Henderson County teachers say they're fearful that state budget cuts will set back public education in North Carolina. A Republican representative who represents the area voted no because the budget contained provisions that were "worse than I ever imagined." Both reactions were part of the fallout from the newly adopted 2013-14 state budget that has been panned across the state by teachers and praised by Republican leaders as a long-needed step toward reform.
Rep. Chris Whitmire, a former chairman of the Transylvania County School Board who represents Transylvania, Polk and southern Henderson counties, said he voted against the bill after legislative negotiators added measures he considered unacceptable.
Teachers say they expect the budget to cut school personnel and result in more crowded classrooms.
"I'm concerned about the future of education in North Carolina," said Kaye Youngblood, a Hendersonville High School history and civics teacher. "If we want children to value education then the adults have to value education. We have to provide the schools with what they need for the schools to succeed, and the large class sizes are not going to do that."
Youngblood and other teachers say the education policy decisions by the Legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory will hurt education in more ways than teacher pay, which is already the fourth lowest in the country. The new Republican-led Legislature eliminated teacher tenure, eliminated pay increases teachers received for earning advanced degrees and adopted a $50 million school voucher program that would give income-qualifying families up to $4,000 for private school tuition.
The budget also eliminates 9,306 education positions and cuts textbook funding by $77 million, cuts classroom supply spending by $45.7 million, according to the N.C. Association of Educators. The budget funds no pay increase for teachers this year, and sets up a merit pay increase policy that teachers say is undefined. Teachers have circulated a national pay analysis that shows North Carolina teachers rank last in the nation for raises over the past decade. The state's teacher's have seen their pay frozen for five out of the past six years.
"I really think this Legislature has turned North Carolina back in a lot of ways," said Walt Cottingham, a Hendersonville High School geography and civics teacher. "They don't like teachers and they're doing whatever they can to be punitive."
Cottingham, a teacher for 38 years, said growing class sizes and shifting public school money to private schools worry him more than low pay.
"What's to stop someone from opening a jihadist charter school?" he said. "Using taxpayers' money to fund any private school I think is wrong ... Now, instead of 30 in class it'll be 35. they say they haven't fired teachers but look what that does. Goodness knows those poor elementary school teachers losing assistants. They can't even go to the bathroom."
'Significantly less' than last year
School Board chairman Ervin Bazzle said he had no figures yet on the budget's impact on Henderson County schools but expected it to be harsh.
"I don't know the ramifications of it right now but I have no doubt in my mind when we take funds and give it to private education the impact directly on our classroom is significant," he said. "I still don't know the effect it's going to have directly on teaching assistants and on how many we'll keep. I don't really know until (superintendent) David (Jones) looks at it and runs the numbers, but we know it's not as good as it is this year and it will be significantly less."
Bazzle said the Legislature's attack on teacher tenure was based on a mischaracterization of how much protection North Carolina teachers have.
"We're starting to fall to the bottom as far as payment of teachers and (are hurting public schools with) the idea that tenure is somehow a bad thing," he said. "The idea that we can't let someone go if they have tenure even if they're not performing is erroneous.
"If you're not giving raises, you're not providing the benefits that teachers are getting in other states and you're not giving funding in the classroom in order to properly educate students, security in the job has a greater meaning. When you're taking all of that away, you're taking away the ability to have a proper work force and a productive and loyal work force that is performing the best way they can."
McCrory, legislators praise budget
Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders praised the budget as a reform-oriented and fiscally responsible plan.
Overall, 56 percent of the state budget goes go to fund K-12, the 58 community colleges and 17 universities of the University of North Carolina system — a 1 percent increase from the 2012-13 budget.
McCrory pointed to funding for a new Center for Safer Schools to "provide training, technical support and serve as a clearinghouse of information on school safety to educators, law enforcement agencies and parents statewide;" a $12.4 million allocation to cover 2,500 at-risk 4-year-olds; and the money for "opportunity scholarships" for private schools.State Sen. Tom Apodaca said the state Association of Educators figures don't accurately reflect the budget. The state appropriation for teachers ranks 26th nationally, he said.
Senate leader Phil Berger defended the tenure elimination.
"It is our belief that we need to move to a situation where we provide the best teachers the security of multi-year contracts" and let principals dismiss ineffective teachers, he said in a story in the News&Observer of Raleigh.
The Legislature is taking away "employment rights already granted to veteran, proven educators," NCAE President Rodney Ellis wrote in a letter to lawmakers. The organization may challenge the tenure removal in court.
Negotiators create 'unrecognizable' budget
The Senate approved the budget in a 32-17 while the House passed it more narrowly, 65-53. Freshman Rep. Chris Whitmire, a conservative Republican from Brevard and former Transylvania County School Board chairman, voted no. A House budget that Whitmire said was better for K-12 education came back from the Senate in "unrecognizable" form.
On July 21, "the final compromise version appeared and much of the K-12 provisions were worse than I ever imagined," Whitmire said in a newsletter he published on line on Monday.
"It seemed as though eugenics and vouchers were so desired by the most senior House negotiators that sweeping changes in the Senate budget prevailed in an inordinate manner. Tenure goes away in a brute force manner, unlike the House's plan had prescribed, school vouchers appear at the expense of teacher assistants, master's pay is phased out, and our educators' pay drops to nearly the lowest in the nation with no salary increase. For these reasons, I voted against the budget. Please know that voting 'no' on the budget is a big deal, especially for a freshman."
Margie Capell, a special education teacher at Hendersonville High School, said she has heard a surprising unanimity among teachers on the left and right.
"It's not a partisan thing. It boils down to that when you get into government things," she said. "I think one of my biggest issues is the fact that we're talking about highly educated and intellectual professionals whether they're teachers or legislators. We're all public servants. When there's a lack of mutual respect, there's a breakdown in communication and effectiveness is compromised.... It's not about the money because we all got into this knowing teachers don't make much money, but it's a frustration. We're trying to prepare young people for the future. If they're the people that are going to have to make informed decisions for us when we're no longer active, if we don't get them now they're not going to make very good informed decisions for us."