Analyzing the North Carolina Public Education Debate

   In North Carolina, the newly adopted budget has made changes to public education and is sparking public and political debate. The public debate was illustrated by the nationally publicized “Moral Monday” protests where citizens gathered in the capital city to protest state legislative action. Many protestors specifically showed their support for public education by wearing, “red for public-ed.” The political debate has taken place within the legislative branch. Just like most political debates, there are relatively two sides to this argument, the Republicans versus the Democrats. The Republicans argument is that these cuts are necessary to improve the states current economic situation. The Democrats feel as though these cuts and appropriations are too drastic, harming the youth of North Carolina and causing their educations to suffer.  In the North Carolina General Assembly, Republicans make up the majority of both the Senate and the House and in North Carolina the Governor, Pat McCrory, is also a republican. This post will focus on analyzing the newly passed budget and how it deals with public education. When the different aspects of the cuts interact and are applied, they will cause negative effects on North Carolina public education in the form of dampening the positive attitudes and classroom efficiency that is born from being supported and nurtured by the state government.

     One harmful aspect of the new budget that I have previously discussed is the cutting of teacher assistants. Around 3,000-teacher assistant positions will be cut by 2015.  The job description of teaching assistants given by the North Carolina Public Schools includes providing academic assistance, instructional support, reporting and record keeping, and monitoring student behavior. Back when I was in elementary school, they were used in grades K-3 and also in classrooms that had kids with special needs. Now, there are no more teaching assistants in third grade, and they are being phased out in first and second grade. A study done in 1993 showed that teacher assistants helped under-achieving students gain oral and reading skills. Also, having two adults in the classroom cuts the teacher-to-student ratio in half, allowing for more individualized attention per student.

     After the passing of the “No Child Left Behind”Act in 2002, teacher assistants had to fulfill a series of qualifications in order to continue working. These qualifications include having either an associates degree, taking 48 hours of college courses, completing the Department of Labor Program, or passing the Work Keys Test and undergoing 96 hours of staff development. Now, only seven years after the passed deadline for these requirements, many teacher assistants are losing their jobs and stuck without a source of income.

     Teacher Assistants are the second line of instruction , giving children more one-on-one attention.They have had formal training and reduce the teacher’s workload so they are able to focus on preparing and equipping students with skills needed for the next grade level. The Republican party feels as though cutting teacher assistants is necessary for economic stability. Also, that by cutting teacher assistant jobs, they are freeing up funds to hire more full time teachers. However, while this solution may fix economic issues, it does not address the void that will be left in the classroom by the disappearance of teacher assistants. The newly hired full time teachers will still face the problem of not having the extra support within the classroom. It is in grades K-3 that you learn the basis of academia and social skills.  This basis includes the ability to read, write, compromise, and work with others. Teachers are equipped with the knowledge to do this. However, adding another qualified individual, a teacher assistant, allows for more specialized teaching based on student’s learning style. Also, it fosters a more efficient learning environment for students, which better equips them for future endeavors.

     Teacher assistants are not the only people being shortchanged in the public education system. North Carolina full time teacher salaries have been frozen since 2009 and rank 46th  for teacher pay in the United States. Teachers have only been given a 1.2% pay raise in the last five years. This raise only makes up for inflation but in actuality does not give teachers an actual increase in pay.  Also, the bonus they were given for having a Masters Degree or their National Board Certification is in the process of being phased out. By not giving teachers a raise, the government is once again showing that they do not appreciate the work that they do or support public schools. Currently, the average teacher salary in North Carolina is $10,000 less than the national average. 

     Prior to the freeze, teachers were promised a “step” raise with each year of experience.  Essentially, a step pay awards a fixed amount raise to a teacher after the successful completion of every school year. This helped to prevent teacher turnover and rewarded experienced teachers.  However, these “step” raises stopped and teacher with one year of experience are granted the same amount of pay as teachers with five to ten years of experience.  

            In addition to not showing current teachers support, the low pay and lack of salary mobility discourages future generations from wanting to become educators. North Carolina State University reported a 17% drop in education majors in the fall of 2013.This will lead to a smaller amount of qualified teachers and a less competitive job field, which will hinder the education of future generations.

