Exile on Jones Street: Senate says to teachers, ‘Take the money and lose.’

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

There are many ways to alter one side or another in a budget fight or anything else that involves assumptions based on future events.

You can increase projected revenues, tweak the amount of reserves or — in the case of public education, both K-12 and university — you can raise or lower expected enrollments.

The education budget is so wide and varied, and, in a way, uniquely felt in each county and school district, that it is very difficult to say with certainty how what happens in Raleigh will affect a locale.

That’s made it somewhat hard to predict the effect of the education policy changes of the past few years. But now, as another year winds up, we’re gathering a little more truth about how the districts are shifting as a result of the changes. That, in turn, gives us a little more certainty about the path ahead as charted in the current budget proposed by the Senate, which dallied around the building until 12:30 a.m. last Saturday to hold a final vote on the Appropriations Act of 2014.The measure passed 32-10, supported by a lone Democratic vote.

There are a lot of grievous items, particularly the booting of tens of thousands of elderly, disabled and blind residents off of Medicaid. What purpose this really serves, I do not know. The savings are a spit in the ocean. We’re told that it gets us back to the federal standard. The subtext there is that we’ve been a little too kind to people who are older, blind and disabled. I like being from a state that is a little kinder. Perhaps you do, too.

But it’s in the field of education where the unkindliest cuts of the Senate proposal lay. Topping the list is a reminder that no matter how hard they try, Senate leaders can’t seem to keep their antipathy to teachers in check.

Embedded in their greatest raise ever is a classic poison pill. They present teachers an undignified choice — rights to due process, such as challenging an unfair firing or school system policy, would be lost in exchange for an 11 percent raise.

Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) co-chairs the Education Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) co-chairs the Education Appropriations Committee.

Yep, that’s a hefty one-time raise by North Carolina standards, where teachers and all public employees have seen workloads increase while pay falls farther behind the state’s rising cost of living. But, further details in the education budget reveal a few more items souring the deal, which would cost the state about $465 million this year.

To pay for this high-ticket salary hike, the legislature dug under the seat cushions and found more than 7,000 second- and third-grade teaching assistants. Under the plan, they’ll be gone next year. Enjoy your raise, newly untenured second- and third-grade teachers.

Naturally, there are a lot of teachers who will refuse the deal, which would apply to an estimated 57,000 veteran teachers. And, like the universal termination of career-status rights passed two years ago, which was recently overturned, this new proposal is headed to court.

The madness here is that the legislature was actually attempting to do something positive in response to not just criticism of its education policies, but solid evidence that they are hurting the state by driving people out of the teaching profession and top-level career educators out of North Carolina.

The governor’s budget even acknowledged this. It was stingy — an average of 2 percent and up to 4 percent in the targeted years — but it came with no erosion of basic rights and a lot less damage to the rest of the education system.

There may be cases where the new money will cause some teachers to stay, but it remains to be seen if it will really rebuild trust. The Senate plan seems like a dubious plan to stem departures. If you’re thinking about leaving anyway why not just pocket an extra $5K while you’re job hunting?

Given falling revenue projection and recent history, you can understand why educators are wary of the legislature will adopt a long-term commitment to maintain competitive salaries once the new increase takes effect.

It’ll be up to the House, which takes up the budget over the next two weeks, and maybe the governor, to come up with something more reasonable. For now, what’s billed as a fair shake looks more like a shakedown.