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Teachers take to the streets: WNC teachers demand more money for public education

More than 20 school districts in the state of North Carolina had to shut down as more than 15,000 teachers traveled to Raleigh on May 16 to rally for public education. 

While none of the school systems west of Buncombe County had to take a day off, the far western counties were well represented at the rally. Many teachers that couldn’t attend still showed solidarity by wearing red shirts to school that day to represent the “RedforEd” march that ended at the Legislative Building. 

Karma Shuford, a special education teacher at Bethel Elementary in Haywood County, said she wore red to take a stand for the value of public education. 

“My biggest issue is our focus on testing, but teacher recruitment and retention, working conditions, being understaffed, and the overall disrespect of public education and educators weighs heavy on my heart as well,” she said. “I am not sure the sea of red in Raleigh even caused a blip on the legislature. It might have planted a seed — I hope it did, and that seed will grow.” 

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Karma Shuford and Chris Frodsham, Exceptional Children teachers at Bethel Middle School (above), show support for the teacher rally in Raleigh by wearing their red shirts. Donated photo

Teachers across the region cited many reasons for marching, but some Republicans claimed teachers were selfishly rallying for pay raises. Rep. Mark Brody, R-Monroe, called participants “teacher union thugs” trying to control the education process.

SEE ALSO: Clampitt: teachers need to start ‘sharing the toys’

Despite the criticism, teachers kept their message positive, saying they were marching for the future of North Carolina — the students. 

Tyler Faetz has taught English at Franklin High School for 19 years. He became a teacher to share his love of literature and to create better students and citizens.

“My participation in the rally was predicated on my belief that the students of North Carolina are not worth less than the students of neighboring states such as Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia,” he said. “Over the past several years, we have witnessed a stunning decline in per pupil expenditures, which is the metrics that is generally used when determining the level of state investment in public education. We now spend 12.2 percent less on students than we did before the recession.”

Gov. Roy Cooper spoke at the rally, telling teachers he was on their side and would continue to fight for more funding for public education and higher pay for teachers. 

“This is far more than about teacher pay. It’s about respect. It’s personal folks,” Cooper said. “It’s about real investment in our schools. If I’ve learned anything from the hundreds of teachers I’ve met it’s that teachers don’t teach for incomes. Teachers teach for outcomes.”

Faetz has always considered himself an advocate for public education, but this was the first time he’s participated in a rally of this size and scope. 

“I was so incredibly encouraged by the rally. To see so many teachers, parents, students and concerned citizens standing in unity was overwhelming,” he said. “It was also so gratifying to see the number of teachers who packed both chambers of the legislative building to let legislators know that we are watching and that we are overwhelmingly supported by the citizens of our state.”

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Franklin High School English teacher Tyler Faetz and his wife Melissa Faetz take a selfie inside the Legislative Building during the teacher rally in Raleigh. Donated photo

 

Doing less with less

As the recession raged on and state education funding was taking major hits between 2008 and 2013, it was common to hear teachers and school administration brag about being able to do more with less, but teachers now say it’s gotten to the point they’re just doing less with less. 

North Carolina’s per-pupil spending isn’t keeping pace with the national average or with surrounding southern states. North Carolina spends about $9,329 per student while Georgia spends over $10,000 and South Carolina spends $11,552 on average. 

The lack of per-pupil funding means less textbooks, less technology and fewer teaching positions for elective classes that aren’t state mandated but can enrich a student’s love of learning. 

“The media keeps saying we want a raise. No, I want my students to have the same opportunities I had 15 years ago. When I was at Franklin High they offered eight more science electives then what we can offer now — the classes that had the biggest impact on me are not offered,” said Franklin High science teacher Kate McMahan. “Our students aren’t competitive when they go to college because there’s not as many opportunities as others have. We’re not even doing more with less now, we’re doing less with less.”

McMahan said the state isn’t providing funds for textbooks, which means her science students use the same textbooks in her classroom that she used when she graduated in 2003. As one might expect, the information is outdated. 

“Math and science are constantly changing. Pluto isn’t a planet anymore,” she said. 

School districts have turned to using digital textbooks, but even funding for that is being cut in order to save positions. While there haven’t been many lay offs in the last several years, she said retiring teachers aren’t being replaced. 

Jennifer Love, STEM coordinator for Macon County Schools, said classroom funding is a big issue, especially for science teachers who can quickly use up any allotted funding for one piece of equipment. Then teachers have to go out and spend their own money for any supplies needed for experiments or hands-on projects. 

McMahan said it was those sorts of classroom projects that encouraged her to pursue a career in the sciences. In fact, she said many of her classmates who took the science elective Methods of Science Research with her at Franklin High went on to be doctors, science teachers, engineers and psychologists.   

