is lost just administering local tests to see how students may perform on state tests that may be declared invalid with new education initiatives. Even as I write, many states are debating on how they may or may not leave behind the Common Core Standards and replace them with their own. Know what that means? Yep. More tests.

“Graduation rate” might be one of the most constantly redefined terms in public schools. Does it mean how many students graduate in four years? Five years? At least finish a GED program or a diploma in a community college? Actually, it depends on whom you ask and when you ask. But with the N.C. State Board of Education’s decision to go to a 10-point grading scale in all high schools instead of the seven-point scale used in many districts, the odds of students passing courses dramatically increased because the bar to pass was set lower.

14. Jeb Bush School Grading System  In this scheme, schools are given grades, largely on test scores. This letter grading system used by the state literally shows how poverty in our state affects student achievement. 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 that lawmakers willfully ignore when it comes to funding our schools to avoid overcrowding.

15. Cutting Teacher Assistants — Sen. Tom Apodaca said when this legislation was introduced, “We always believe that having a classroom teacher in a classroom is the most important thing we can do. Reducing class sizes, we feel, will give us better results for the students.” The irony in this statement is glaring. Fewer teacher assistants for early grades especially limit what can be accomplished when teachers are facing more cuts in resources and more students in each classroom.

Actions That Deceive The Public

16. Opportunity Grants — These provide public funding for private school tuition. Opportunity Grant legislation is like the trophy in the case for the GOP establishment in Raleigh. It is a symbol of “their” commitment to school choice for low-income families — but that claim is nothing but a red-herring.

Simply put, it is a voucher system that actually leaves low-income families without many choices because most private schools which have good track records have too-high tuition rates and do not bus students. Furthermore, the number of private schools receiving monies from the Opportunity Grants who identify themselves as religiously affiliated is well over 80 percent, according to the N.C. State Educational Assistance Authority. Those religious schools are not tested the way public schools are and do not have the oversight that public schools have. Furthermore, it allows tax dollars to go to entities that already receive monetary benefits because they are tax-free churches.

17. Charter Schools — Charter school growth in North Carolina has been aided by the fact that many of the legislators who have created a favorable environment for charter benefit somehow, someway from them. Many charters abuse the lack of oversight and financial cloudiness and simply do not benefit students.

Especially in rural areas, uncontrolled charter school growth has been detrimental to local public schools. When small school districts lose numbers of students to charter schools, they also lose the ability to petition for adequate funds in the system that North Carolina uses to finance schools. The financial impact can be overwhelming; in Haywood County, Central Elementary School was closed because of enrollment loss to a charter school that is now on a list to be recommended for closing.

18. Virtual Schools — There are two virtual academies in North Carolina. Both are run by for-profit entities based out of state. While this approach may work for some students who need such avenues, the withdrawal rates of students in privately run virtual schools in North Carolina are staggering according to the Department of Public Instruction.

19. Achievement School Districts (ASD) — These districts are created to take the lowest-performing schools in a state and removing local control.  Teach For America alum Rep. Rob Bryan has crafted a piece of legislation that has been rammed through the General Assembly which will create ASD’s in North Carolina. Most egregious is that it was crafted secretly. Rather than having a public debate about how to best help our “failing” schools with our own proven resources, Rep. Bryan chose to surreptitiously strategize and plan a takeover of schools. ASD’s have not worked in Tennessee. They will not work in North Carolina except for those who make money from them.

20. Reduction of Teacher Candidates in Colleges — At last report, teaching candidate percentages in undergraduate programs in the University of North Carolina system has fallen by more than 30 percent in the last five years. This is just an indication of the damage done to secure a future generation of teachers here in North Carolina.

21. Elimination of Teaching Fellows Program — Once regarded as a model to recruit the best and brightest to become teachers and stay in North Carolina was abolished because of “cost.”

Overall, this has been North Carolina’s playbook. And those in power in Raleigh have used it effectively. However, there are some outcomes that do bode well for public school advocates for now and the future.

  • Teachers are beginning to “stay and fight” rather than find other employment.
  • NCAE has been able to win many decisions in the court system.
  • North Carolina is in the middle of a huge election year and teachers as well as public school advocates will surely vote.
  • The national spotlight placed on North Carolina in response to the voter-ID laws and HB2 are only adding pressure to officials  to reconsider what they have done.
  • Veteran teachers who still have due-process rights are using them to advocate for schools.

I only hope that the game changes so that a playbook for returning our public schools back to the public will be implemented.