Having spent 40 years in the business world, while also having been immersed in K-12 public education for the last 20, I remain frustrated especially of late by the lack of public will to invest more heavily in our children. I speak not simply from an ideological perspective (as I must admit I find our current approach fundamentally wrong for children), but from what I consider to be unsound business practice. I am convinced that the primary gauge for a states overall health is the quality of its workforce to attract and retain industry. What we do for (and to) our children ties directly to workforce development. Good health, for citizenry and industry, is tied to the state of ones economy, which has strong correlation to the quality of the labor pool.
Not taking care of teachers
Lets take a look at the current state of K-12. That workforce is stressed, underpaid and, many would argue, is witness to good people leaving the profession. Why? Consider present trends:
• Since 2009, against a growing student population, we have 15,000 fewer K-12 professionals serving in a full-time capacity. Without question, the last five years have punished the state economically, but are the magnitude of the cuts wise? People are hard-pressed to do their job in a quality way. When are kids not well-served?
• Since 2003, the cumulative pay increase for those professionals serving children is only 8.3 percent. The next lowest comparable number in the Southeast is 16 percent. Teachers are now in their fourth consecutive year of frozen pay. As a result, North Carolina has slipped to 46th in average pay nationally a far cry from the national median pay we were nearing over a decade ago. People who enter the teaching profession are not out to get rich; they are there born out of a desire to help children grow and learn. But we have to provide them a decent living wage. Its simply wrong to expect them to work a second job. And it doesnt serve our children well.
Recruiting good people is key
Anyone in business knows that to survive, much less to grow, in virtually any economic climate, one has to attract and retain good people. And one has to continue to invest in their people. When considering that our children are our states future, why would we not take this responsibility more seriously? We have to ask ourselves, are we attracting and retaining the right teachers to move our state where we want it? Will our children receive the level of preparedness they deserve and that we deserve to be prepared in this global economy? The marketplace of the future will be ruthless as it sources to the best-qualified, most efficient channel.
I understand that the last 5 years have demanded austerity. Constitutionally, we are mandated to a balanced budget. Hard decisions have been made. The taxpayer is feeling pain along the way. My sense is that we have to address our tax code, find better ways to equitably tax our citizenry and smooth out our revenue stream to cover for a roller coaster budgeting process. Is it time to create reserves in the good years to sustain us for the down years? Our current system certainly does not appear to serve us well.
Businesses should demand more
Its probably time to make some very difficult decisions around re-prioritizing where we spend the limited resources we have. How do we engage the public in doing so? Tough decisions are being made. But constant cutting is not the only answer, and is not the right answer.
Its time for the business community to weigh in. And, in the process, they might consider the culture of countries housing their global competitors. The U.S. could learn from many, where government investment in K-12 flows a bit more freely and consistently, from pre-K all the way through a seamless higher ed system.
Many get it with respect to the return of investing consistently in human capital. After all, why should education be treated so much differently from the successful model of our business community? Companies know they need the best people to compete, and they are continually reinvesting in them to maintain that edge.
At the end of the day, we all inherit the pipeline of the children currently in K-12. Dont we owe them more? Dont we owe ourselves more?
John Tate of Charlotte is a retired banker who served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board for 16 years and has served on the N.C. Board of Education since 2003.
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