“We learned critical thinking and project-based learning. We learned how to follow through with projects and goal setting — we need more of that type of learning,” she said.

Faetz said it’s such an exciting time to be a teacher because of the innovation of different technologies and educators moving toward teaching models that address problem-solving skills, collaboration and communication skills. 

“The most disheartening thing is that this innovation is coming precisely at the same time when our state is most reluctant to properly fund public education,” he said. 

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A group of teachers from Macon County made the five hour trip to Raleigh to be part of the rally.

With less teachers and a higher student-to-teacher ratio, time management is a challenge for many educators. As a special education teacher, Shuford is responsible for making sure all her students receive specialized, individual instruction. She has five classes each day — two resource classes where she is the sole teacher, and three inclusion classes where she co-teaches a class with another regular education teacher. 

“This means we have about 35 minutes — plus lunch with students — each day to plan for our individual classes, maintain the paperwork for the individualized education plans for each of our EC students, meet with parents, actively monitor each student’s progress plus attend grade level meetings,” she said. “So many demands and responsibilities are placed in our lap that we often feel we are not teaching students the way they deserve to be taught.”  

McMahan said she would like to see smaller class sizes, which would require more funding for positions from the state. While the recent school shootings have prompted a lot of talk about mental health and the need for more school counselors, she said reducing class size would also help create better relationships between teachers and students. 

“With 28 students in a high school class, I can’t talk to all of them every day, and the cap is 35 in elementary school,” she said. 

 

Skill and drill

Skill and drill — that’s how teachers refer to the state’s method of teaching. With so many required standardized tests to complete during the school year and so many strings attached to those test scores, teachers feel like that’s all they do. 

Shuford said she knew when she was a young child she wanted to be a teacher, but she’s struggled to adapt to the constant changes in the public school system. 

“I taught public school for eight years before becoming so totally frustrated at how students were treated by the system. At the time I left, I was teaching at Central Haywood, and it seemed all we did was test, test, test,” she said. “My heart was broken for what I saw those kids going through, and I couldn't deal with it anymore.”

Disenfranchised with the system, she began teaching at Haywood Community College and home-schooled her young children until they were in fourth and second grades. When Shuford volunteered in her daughter’s classroom, she said her love of teaching was reignited. She renewed her teaching license and began teaching at the middle school level, which she enjoys. 

“All of that becomes relevant as to where I am now, because I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of several sides of the equation,” she said. “I know why people get frustrated with public school. I understand why parents may choose the charter, private, parochial, homeschool school routes. But, I advocate for the public schools because that is where most students go, and they deserve the very best available. They deserve the opportunity to shine and succeed.”

McMahan said many teachers feel like the state is setting them up for failure with some of the required testing and the kinds of questioning on the tests. 

“Whoever is making these tests is evil,” she said. “It’s horrible that an OCS (Occupational Course of Study) student has to take the same test as my honors students. That’s just cruel. And the test doesn’t test biology knowledge — it tests your ability to read a sentence with several double negatives.”

Faetz said Franklin High used to offer English electives — creative writing, film as literature and journalism — but those have all been stripped because of the building’s overcrowding. Limited space also keeps the school from offering more AP classes that would make students more competitive. 

“Students will be denied that opportunity because of funding. Our remedial reading program needs to be expanded as well to accommodate the needs of incoming students, but because of funding we will be unable to provide these opportunities,” he said. 

Love said the current “skill and drill” methods are not doing students any favors. Once in the trenches of the classroom, Love now has the added perspective of working with local businesses to better understand their workforce needs and challenges. 

“Through this job I’ve come to learn what kind of students are graduating from high school and the needs in the community,” Love said. “The testing and the skill and drill that comes along with it isn’t producing the learners that we need in the our communities. The problem solving and critical thinking, even the soft skills like answering phones and typing, all have fallen by the wayside because it’s not on the test. There needs to be a paradigm shift in education. That’s why I went to the march.”

 

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Pay raises

While it’s not the main reason teachers rallied, it is a big factor, especially considering the shortage of funding for supplies and the extra workload teachers are taking on to compensate for having fewer funded positions. 

During the recession years, teacher salaries were frozen and North Carolina fell to 48th in the nation for teacher pay. The Legislature has given teachers a raise for the last several years, which has bumped the state up to 39th in the nation, but the state still lags behind the national average. North Carolina’s average teacher salary is now over $50,000, but the national average for 2018 is expected to be over $60,000. 

