Tiny Glimmers of Hope

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, and while I am genuinely thankful for the kind group of parents who fix us a nice lunch or send some goodie bags, in Alabama their efforts are the icing for a cake that was never baked.

I teach in a state that has made some of the biggest education cuts in the nation since the recession— cutting funding by 17.8% from 2008 to 2015. Just last year, when the state’s General Fund budget was short, the legislature took $80 million from the Education budget to rectify it. (For this most recent budget, our governor proposed to move another $181 million out of education, but the legislature didn’t go for it.) Doing our everyday work, teachers can’t help but recognize these facts.

Beyond the classroom, this seven-year funding shortfall has yielded personal consequences, too. My health insurance costs have gone up and my required retirement contributions have gone up, causing my take-home pay to go down. Going by the numbers on my retirement statement, my annual salary went down by 10% in one year when the recession began. Like a lot of teachers, I have a family, and we live on my salary.

In addition to having our compensation go down, our workload went up when fewer teachers were left to handle the same number of students. Since 2010, I have heard parents lament class sizes of 25, 30, even 40 or more, but complaining to the teacher, the principal, or even the local board of education would never have helped. Class sizes are determined by budgets, which are determined by legislators, who are determined the people.

To illustrate the gravity of the situation, I can point to the example of a legislator who proposed in 2015 that Alabama eliminate its State Department of Education altogether. In a state that depends on federal dollars, it is absurd to think that individual school systems could coordinate separately with the feds for that money.

The next benefit to be threatened was our job security, if we don’t manage to, as some like to put it, “do more with less.” The RAISE Act, which became the PREP Act, would have changed the rules of tenure by instituting an evaluation system. The PREP Act, which stalled in its committee in March and was then put to rest by its sponsor, was touted as a way to reward good teachers for high-performing results. But what was to happen to the teacher whose students’ test scores weren’t so hot? After one year, that teacher would be required to do professional development in the denoted areas, and after the second consecutive year of being “below expectations,” he or she would be subject to “personnel action,” i.e. loss of tenure (or firing).

Sadly, many Alabamians favor eliminating teacher tenure. Too many of these well-meaning people don’t understand that tenure is not a “job for life,” but is a guarantee of the right to due process before “personnel action” can occur. Put simply, a tenured teacher can’t be put out of a job arbitrarily.

I’ll be among the first to agree that the education system in Alabama needs to change. However, we can’t improve education by reducing staff and resources, increasing class sizes, and cutting employee benefits, while continuing to require those remaining employees to teach and to meet federal regulations and state law.

As an alternative plan for improving education, I proffer this: raise property taxes, which are among on the lowest in the nation, and fund schools properly, in order to achieve viable teacher-student ratios and to supply needed resources. Here is why I believe that plan will work.

  1. Every study that I’ve read says the same thing: Alabama’s education system will never improve until its schools are adequately funded. I’ve never read a study whose conclusion was that austerity really works. Voters may like to hear that the solution is not to raise taxes but to work teachers harder, yet that doesn’t address the real issues.
  2. Because core subjects must be staffed in order to offer the credits needed for students to graduate, job cuts often occur in the paraprofessional areas (counselors, aides for disabled students) and staff positions (custodians, lunchroom, secretaries). The loss of these support personnel reduces the effectiveness of classroom teachers, who may have to take over peripheral duties, like cleaning or supervision. If teachers are adequately supported, then they can focus on their main mission: planning, teaching, and grading.
  3. Finally, if you’re a proponent of teacher evaluations, then evaluate us once the schools are adequately staffed and resourced. As it stands now, teacher evaluations would be based on students’ test scores that are affected by factors beyond teachers’ control. (If you don’t believe that, look at this New York Times graphic that correlates median income and academic performance by school system.)

During Teacher Appreciation Week, it is fair to point out that teachers in Alabama are struggling. We serve hundreds of thousands of children, but when we need the people to stand up for us . . . it’s just not there. To show some serious appreciation for teachers, here are my suggestions:

  1.  When you hear legislators speak on the news about a major education reform bill, ask your child’s teacher what its passage would mean for the everyday work in the classroom.
  2. During severe periods of under-funding, like the years from 2009 through 2012, help your child’s teachers (if you can) to offset the loss in classroom supply funding.
  3. When severe staff cuts occur, contact your state legislator to protest the overcrowded classrooms.
  4. Research what tenure really is, using reputable and non-partisan sources, to find out the truth about what that commonly used term means.
  5. Finally, spend some time learning about the real effects of the budgets and reforms crafted by Alabama’s legislature. Read studies or news articles. I suggest this in Newsweekthis from the NEA, and this from National Center for Education Statistics.

Teachers in Alabama want to build this state up, and we want to do our best for your children, but we need support to do that.  Back in January, the Montgomery Advertiser‘s Ken Hare wrote a brief but thorough exposition of the problems, which included this little nugget:

Alabama cannot prosper economically over the long haul unless it invests a reasonable amount in public education.

We’ve had some tiny glimmers of hope in 2016. The new budget allows for hiring more teachers, though not nearly enough. Now-retired state schools superintendent Tommy Bice and the Alabama Board of Education proposed a 5% raise for teachers last fall, though the legislature passed a 4% raise that came with amendments to how we are paid. That 4% raise could have given some relief from the recession-era cuts that affected our families but— more on that in a moment.

As one last real-world example, consider this. Last month, al.com ran “Why current and retired teachers will remain underpaid” by columnist Ben Baxter, and one of the first things he lets his reader know is: the number of young people going to college to become teachers has “dropped 45 percent since 2008.” The students who have gone to college since 2008 attended our schools during the recession and since the reforms, and now many of them don’t see teaching as a viable career. The state government must have recognized that drop too, since the governor’s office just praised the “Grow Our Own” program, which seeks to encourage young people in Alabama to enter the teaching profession.

If all of that weren’t enough, last week – the week before Teacher Appreciation Week – the PEEHIP Board of Controls, which governs teachers’ health insurance, voted to raise our required contributions. So that 4% raise isn’t really going to be a raise at all, since the cost increase will swallow the pay increase.  Just when we thought they were going to throw us a bone . . . 

I enjoyed my lunch today. The moms at our school brought us barbecue and lots of sides to go with it. In fact, while I was eating my strawberry cake for dessert, I almost forgot that I had to be back in class, where we’re finalizing grades, thinking about next year, and of course, looking forward to summer. I have no doubts that my students and their parents appreciate what I do, because they tell me, and sometimes show me. What bothers me, though, is simple enough to understand: I know how effective I could be, if my mind weren’t constantly diverted by all of the pressures that I just described.


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