Easley come, Easley go

Posted: Oct 13, 2005 12:05 AM
A few years ago, my wife taught in one of North Carolina’s public schools. After one semester, she decided to leave the profession. She occasionally gets calls from local schools asking whether she would consider returning. These days, North Carolina teaching recruiters have their work cut out for them.

In North Carolina, the principal problem in public education is not that teachers are leaving after a short stint in the profession. It is more likely that they aren’t considering the teaching profession in the first place. Currently, North Carolina is producing only 3,200 education graduates to fill 11,000 positions per year.

This educational crisis has resulted in thousands of vacancies in North Carolina public schools. It has also forced the state to use long-term substitutes. This means that many North Carolina parents pay taxes and get, at worst, no teacher, or, at best, an under-qualified teacher to educate their children.

Fortunately, the North Carolina Legislature understands there is a crisis and recently passed a measure that would designate out-of-state schoolteachers as "highly qualified" in North Carolina if that distinction was earned in the teacher’s home state. Removing the requirement that new teachers pass standardized tests within their subject areas to demonstrate, once again, that they are “highly-qualified,” makes it easier for them to come to work in our state at a time when we desperately need help.

This common-sense measure was unanimously passed in the house and was approved by all but four members of the N.C. State Senate. Unfortunately, Democratic Governor Mike Easley has vetoed the bill with the enthusiastic support of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). NCAE Vice President Carolyn McKinney sums up the union’s position: “We look forward to the plan to get teachers to the national average and above and the actions that will follow the research to improve the teaching and learning conditions in our schools.”

Of course, most North Carolinians look at this crisis and see the children as its victims. But McKinney’s focus is on the teachers. While it is refreshing to hear McKinney admit that our teachers are below average, it is disappointing to hear her cry for more taxpayer-funded research to get teachers up to the national average. Her organization also admits there is a teacher shortage that will be compounded by the addition of 42,000 more students in the next three years.

But this is old news to most readers. The public has long expected the teachers in these unions to place their own interests above the interests of the taxpayers and their children.

The more interesting question, in this case, concerns the motivation of Governor Mike Easley. George Leef, Director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, is quick to point out that “Few politicians grasp that teacher certification is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for competence in the classroom” and that “Certification and paper credentials are almost wholly irrelevant in the private school teacher market.” So, why does Easley insist on two state certifications for incoming teachers?

When Easley vetoed this bill he did so in front of TV cameras that captured the images of NCAE officials who surrounded him. Then, showing all of the refinement garnered from his years in the North Carolina public education system, he referred to the vetoed bill as "lipstick-on-a-pig” legislation. Next, he made the observation that “You can take a pig and put lipstick on it and call it ‘Monique’ but it's still a pig."

In case you don’t understand hog humor, Easley was saying that his veto was saving the state from a further decline in educational standards. For those who were tuning in from out-of-state, Easley restated his point in English saying, "This bill reduces North Carolina's teaching standards to the lowest in the nation."

Of course, if Easley is correct in saying that the vetoed legislation would reduce our standards to “the lowest in the nation” we are in serious trouble. For starters, all of those bumper stickers saying “Thank God for Mississippi” would have to be removed from the cars of citizens who are painfully aware that we rank close to the bottom of the nation in areas including, but not limited to, education.

Of course, it is that bumper sticker that gives the lie to Easley’s pig analogy. Clearly, there is no evidence that the vetoed legislation would reduce our state to the lowest rung of the educational ladder. And, theoretically, that could only happen if the legislation exclusively attracted teachers certified in the state ranked 50th in the nation in education.

The NCAE looks at this crisis and sees more government spending on resources and research as the “solution” to the “problem” of having below average teachers.

But it is unlikely that the taxpayers of North Carolina see this recently vetoed bill as a “solution” to an educational “problem.” Most probably see it as a good trade-off. Indeed, no rational person would bypass an opportunity to trade non-existent teachers and long-term substitutes for teachers elsewhere deemed “highly qualified” on the off-chance that the other state’s criteria are not on par with North Carolina’s.

In our recent conversation over this veto, former Senator Patrick Ballantine, who lost the governor’s race to Easley last year, reminded me not just of the NCAE’s endorsement of Easley but of the thousands of hours they spent working towards his re-election. Ballantine summed it up well when he observed that “Teachers vote, kids don’t.”

I agree with Ballantine’s suggestion that Easley is feigning ignorance of the issues and siding with the powerful union whose endorsement he needed to win re-election. And I believe this political quid pro quo will breathe new life into the state’s educational crisis.

Maybe our Governor should have said “you can take a pig and put lipstick on it and call it ‘Monique’ but it's still a self-serving politician.” In the case of Mike Easley, it is a genuine ham with an insatiable appetite for pork.