North Carolina, my adopted state, has passed a budget that deprofessionalizes teachers (eliminating tenure, establishing 'pay for excellence,' removing stepped increases for experience and advanced degrees), outright removes 4,000 teachers and nearly 4,000 TAs from the workforce, raises tuition at our public universities, cuts money to public schools directly, and then cuts it again by allowing some 1,400 kids to move $4,500 each from the public coffers and spend it on private school tuition. All this while establishing a flat-tax and giving tax-breaks to big business.
I have to admit that I thought we'd be talking about Kansas, Florida or Texas.
For reform-minded Democrats, this should be a wake-up call. The situation in North Carolina is the logical outcome of the policies you promote. It is not an accident, an unintended consequence of the accountability fetish or an unexpected result of 'putting students first.' The destruction of the teaching profession and the dismantling of public schools in North Carolina is exactly what the reformers (or at least the money and power behind them) have been pushing for for thirty years.
It started with A Nation at Risk, a quite long-winded diatribe against public schools that used flawed math (SAT scores have dropped 50 points!) to arrive at its prescription. Essentially what it did is ignore the fact that, in the 1960s and 70s, relatively few people took college entrance exams or the SAT. It further ignored that the people who did tended to be in the top quintile. By 1980, more people took the tests and the scores fell. The dirty secret, though, is that scores fell simply because more people took the test and the extra people tended to be in the second and third quintile (it's hard to add more people in the top 20% when they were already taking it). Of course the scores went down. It wasn't bad teaching or bad policy. It was math.
Never mind that, even then, a 50 point drop is within the float from one administration of the test to another (equivalent of 2.5% or the difference between a 97.5 and a 95), that didn't stop David Pierpoint Gardner and TH Bell from proposing some things that probably sound familiar:
- A single, national curriculum based on 'more rigorous and measurable standards'
- The use of standardized tests to determine promotion from one level of schooling to another
- Making teacher pay 'market sensitive' and 'performance based'
- Eliminating tenure and other protections
- and so on...
It should sound familiar because these are exactly the things that Secretary Duncan and President Obama promote with the ill-named 'Race to the Top.' And now they're getting their way. Democrats should be ashamed to support 'reforms' like this, but the furor over the reauthorization of ESEA has nearly every elected Democrat suddenly all in favor of the one-size-fits-all standardized testing regime of No Child Left Behind and the over-hyped and thoroughly misnamed 'Common Core Standards' (They are neither core to education nor represent educational standards. They are, however, quite common.) What's happening in NC isn't just the national debate in miniature, it's the expected and (by some) hoped-for outcome of education reform policy.
This is why having hope is so difficult.
Yes, the two main professional organizations for teachers in the state are fighting this budget, but there is a limit to what effect phone calls and emails have on Republican legislators convinced of their own moral superiority. Yes, teachers will doubtless flock to the last Moral Monday in a few days and be arrested for the crime of having a voice. Yes, there will be lawsuits. And, yes, there will eventually be the chance to vote these clowns out of office.
But there are two problems: first, remedies might not come soon enough to preserve the livelihoods of our teachers, and, second, we cannot ignore that what is going on in North Carolina now with eliminating tenure, 'holding teachers accountable,' promoting charter and private schools, and turning our schools into nothing more than jobs training programs is the direct outcome of our national education policy. This is exactly what NCLB was meant to do. This is precisely what the competitive grants in Race to the Top were designed to do.
And whatever else that means, it means that a victory today with a gubernatorial veto (not highly likely) or an injunction tomorrow will be a hollow and temporary one so long as the Democratic Party buys into the corporatist tripe about standards and accountability. To rescue education in North Carolina, we must first rescue educational policy on the national stage.