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Petition drive steers toward education funding

fr teachersAdvocates calling for increased state education funding made a stop in Haywood County Monday as part of a statewide tour en route to Raleigh, where they will deliver a stack of petitions signed by 61,000 state residents later this week.

Cardboard boxes filled with the petitions were piled on the sidewalk in front of the historic courthouse in Waynesville as a prop during a rally hosted by Progress NC Action. Specifically, the petitions ask lawmakers to come up with a viable plan for increasing teacher pay to the national average — without cutting education in other areas in order to pay for it.

A plan recently floated by the state Senate to increase teacher pay by 11 percent is “robbing from Peter to pay Paul” by cutting other areas of education, including massive layoffs of teachers assistants and reductions to early childhood education, to name a few, according to Gerrick Brenner, the executive director of Progress NC Action. 

Meanwhile, the proposal by the state House to raise teacher pay by 5 percent relies on a flawed strategy that would tap proceeds of the N.C. lottery, Brenner said. The hope is that more aggressive advertising will increase lottery ticket sales, but it’s questionable whether that would work, and even if it did, the lottery preys disproportionately on lower socioeconomic classes, Brenner said.

Alex Masciarelli, a Waynesville Middle School teacher, shared his struggles trying to support a family of five on a teacher’s salary. He has worked second, third and even fourth jobs as a community college teacher, a tutor and summer camp instructor.

“Due to the teacher salary freeze in North Carolina it has been extremely difficult for families like mine,” said Masciarelli, who has a masters in education. He said he knows of young teachers who have put off having children due to financial constraints.

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Yvonne Plemmons, a science teacher at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, said she’s seen disheartened teachers leave the profession recently due to feeling undervalued. 

Last year, 14 percent of teachers, or 13,600 statewide, resigned, according to Brenner. Fewer college students are pursuing a teaching career, and of those who are, more are taking jobs in other states with better pay. 

About three dozen people from the community showed up for the rally, and were given signs decrying the state’s ranking in teacher pay — declaring the state 46th in the nation. But that changed just last week.

“Our signs are outdated. Cross-out 46th and punch up 47th,” Brenner said.

However, the teacher pay conundrum is more complicated and shouldn’t be solved by simply an across-the-board salary hike, according to Bob Luebke, an education expert with the Civitas Institute, a conservative policy group based in Raleigh.

“I think we all recognize that we have to reform how we pay teachers,” Luebke said. 

But Luebke recommends a more tailored solution like that proposed by Governor Pat McCrory.

“The big part of the problem is on the front end of the teacher salary structure,” he said. “Our starting salaries are lower than what they should be. Because of this economy, the state hasn’t had the money to boost those salaries.”

It’s not uncommon for teachers with more years in the profession to make $45,000 or more a year, while the pay for younger teachers, many of whom work just as hard or harder than those with more longevity, make substantially less.

Luebke takes that rationale one step further: local school districts should have flexibility in setting teacher salaries, not based blindly on the number of years they have on the job, but rather performance.

“You could have a great teacher and one that is under performing and they are paid the same. We need to link pay to things that we really want to value which is performance in the classroom.”

Teacher pay isn’t the only area that needs attention in the education budget, said Plemmons, pointing to funding cuts that reduced the budget for science materials at Tuscola from $7,000 to $1,000 this year. With the cost of a formaldehyde-soaked frog running $1.80 a pop, let alone elements and minerals for chemistry experiments, the science supply budget isn’t enough to adequately serve the more than 1,000 students at the high school, she said.

Plemmons, like many teachers, buys everything from tissues to pencils for the classroom out of her own pocket. 

“Our schools are in dire need of updated technology and textbooks. Class sizes have continued to grow larger,” Masciarelli added.

As North Carolina slips on the education front, the economy will suffer, he said.

“Think about the view from outside our state: Would you move your business to North Carolina? If given the choice, would you enroll your child in a state that is 48th in per pupil spending?” Masciarelli posed.

While state education funding has technically increased as a raw number year over year, it hasn’t kept up with inflation or the growing number of students in the school system.

“You will hear a bunch of lawmakers say ‘What are you talking about? We are spending more money than we ever have on public education,’” Brenner said. But education funding is actually $500 million below 2008 levels based on per student funding and inflation adjustments, he said.

“North Carolina children are not on an equal playing field,” said Tina Lambert, a local parent in attendance.

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