The term “walking contradiction” describes someone who says one thing and then acts in a contradictory fashion. Nowhere do we get a better example of the “walking contradiction” than with politicians who knowingly and blatantly make statements that contradict their own actions.
In North Carolina, we have our own walking contradictions. One of them is our governor, Pat McCrory. Another is the leader of the state Senate, Phil Berger, Sr.
Gov. McCrory has been on a vocal crusade to “improve” public education making glittering generalities about how he and the GOP-led General Assembly (chiefly Sen. Berger) have raised teacher pay, given more educational resources to families in need, and held educators accountable for student achievement. Yet, the policies that he and the GOP-led NCGA have championed in no way improved public education or benefited students in traditional schools.
Take for instance teacher pay. Last summer, in his budget proposal, McCrory told North Carolinians that he would raise starting teacher pay to 35,000 to help attract new vibrant talent to teach our kids. While this might be perceived as a good start, he totally contradicted the words that he made when visiting Wilson Academy of Applied Technology in February, 2015.
As reported by Chris Fitzsimon of the NC Policy Watch on Feb 10th, McCrory said he would “convince a ninth grader that when (he) graduates (and has) the chance to make $65,000 a year in a job, where in another profession after getting into a lot of debt, the starting salary is $25,000 to $30,000 a year, then (he) should go for that higher paying job.”
In essence, he just told students to not enter the educational field; they would not make much money and have lots of student debt. Ironically, this is the same governor who has allowed people like Sen. Phil Berger and then Rep. Thom Tillis to pass legislation that reduced funding for public universities resulting in students going into more debt to get a college education. Even more caustic is that under McCrory’s watch, North Carolina’s GOP-led General Assembly has eliminated the Teaching Fellows Program and abolished teacher longevity pay as well as pay raises for advanced degrees. In fact, most ending salaries for NC teachers who reach thirty years of experience never approach $65,000. The current top salary a new teacher could make who enters now is capped at 50,000.
More egregious still is that McCrory made this speech at a magnet school that was not slated to graduate any student from its five-year program until 2020 and only 75 students at that.
I am not against magnet schools or early colleges. Some offer great programs for a diverse dynamic student body. Especially in rural areas that need economic avenues for students to work toward, these alliances with community colleges are beneficial. But their success should in no way impede or take away from what traditional high schools do every day. In fact, if McCrory wants more of these alliances between community colleges and the public school system, then he should invest more into public education. An educated public gives back to its community and that is what sustains community colleges through bonds and SPLOST (special-purpose local-option sales tax) money.
So, what are Gov. McCrory and leaders like Sen. Phil Berger doing for the hundreds of thousands of students who attend traditional schools and have ambitions other than STEM related fields? In the time that Wilson Academy will graduate 75 students, the traditional high school where I serve will graduate over 2500 students. Nearly 800 of them will have matriculated through my classroom. And not all of them want to enter a profession that is STEM-related. God forbid some may want to become writers, journalists, maybe politicians or even English teachers.
North Carolina needs not just people to fill STEM related jobs; we need people to be able to do any job, whether it be in information technology, tourism, health care or the film industry. What “Gates Foundation reformers” like McCrory and Berger want is for the free market to determine how schools operate. What they fail to realize is that if you educate students effectively in multiple disciplines and skill-sets, then they can actually be innovators and create markets that vitalize our economy.
But I do see how Gov. McCrory and Sen. Berger would have benefitted from a STEM curriculum. Maybe an extra science class would have taught them that when Duke Energy stores coal ash in a weak repository that leaks into rivers it will create a massive environmental problem which takes time and money to fix. Maybe an extra technology class would have taught them that overhauling DHHS just to refute the Affordable Care Act requires more than just a few new computer programs. Maybe an extra math class would have taught them that tax breaks for the wealthy create an unequitable burden on the rest of North Carolinians.
Interestingly, McCrory’s budget proposal last year also made mention of needing over 1000 new teachers to help respond to the population boom in North Carolina. However, how can one make the claim to offer our students an optimum public education when all of his actions seem to be driving dynamic teachers away from the profession? In a 2015 NPR Education news story, Eric Westervelt chronicled the drop in enrollment of teacher candidates within education schools across the country, highlighting North Carolina’s twenty percent reduction in education majors. Combine that drop in enrollment with high attrition levels due to teachers leaving the profession early because of low salaries and disrespect and one can see that NC will have a massive teacher deficit. That does not sound like “improvement” to me.
Another facet of the walking contradiction that defines both Gov. McCrory and Sen. Berger is their drive to privatize the public school system. There are students this school year in NC who are attending unaccountable private and religious schools with public funds in a program called the Opportunity Grants. While the future of this program is in the hands of the courts, the idea of publically elected officials using taxpayer money to promote private education is totally contradictory to the very state constitution that they have sworn to uphold. Just look at Section 2 of Article IX of the North Carolina State Constitution. It states, ”The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”
This also relates to the rampant growth in the number of charter schools under McCrory’s administration. If public schools are suffering so much that we need to make vouchers available to the undereducated and promote specialty high schools that can dictate which students enter (one of which has Sen. Berger’s son on its board), then why not focus our energies and resources on helping the already existing public schools more?
And how do our governor and his political allies explain funding cuts to pre-K programs and claim that those cuts were simply cost-saving measures? An editorial in Raleigh’s News and Observer (2/4/15)stated, “Duke University researchers have provided exhaustive research data showing what educators and parents already could see: Having children enrolled in North Carolina’s state-supported early education programs makes them less likely to be placed in very expensive special education classes by third grade” (http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/editorials/article10253654.html). This means that our state government cut funds from programs that actually were saving us money in the long run, all in the name of financial responsibility. That’s not just contradictory; that’s ludicrous.
Gov. McCrory’s words may mean well, but his and Sen. Berger’s actions say otherwise. Those actions have fostered a political atmosphere that degrades public education and belittles teaching professionals. They seem to forget that the wealth of the state of North Carolina relies not on an itemized line, but in the people who live here, work here, learn here, and raise families here. If our fellow North Carolinians receive the very education that the state constitution guarantees, then we are more prepared to make informed life decisions and be able to make more contributions to our communities. That is what creates true wealth. In fact, one of the mantras of previous NC Republican administrations was to invest heavily in public education because good public schools recruit more businesses and companies to the state. Maybe another history class could help the governor and senator understand this.
And it starts with investing in people, not companies that look at profit margins like those who are running virtual high schools in NC. It starts with investing in people like teachers, especially the veteran teachers.
Gov. McCrory is running for re-election, and he is touting his “extensive” experience as governor of our state and four-term mayor of our largest city. Sen. Berger touts his “extensive” experience as well. Yet, if experience means that much to him to keep doing the job of governing then could not the same be said for veteran teachers and education?