“Take the teacher salary schedule from 1996-1997, adjust it for inflation, and it becomes a little more clear why teachers, especially veteran teachers with 25-plus years of experience, are frustrated,” Shuford said. 

N.C. Teacher of the Year Lisa Godwin addressed the pay issue during an interview in Raleigh. She said it’s not just about teachers wanting more money — it’s about being able to recruit and retain quality teachers instead of losing them to surrounding states who are doing a better job funding public education. 

McMahan, who could have gone into many other science fields, chose to be a teacher because she wanted to stay close to family in Macon County and start her own family there. However, she said it is frustrating to know she could drive 20 minutes down to Georgia and see her salary increase by $15,000.

Local governments have tried to improve teacher retention by offering supplemental pay for teachers, but smaller counties are still having a hard time not losing teachers to counties like Buncombe that can offer a higher supplement. For example, Haywood County pays an average $1,967 supplement while Buncombe pays an average $3,721.

Shuford said she’s concerned about the future of public education based on a shift in society’s attitude toward public education and educators. 

“Where teaching used to be a very respected profession, now, it is almost a ‘last resort.’ We asked a group of 75 seventh-graders who wanted to be a teacher when they grew up. In that particular group, none of them did,” she said. “In 10 years, I suspect that North Carolina will be in a full-blown teacher shortage crisis.”

 

Fight for funding

Much blame is passed around as school systems fight to get the funding they need to meet all the state standards and mandates. 

A formula determines how much funding a school system receives from the state for teaching positions, but it’s not perfect. It doesn’t account for students who enroll in the middle of the year or students who return to the public school system midyear from homeschooling, private school or a public charter school. 

With mandates on class size, local school systems often have to rearrange classrooms and add teaching positions in the middle of year without the funding coming from the state to pay for the new position. Exceptions have been made that allows school systems to increase class sizes, but that puts more strain on the teachers. 

“Budget cuts eliminated an EC (Exceptional Children) position at our school, so the other EC teacher and I absorbed the workload of the third person. When I started at BMS four years ago, we had 22 EC students with three teachers,” Shuford said. “This year, we had 45 students with two teachers. My principals did all they could. My EC director did all she could, but the harsh reality is that you can’t get blood from a turnip.”

School systems then have to request funding from the county for infrastructure needs, and county governments are struggling to keep up with those needs as well. The North Carolina Education Lottery was sold to county governments as a revenue stream to be used for school construction needs, but that’s not how it’s been used. The state promised 40 percent of the proceeds would go to counties, but in reality counties are receiving less than 20 percent to put toward infrastructure, creating a backlog of maintenance issues. 

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An estimated 15,000 educators took to the streets in Raleigh May 16 to rally for more funding for public education. Donated photo

“The first school I taught in had a waterfall in the corner coming in from the leaky roof and broken windows. One time the heat went out at the high school for several days. Our buildings are crumbling, classes are getting bigger and bigger and we have fewer resources available,” Love said. “When the economy was not doing well we all cut back. Now we keep being told the economy is better so why are we not seeing it trickling down?”

Indeed, the state legislature is discussing what it should do with a $350 million surplus from the 2017-18 budget plus $275 million in extra revenue coming in for 2018-19. A 6-percent raise for teachers is one of the items on the table for consideration.

Love said educators heard a similar story at the county level when Macon County Manager Derek Roland presented the proposed budget for 2018-19. The budget does include a slight increase for Macon County Schools capital needs, but $600,000 isn’t going to go far in taking care of the school’s $3.2 million in facility needs. 

Many of the improvements are needed to better secure Franklin High School in light of several student-made threats. With 1950s infrastructure, the lack of secure buildings makes the school an easy target for intruders. 

“To put it bluntly, security at Franklin High School is a travesty,” Faetz said. “While our school resource officers and administrative staff do their best to monitor a school of 1,000 students, they are dramatically understaffed.”

With more than $22 million sitting in the county’s fund balance, educators don’t understand why these capital projects aren’t getting done faster. 

“The county has a surplus and meanwhile the school’s emergency fund is dwindling down to nothing,” Love said. “At a meeting recently we were talking about how can we reduce textbook spending instead of cutting positions and everyone is sitting there like, ‘you have to be kidding me!’”

The increase to the county’s public safety budget wasn’t lost on educators either. The increase was due to the increase in the number of inmates being detained at the Macon County Detention Center.

“The public safety piece of the pie keeps gets bigger — the jail used to have 50 inmates a day and now it’s 100 and they have to ship others off to other counties,” Love said. “I don’t know what all the answers are, but I know we’re putting more money into incarceration than education. If we educate our students and give them a reason to have a productive life, maybe we can ensure they won’t end up in jail.”

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