Outlandish myths about education

It has been my privilege to be involved in education for more than a half century as a teacher, chairman of the State Board of Education, vice-chair of the State Board of Community Colleges, chair of the Public School Forum, member of the Meredith College and Catawba College boards of trustees, as well as being a member of countless local, state and regional education boards, task forces and committees.

I hope no one will question my support for education at every level. However, in today’s toxic political environment, anything is possible.

While I realize we are in the midst of some highly competitive campaigns, I have never before seen as much outlandish, misleading, inaccurate and often completely untrue rhetoric about Republicans and public education.

Myth: Teachers are leaving North Carolina in record numbers. The truth is that last year, 6.8 percent left teaching to pursue a different career and only 1.1 percent left to teach in a different state. Some undoubtedly left because their spouses found jobs in other professions. In fact — between 2010 and 2014 — 8,500 out-of-state teachers moved to North Carolina to teach while only 2,200 teachers left.

Myth: Republicans are cutting textbook funding. Since Gov. Pat McCrory was elected, spending on textbooks has tripled from $23 million to $72 million per year. In fact, it was the Democrats who cut textbook funding from $111 million to $2.5 million seven years ago. This GOP increase is in addition to $143 million in state and federal funds to transition classrooms to digital and wi-fi connectivity. In less than two years, N.C. will be one of a few states where all classrooms are connected.

Myth: Spending on K-12 spending has been cut. Since Republicans assumed power, spending on K-12 has increased by 18 percent, including a $700 million increase in this year alone. North Carolina is unique in the level of state funding it provides for K-12 public schools with 64 percent of funding coming from the state compared with the national average of only 46 percent. Education receives the largest share of the state budget, and K-12 receives by far the largest chunk of those dollars. Only in government can increases be called reductions!

Myth: Teacher salaries are being increased only because this is an election year. Two years ago, North Carolina raised teacher’s salaries more than any other state in the nation. Teacher salaries were increased by 14 percent for beginning teachers. Last year teachers with six through 10 years experience received raises between 6 and 17 percent. This year teachers received pay increases averaging 4.7 percent, and those experienced teachers between eight and 19 years on the pay scale received raises of 10 to 13 percent.

Myth: Principals have been left behind as teacher pay has been steadily increased under the Republicans. That has been true for the past eight years when they received a total of 1.2 percent increased pay. This year the Republicans granted 2 percent raises with a study approved for administrator compensation. Small, yes, but a recognition of the problem and a step in the right direction.

Myth: North Carolina’s pay for teachers compared with other states is slipping. As McCrory took office, pay had slipped to 47th. We will move to at least 41 this year and to a projected 34th next year. Total compensation, including fringe benefits, now averages $66,000 for 10 months’ employment. Is that enough for the tough job teachers face every day? Not for the effective teachers, but the trend has certainly been reversed and is headed toward our paying our teachers the most in the Southeast.

Myth: Class size has been increased. The truth is that kindergarten is capped at 18 students, first grade at 16 and second and third grades at no more than 17.

It is true that the Republicans are moving away from paying teachers based on longevity, degrees and certifications. Now that they have dramatically improved the base salaries in addition to reducing the number of years it takes for a teacher to reach the top of the pay scale, they are looking for ways to reward performance, leadership, extra work. I have been unable to find credible research that says the “old way” of paying based on degrees and seat time was effective.

So Republicans have dramatically increased teacher compensation (and will continue to do so), offered more parental choice and options for students, stressed the importance of reading, given additional funding for STEM programs, reduced class size and increased funding for technology and textbooks.

Does all that and more justify the political rhetoric that Republicans don’t care or fund education?

Phil Kirk is chairman emeritus of the State Board of Education and a resident of Raleigh.

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