No doubt, many conservatives will explain the excoriating criticism North Carolina received at the Emerging Issues Forum this week as just another liberal, Democratic rant. After all, the Emerging Issues Forum was founded by Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.
But it's hard to dismiss the criticism of the downward slide of North Carolina's commitment to public education. Teacher salaries, once near the national average, are now ranked 46th in the country. Teacher morale may be at an all-time low, ground to bits by the pressures of constant student testing, new curricula, greater administrative scrutiny and stagnant pay. Certified teachers are fleeing the state's public schools.
The Republicans who took over the legislature in 2009 and gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure their predominance for a decade or longer have gleefully shoved public education over the guardrails. Class sizes have increased, the Teaching Fellows program has been scrapped, master's degrees no longer improve pay, tenure has been eliminated, pay has been frozen, and charter schools and vouchers for private education are reducing the amount of money available for public schools. It's no wonder that national education experts are mourning the decline of North Carolina's once-exemplary educational achievements.
A neutral observer would have to admit that the progress under Democratic legislators and governors was not all for the improvement of the state. Many Democrats were more interested in pleasing the teacher unions and gaining their election-day support than they were in being sure Johnny could read. The N.C. Association of Educators made their interests clear in questionnaires sent to legislative candidates. The questions were all about teacher pay, teacher benefits and teacher job security and not about improving education.
But what the Republicans have done in setting a new direction for education (take that, NCAE bullies!) is jeopardize the lives of North Carolina's children and the critical infrastructure that had lifted North Carolina off the bottom of the economic ocean. An increase in starting pay for teachers, as Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislative leaders proposed this week, will not correct the problems they have created. For North Carolina to revive its educational reputation from the morgue, a whole new attitude will be needed in the Legislative Building, one that declares that public education is not the enemy; it is the best hope for the state's children and its economic future.