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Teachers fed up with GOP blows against public education 

Teachers and supporters throughout the state protested on Monday.

Photo by Lisa Sorg

Teachers and supporters throughout the state protested on Monday.

Public school teachers have had it with the Republicans who are running our state—notice I don't say Republican "leaders."

Take Vivian Connell. She teaches English as a Second Language in two Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. On Monday, as teachers staged "walk-ins" at their schools to protest Republican policies, Connell used a break between her two assignments to rush to the State Capitol in Raleigh, where she gave a fiery speech at a rally organized by Public Schools First NC.

Connell is one of those teachers you hear about who won't be in a North Carolina classroom much longer. She loves her work, declaring that she's "a called teacher." But in mid-career, she left the Charlotte school system, where she taught English and world literature, to attend law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. She just finished and passed the bar. The ESL job is a fill-in.

Teaching, Connell says, "was the greatest privilege and the most important thing that I will ever have or ever do." If she could be "duly compensated and be a high school English teacher the rest of my life, that would be my choice."

Unfortunately, she told me, the cancer called school privatization had already taken hold in Charlotte. She foresaw that unless it's stopped, it could ruin the public schools as she—and we—have known them. She decided to fight it.

That she has. Representing the Public Schools First NC advisory board, Connell blasted the spread of unregulated charter schools and vouchers for private schools —which are paid for by state revenues. She railed against teachers' low salaries and the Republican refusal to pay more to teachers with advanced degrees.

With righteous anger, she called the Republican agenda "ill-conceived" and insulting, adding: "Are they even motivated to preserve public education?"

What an interesting question. No, is my answer.

Connell talked wistfully about moderate Republicans such as Bob Orr, the former Supreme Court justice and gubernatorial candidate, who share her view of education as integral to the public good.

In contrast, she said, the Republicans pushing privatization are "an ideology-driven group [who've] made political promises to do things that can't be done and are forging ahead without consideration of the consequences."

I'll give her Orr. But she's being too polite about the right-wingers' intended consequences. It's a lovely Southern trait to think the best of people, but bless their hearts, they just don't know what they're doing.

The ideologues know exactly what they're doing. And it isn't trying to preserve public education.

Oh, they say they're for charter schools and private schools because it will help the traditional schools get better. But if that's their purpose, why are they systematically stripping the traditional schools of everything they need to improve?

For years, I've heard Republicans denigrate the public schools as "government-run," "a monopoly," and—when I spent more time hanging with the conservatives—"the blob." The joke was that, like any monopoly, schools inexorably grew stale from lack of competition. Teachers were overpaid and—hahahaha—not smart enough to do real-world work.

Behind the sarcasm, however, was a fear. What if public education succeeded? What if, like Social Security, the traditional public school system became embedded in the public mind as indispensable? What if teachers were respected, not looked down upon?

Realize the No. 1 nightmare for Republicans isn't demographics—the growth of minority and immigrant populations—although that's a big one. It's that the public sector will grow—more people will work for the government, and this will be seen as a good thing. More government workers, more Democrats.

And if government is seen as a good thing, government regulation won't be far behind, a fear that sends chills down the spines of the Koch brothers and their ilk.

It comes as no surprise, then, when Republicans chant that the schools are failing, or Medicaid is broken, or Medicare and Social Security insolvent. My point isn't to refute these claims, because you can argue both sides. Rather, it's to say that Republican claims about what's working and what isn't are about as trustworthy as a dirty cop's testimony: Because they believe government is bad, they exclude any exculpatory evidence—or lie about it.

So, for example, the walk-ins: Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger denounced them as labor strikes led by a union, when in fact the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) organized these brief, peaceful gatherings to head off rumored walkouts by irate teachers. By the way, the NCAE isn't a union, because collective bargaining by public employees in North Carolina is illegal.

As to whether traditional schools are failing, North Carolina's graduation rates are up in the last decade from below 70 percent to over 80 percent. But again, the evidence is mixed, and with half of North Carolina's public school students coming from low-income families, the challenge of poverty is a growing impediment.

So what have the Republicans done to bolster the schools? They've cut per-student funding from $5,800 five years ago to $5,400 now, cuts made worse by inflation. Teachers haven't received a raise since the Great Recession. This year, when the Republicans finally had a chance to give them one without raising taxes, they refused and cut taxes for the rich and corporations instead.

Textbook accounts are cut. Professional development is zeroed out. The marvelous N.C. Teaching Fellows Program is no more, and the list of insults goes on and on.

One other thing about Connell: When she taught in Charlotte, some of her students got fired up about the books they were reading and the great issues of the world, so she organized an activism club. It was about "the importance of civic engagement and participation in public discourse," she said.

Civic engagement? Well, no wonder the Republicans hate teachers if they're going to do things like that.

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  • Civic engagement? Well, no wonder the Republicans hate teachers if they're going to do things like that.

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