An election year switcheroo on public education

By: - September 13, 2016 5:00 am

Public education advocates have made frequent appearances at the General Assembly during budget talks. (Photo: Ricky Leung)

After bashing teachers and public schools for years, the Right suddenly and dramatically changes its tune

Last week, one of the most prolific conservative voices on Twitter when it comes to North Carolina policy and politics (he’s authored more than 33,000 “tweets” in recent years that often echo and promote takes of various Art Pope Empire employees) posted a disturbing and remarkably cynical comment. Here’s what he said in response to another social media participant who had questioned the logic of how North Carolina pays teachers and touted a recent essay by the North Carolina Justice Center’s Kris Nordstrom entitled “Why NC is not measuring teacher pay properly (and how we should do it)” :

So, what’s the market rate for an unaccountable degree-holding babysitter?”

So, one might ask, why is this noteworthy? After all, it’s no particular news that social media websites are chock full of uninformed “trolls” who spew all sorts of hateful and nonsensical venom. Why should anyone care that a conservative blowhard is lobbing stink bombs at public school teachers?

Here’s one reason: Though the stink bomber in question apparently failed to “get the memo” from the powers-that-be who establish right-wing talking points on the issues of the day during election years, it should be pointed out that, until recently, his comment wouldn’t have actually differed that much – at least in substance – from the positions routinely espoused by the various “respectable” conservative voices in North Carolina.

This is not that much of an exaggeration. For years in North Carolina – decades really – the Right has waged what can only be described as an ideological war on public educators and what it frequently and derisively refers to as “government schools.” Over the last two years, however, as the 2016 election has begun to loom larger and larger on the political horizon, much of the tone and tenor, if not all of the substance, has shifted. Suddenly, what was a pitched frontal assault on public education has become more of a Cold War.

Remembering the hot war

It’s easy to forget in the fast moving world of policy and politics, but it really wasn’t that long ago that the organizations and politicians bragging today in a barrage of “think pieces” and warm, fuzzy TV ads about the supposedly rosy state of teacher pay and education funding in North Carolina were dismissing the issues and even questioning the very idea of public schools.

At the onset of the Great Recession, when the economy and state budget revenues were experiencing a destructive freefall, conservatives resisted mightily the efforts of then-Governor Bev Perdue and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to renew temporary taxes that had been scheduled to expire and draw down as much federal aid as possible in order to avoid truly massive education cuts. Then, when the GOP took control of the General Assembly in 2011, it went a step further. As Raleigh’s News & Observer noted in an excellent editorial this past weekend:

As Republican leaders complain of being falsely accused of neglecting education funding, it’s worth looking back at their first two years of legislative control after sweeping Democrats from power in 2010. Faced with a massive shortfall in revenue because of the recession, then-Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue asked Republican leaders to extend part of a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase to maintain education funding. Perdue twice vetoed Republican budgets that lacked what she considered adequate education funding. Both times, her vetoes were overridden and the temporary sales tax was allowed to expire.”

But, of course, the Right’s commitment to tax cuts (especially for the rich) at the expense of education funding didn’t come out of nowhere. For years, the denizens of Raleigh’s conservative “think tanks” had been churning out reports, columns and blog posts claiming that North Carolina teachers (and the state’s public schools generally), were luxuriously funded. In article after article, these voices opined that North Carolina teacher salaries were near the highest in the nation because of the supposedly lower cost of living here. What’s more, the voices claimed, this supposedly generous funding wasn’t even a good idea.

Listen to one of the John Locke Foundation’s education policy spokespeople holding forth in a 2008 article:

The push for higher teacher pay amounts to conciliatory public relations, not sensible public policy. There is no evidence that reaching an ‘average’ salary level will produce a significant increase in teacher recruitment and retention or student performance.”

And here’s a Pope-Civitas Institute commentator in a 2011 essay in which he attacks the News & Observer and refers to the then-recent cuts in education funding as a welcome “correction” for overspending in previous years:

The underlying premise for the N&O, of course, is that protecting and expanding the government education establishment status quo is the primary goal. They continue to live under the false premise that the next batch of taxpayer dollars will be the magic bullet to turn around the woeful government schools.”

And so the drumbeat went. Public (or “government”) schools: bad. Privatization in the form of vouchers and charters: good. Teachers: unproductive and overpaid. Teacher associations like the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE): a force to be resisted and destroyed.

It’s little surprise then that conservative politicians launched an all-out blitzkrieg when they gained full control of state government in 2013. Whether they were firing thousands of teacher assistants, attacking teacher “tenure” and NCAE dues, eliminating proven programs like the state Teaching Fellows program, introducing school vouchers and expanding unaccountable charters or just keeping overall education spending mired below pre-Great Recession levels, elected officials did their worst to implement the Right’s ideological agenda.

A strategic election year retreat?

A funny thing happened for the Right, however, on the way to its goal of tearing down, privatizing and remaking K-12 education; public opinion and the voices of average North Carolinians started to get in the way. It turns out that despite decades of conservative propaganda about “choice” and the “genius of the market,” most North Carolinians still “get” the fact that a healthy and genuinely public education system remains the central lynchpin of a healthy middle class society. They don’t believe that teachers are overpaid or that children should become “education consumers” from schools run by profit-making Wall Street corporations.

And so it is that North Carolina’s conservative elected leaders and their various apologists and cheerleaders have suddenly found religion on the question of teacher pay and funding schools. With the 2016 election just weeks away, the Internet and airwaves are suddenly awash with commentaries and commercials (often to the accompaniment of tinkling piano keys) about the supposedly solemn commitments of various conservative state leaders to public education. This includes, of course, the factually inaccurate claims that North Carolina teachers are now bringing home an average of $50,000 per year and that school funding has been going up, up, up.

If one looks and listens closely, it’s clear, however, that this is mostly for show – a strategic retreat designed to buy more time. Not only does the commitment to rapid privatization – via vouchers, unaccountable charters and privately-run “virtual” schools – remain in full force, but the newfound affinity for funding is almost certainly ephemeral.

Even, for example, as some Locke Foundation spokespeople are trumpeting the supposed salary numbers (often alongside the bizarre claim that North Carolina teachers really have it extra good because they receive health insurance and other benefits too – wow, what’s next, bathroom breaks?! ) other staffers reveal the true agenda. In an essay posted to the Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal website just last week (“Debates about school funding miss the point”), for example, a commentator claimed for the umpteenth time that school funding was essentially irrelevant. As he put it: “the relationship between spending and performance is weak.”

The bottom line

Most conservative political leaders and commentators in North Carolina probably do not believe that public school teachers are “unaccountable degree-holding babysitters.” That said, when it comes to the approach they have brought to public education policy and, in particular, their election year conversion on school funding, the cynicism in that bitter description rings quite familiar.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.