Education

Charlotte education advocates to lawmakers: ‘Make teachers a priority’

High school teacher Charlie Smith talks to the press Sunday about the  state of education in North Carolina schools during an education rally organized by the nonprofit group Aim Higher Now.
High school teacher Charlie Smith talks to the press Sunday about the state of education in North Carolina schools during an education rally organized by the nonprofit group Aim Higher Now. ddeaton@charlotteobserver.com

Pointing to a projected $400 million surplus in state revenue, a group of Charlotte teachers, parents and community activists turned out Sunday to send lawmakers a message: You have run out of excuses for underfunding education.

Joining the group of about 20 was Marybeth Kubinski, a K-2 facilitator at Crown Point Elementary School who knows many teachers who’ve left the system for better pay. Her husband will soon be among them.

“We cannot make ends meet some months,” she said. “A lot of our teachers are leaving and going to other states. … And that’s not fair to our kids.”

More than 13,000 public school teachers in North Carolina – roughly one in five – left their jobs in the 2013-14 school year, according to a state Board of Education report.

Advocates say many of those teachers are leaving for better-paying jobs elsewhere.

Average teacher pay in North Carolina ranks 42nd in the nation, despite pay increases approved by lawmakers last year, according to a recent report by the National Education Association.

The same report shows that North Carolina continues to be among the states that spends the least per student.

Those who came to Sunday’s rally said that makes little sense, given North Carolina’s improving financial condition. “Make teachers a priority,” they chanted.

State lawmakers boosted salaries for the state’s teachers by an average of 7 percent last year. But veteran teachers saw little of the new money.

Under the latest N.C. House budget proposal, starting salaries for teachers would rise from $33,000 to $35,000. All teachers would get 2 percent raises, and veteran teachers at the top of the pay scale would see a $1,000 bonus from last year added to their permanent base salary.

But those who came to Sunday’s rally said the House plan would do little to change North Carolina’s standing.

Laura Richards, a 14-year teacher with Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, said she knows of at least seven teachers who’ve left for better pay in the past five years. She said she’s looking at other job possibilities, too.

Such turnover, she said, has had a “huge effect” on students. “Our students haven’t had a continuity of teachers,” she said. “They have to start over every year.”

And when students have little time to build relationships with teachers, “they are not going to learn from you,” Richards said.

Pamela Grundy has seen the same problems as a parent. When her 14-year-old son was in seventh grade at Randolph Middle School, two of his teachers left in the middle of the school year, she said.

Charlie Smith, a teaching veteran and president of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said “public education once was the beacon of North Carolina.

“North Carolina is better than this.”

Now, said Gerrick Brown, executive director of Progress NC, “all the public is asking for is to be average,” he said. “That’s reasonable.”

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