Raleigh, N.C. — A little more than 12 hours after House and Senate negotiators announced a budget deal, the North Carolina Association of Educators announced plans Monday to try to block key provisions in the $20.6 billion spending plan.
"You are placing a sign on each school's door that says, 'Quality educators need not apply,'" association President Rodney Ellis wrote in a two-page letter sent to lawmakers criticizing the budget.
Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, teachers and public school advocates also expressed disappointment in the budget compromise, which is expected to be approved by lawmakers on Wednesday and head to Gov. Pat McCrory.
"For the first time in my career of more than 30 years in public education, I am truly worried about students in our care," Atkinson said in a statement. "North Carolina has moved away from its commitment to quality public schools. I am disappointed for the children in our state who will have fewer educators and resources in their schools as a result of the General Assembly’s budget."
Unlike earlier proposals, the budget provides no raises for teachers. But the NCAE is most upset with the $20 million set aside over the next two years for "opportunity scholarships" to allow low-income public school students move to private schools and the elimination of "career status," or tenure rights, for veteran teachers.
Instead of tenure, school districts could place all teachers on one-, two- or four-year contracts, depending on their length of service and performance.
"Hopefully, we get the very best teachers in front of our classroom, which is what we're trying to do," said Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, one of the Senate's top budget writers.
Hunt also defended the voucher proposal, which he called a pilot program, suggesting more resources could be devoted to it in the future.
"We're taking folks that couldn't afford to go to a private school, giving them the opportunity to get out of a public school that's maybe not performing very well (and) giving them an opportunity to go to a private school where they might really have a chance to improve their education," he said.
Advocacy group Public Schools First NC argued that the private schools who receive the voucher funding won't be held to the same standards as public schools.
"The de-funding of public education and privatization of our public schools is in violation of our state constitution and a direct attack on our state’s economic viability," Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the group, said in a statement. "We will lose high quality teachers and fail to attract new business as a result of these harsh policies."
Meanwhile, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity called the vouchers "a giant step" toward educational choice for families.
“Beyond empowering parents with school choice, this General Assembly is also making significant advances to differentiate, reward and retain the highest quality public school teachers," Dallas Woodhouse, the group's state president, said in a statement. "Changes such as elimination of teacher tenure and an additional allocation of $10.2 million to fund annual pay raises for the most effective teachers show that North Carolina wants the best teachers in our public school system.”
The NCAE called the vouchers unconstitutional, and Ellis said the group also plans to challenge changes to school funding that it says put the state's constitutional obligation to provide sound education for all students in jeopardy.
"The elimination of class size caps, the firing of thousands of teacher assistants, investment in a private school voucher scheme that will only enrich those who seek to profit off of public schools and the devaluing of education as a career will position our state as a model in what not to do in education," he wrote.
Some Wake County teachers said the package of changes makes them feel like they're under attack.
"We have wonderful talent in Wake public schools – best I've ever seen – and they're dropping like flies," said Linda de la Pena, a teacher at Dillard Drive Elementary School in Cary.
De la Pena said the loss of thousands of teaching assistants, whose jobs are eliminated in the budget, will make her job more difficult, especially when combined with the elimination of a cap on the number of students in elementary school classes.
"I can get around to every student in the classroom if I don't have 30, students. 35 students," she said.
Swift Creek Elementary School teacher Stephanie Smith said the five extra vacation days lawmakers handed out to teacher in lieu of raises is a meaningless reward because teachers are already hard-pressed to take days off during the school year.
"Those five vacation days, I cannot take them while the kids are here," Smith said.
Atkinson thanked lawmakers for eliminating discretionary cuts at the school district level, but she said they need to "start putting action behind" their professed support for education. Teachers need to be better paid, and schools need new textbooks and other resources, she said.
"Teachers are working as hard as they can. Materials and supplies are wearing thin. Classrooms are crowded, and there are fewer adults in each school today than there were five years ago but there are more students than ever across our state," she said.
Ellis noted that North Carolina has dropped far behind neighboring states in teacher pay – plummeting from 26th to 46th nationwide in five years – and he said the budget ensures North Carolina will continue to rank among the bottom nationally in terms of supporting education.
"While it pains us to see the devaluation of education by our elected officials, we will now shift our focus to the judiciary, where we are confident we will find yet another victory in our struggle to provide quality public schools for every child," he wrote.