     Another aspect of the budget cuts is the addition of private school vouchers, known as “Opportunity Scholarships.”  The State Education Assistance Authority (SEAA) leads this program. These vouchers are worth $4,200 and will be given to low-income students in order to pay for private schooling. The vouchers will be funded by taxes and $10 million dollars was set-aside in the budget to do this. In its initial year, the vouchers will be given to 2,500 students. In years to follow, legislatures want to increase the number of vouchers given. 

     This voucher program brings up the issue of the separation of church and state, which is outlined in the first amendment of the US constitution.  Separation of church and state means that the government is not allowed to enact laws that promote or favor one religion over another. According to a report done in 2009, 71 percent of the 683 private schools operating in North Carolina are religiously based. No where in the voucher policy does it state that these vouchers will not be given to schools with a religious basis. So, with that majority, it is inevitable that some of the vouchers will be given to send students to schools that teach, practice, and promote a certain religion. Therefore, this means that taxpayer money, i.e. government funding, will be used to educate students about a certain religion. This blurs the line of separation and state. If in fact it crosses this line, these vouchers will be considered unconstitutional by not only the state, but the federal government.

     Supporters of the voucher program believe it is the answer to helping low income children get the individualized attention they need to reach their full potential. They feel as though public schooling does not foster the kind of specialized instruction that a private school is able to provide. If it is true that public school does not foster specialized instruction, the only way to fix it is to support it. By funneling funds into private schools, the state is only taking support away from public schools and causing what they say is a lack of specialized educational ability to worsen.

            The voucher program is sending a message that the state government does not support its own public school system. As of 2009, only nine percent of the K-12 student population attended private school. The taxes that are going to fund this project come from the general public who primarily have children who attend public schools. The majority of citizens should not be obligated to fund private schools that do not benefit them when public schools are already suffering from budget troubles. For example, these taxes paid into the voucher program could be used to keep teacher assistants or provide teachers with the raise they have been waiting for since 2009.  If one was to look at the program superficially, it would look like the voucher program was actually saving the schools money. For instance, it costs around $8,700 per student per year to attend public school. Since the vouchers are only worth $4,200, they are saving the school system around $4,000 each year for each student awarded a voucher. However, ten million dollars was set aside to start up this voucher program. This is ten million dollars that was previously used to fund public schools and is now missing from that budget.  Therefore in actuality, the voucher program is causing a loss in funds for public schooling and could once again be used to help fund teacher assistants or grant teachers a raise.

     Overall, these three different aspects of the budget cuts work together to demonstrate the lack of support for public schooling that is coming from the North Carolina General Assembly desk.  The money paid into the voucher program could have instead been funneled into either helping salvage teacher assistant positions, or providing some sort of raise for existing teachers. In addition the voucher program itself shows that the legislature believes private schools can provide a better education than public schools.  This is almost ironic considering the people who believe this, the legislative majority, are the same ones who are supposed to be managing the public school system. The fact that they are financially supporting private schools shows that they do not have faith in the system they themselves have established.  The legislatures believe that these vouchers are able to give low-income students more specialized attention. However, one of the main purposes of teacher assistants is to provide individualized attention to students. Therefore, if the legislature restored teacher assistants, they would be able to provide for these student’s needs without having to go through the trouble of creating the voucher system and potentially crossing the constitutional line of separation of church and state. Also, reinstating teacher assistants will provide full time teachers with the internal support required for delivering more individualized attention to students.  Thus, once again with these provisions the voucher program could be eliminated. However, if the government wants to provide students with the best people to deliver this individualized attention, they will have to raise teacher pay. By raising pay they will foster a more competitive job market and be able to experience the luxury of having a large field to choose from and being able to hire only the most qualified teachers.  The more financial support given to the public education system will equip schools and teachers with the tools they need to give North Carolina students the best education possible, without having to outsource to private schooling. Governor McCrory showed where his priorities were when he increased his cabinet, made up of his political advisors, salaries by a combined 1.1 million dollars.  This was money that could have been used to funneled into the school system. For example, it could funded 47 teacher assistants making the average $21,000 salary. Without governmental support, public schools in North Carolina will never reach their full potential and will fall into a downward spiral injuring the educational well-being of future generations.

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