Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared on The Macon County News, and is republished here with permission.
By Christopher Carpenter, The Macon County News
As the smoke has begun to clear from the state budget battle, educators around North Carolina are just now coming to grips with the full impact of the first Republican-controlled General Assembly in over one hundred years. The freshman legislators had promised to cut spending across the board to fill the state’s projected shortfall of $2.5 billion – and they did.
Among the many casualties, education, which makes up nearly 60 percent of the state’s budget, sustained some of the most painful cuts. In the end, K-12 education in the state saw close to 5.8 percent in total cuts, much of them in the form of massive reversions that will leave the burden of cutting jobs and programs to the local school systems.
Not unnoticed on the education scrap heap are a number of teacher education programs which are either gutted or eliminated outright in the budget which took effect July 1. The list includes the prestigious North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, slated for a phase-out beginning in 2012; the North Carolina Teacher Cadet Program, which is eliminated; the North Carolina Teacher Academy, which is eliminated; and the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, for which funding was cut in half.
“Some good programs were eliminated and just about everything was cut,” conceded Sen. Jim Davis (R). “The legislature that is seated now did not create this problem, but we promised we were going to fix it. Closing a two-and-a-half-billion-dollar hole was a pretty significant task.”
Educators and teaching program directors across the state acknowledge that the state faces huge budgetary obstacles, but many are questioning the wisdom of targeting teaching programs, while at the same time letting a temporary 1-penny sales tax expire this year that might have helped sustain public education through the storm.
Jo Ann Norris, program administrator for the Teaching Fellows program, says supporting teaching programs in the state is essential. “It is a matter of economic well-being,” she said. “We cannot compete globally if we do not invest in the education of our young people, and that means having quality teachers.”
Sen. Davis says that many of the cuts were painful but necessary, and while he openly admits that he feels public education in the state could be better, he denies that there is a GOP agenda to destroy it. “We have been accused of wanting to destroy public education, and that’s totally false,” he said.
On the other hand, Davis does believe that there should be more competition introduced into education and more public-private partnerships to support teacher training. “It certainly wouldn’t be the end-all solution to all the problems, but I do think that private industry reacts to changes a lot faster than government,” he said.
This is one of the solutions he has proposed to the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT), a teacher development program with campuses in Cullowhee and in Ocracoke, which he takes partial credit for saving from total elimination in the budget. Funding for NCCAT in the budget was reduced from $6 million to $3.1 million.
In the months before the final budget was passed by a legislative override of Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto, the future of the program looked very uncertain. Davis says he fought to save the program, along with the 67 jobs it provides in his district, but he doesn’t take full credit for the outcome, which he says had more to do with the power of the five House Democrats who voted for the override, one of whom is Rep. Timothy Spear of District 2 where the Ocracoke campus of NCCAT is located.
“I would like to say that Jim Davis saved NCCAT, but that’s not entirely true,” Davis said, adding that he sees the possibility of some progress through pain. “I would like to see NCCAT and all these other programs not be so dependent upon one source of funding, so that when we go through really tough times like we’re doing now, it doesn’t cripple them.”
According to public communications specialist Elizabeth Gillespie, NCCAT staff are still waiting to learn what impact the reductions will have on the program, which she says delivers critical professional revitalization, especially to under-served regions of the state. The program is committed to keeping both campuses open, she says.
“We may have to focus the lens a little differently to align with 21st Century initiatives, things that the public schools are clamoring for, that we know they need,” she predicted, adding that NCCAT is looking at alternative revenue streams and creative sources of funding to help recover some of its losses.
The mood at NCCAT is significantly more hopeful than at the North Carolina Teacher Academy, a statewide teacher development program established in 1994 whose website homepage now displays a simple message beginning: “As of July 1, 2011, the North Carolina Teacher Academy will no longer be operational.”
“Because of today’s actions, the children are going suffer,” said Shirley Harris, a fellow of the Academy and a member of the State Board of Education. “I worry about the teaching profession in the state. We’re going to have to do something to make it a career that more people want to be a part of,” she added.
The Academy’s budget of $4 million, which which among other initiatives, funded a summer program where master teachers offered state of the art development training, has been completely eliminated.
But perhaps the most shocking is the announced phase-out of the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Scholarship Program and the immediate jettisoning of the North Carolina Teacher Cadet Program, both of which target and groom the best and brightest students in the state to become future leaders of the teaching profession.
“It really does sadden me to see the extent to which our state, as a matter of policy, has decided that it is not worth the investment to continue the opportunity for teachers to grow professionally so that they can better instruct and lead the students,” Norris said.
She notes that there are currently around 4,000 Teaching Fellows alumni teaching in 99 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. In previous years, there have often been Teaching Fellows in every county.
Since the first class of Teaching Fellows graduates in 1991, teachers from the program have consistently scored higher on the PRAXIS license exam than any other group of teachers. Of that original class, 60 percent are still teaching in North Carolina public schools, giving some indication of the retention value of the program.
According to Norris, when the program was first designed in 1986, the majority of the state’s teachers were coming from the bottom quartile of high school graduates. “One of the purposes of the program was to raise the scholastic profile of those coming into the teaching profession in the state,” said Norris. “We have clearly done that.”
“In my opinion, the dumbest and most devastating cut they made was killing the Teaching Fellows Program,” said Franklin High School teacher John deVille. DeVille, who is also vice-president of the Macon NCAE, questions the wisdom of cutting support to a program that brought the best and brightest into the teaching profession through an extremely cost effective structure that also supported the UNC state university system.
“What it tells me it that the North Carolina GOP does not believe in schools of education in North Carolina,” deVille said. “By cutting the Teacher Academy they also show that they don’t have any faith that highly qualified teachers with years of experience have the capacity to pass on wisdom to other teachers.”
Sen. Davis acknowledges the value of Teaching Fellows, noting that Macon County has several teachers who are alumni, but he says the loss of the scholarship program was merely necessity of the economic realities constraining the budget. “The governor, the Democrats and the Republicans knew that there were going to be some budget cuts necessary in order to weather this budgetary storm,” he said.
Davis maintains that he and his party are not against public education or teachers, and that many of the dramatic changes made this year – such as the elimination of caps on charter schools and of End of Grade tests – are for the best.
“What we’ve been doing education-wise has not been working,” said Davis, adding that he hopes to see less centralization and more diversity in education.
The silver-lining is a little less easy to see from the local district level, says Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman. “Public education has taken a serious hit in terms of professional development and teacher training throughout our state,” he said, noting that the state eliminated local staff development funding two years ago.
At the same time, the state has only increased staff development requirements, including new core curriculum standards that go into effect this year. Since the loss of state support, the county has relied on federal and local dollars to fund staff development. The loss of programs like the Teacher Academy and cuts to NCCAT don’t improve matters.
“Often times, especially when the budget is very grim, we have relied heavily on those organizations to provide essential professional development,” said Brigman. “But once again the burden is being shifted back on the local school districts.”