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A stress test for our teachers

Perhaps you’ve seen images of the recent walkout by teachers in North Carolina. They mirror teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado, all asking state governments to restore salaries and support staff, as well as building improvements, to pre-recession levels.

Some 90 percent of our nation’s children attend public schools. It’s where they spend a significant portion of their young lives, it’s where they learn a wide spectrum of subjects and socialize with other children. Schools are where the kids are, and it is a stunning reality that public education over the last decade has been hollowed out and made such a low priority.

As mentioned, the teacher walkouts are not just about pay, but let’s begin there. According to the National Education Association website, the average starting salary for a first-year teacher in 2016-2017 is $38,000. In North Carolina, it’s $37,617. This is not a living wage, and yet the state legislature ended tenure, eliminated pay bumps for a master’s degree and removed the cap on class size. The result: countless teachers must work second and third jobs to keep themselves and their families afloat. Or leave the profession.

And so the question is posed: Why would a nation as rich as America place so little value on its teachers and its children? I have no answer.

In a recent article in the New York Times, the paper devoted a full page to photographs and text chronicling our nation’s state of education as well as profiling those who teach. The reality is shameful.

The lead paragraph begins: “Broken laptops, books held together with duct tape, an art teacher who makes watercolors by soaking old markers. We invited America’s public school-educators to show us the conditions that a decade of budget cuts has wrought in their schools. Here is a selection of the submissions ...”

A photograph of 25-year-old biology textbooks from Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria, Arizona, the spines broken, many covered with tape, the covers all but missing. Joe Coca uses similar social studies books in a Tempe, Arizona, middle school. His salary is $46,000 with 12 years’ experience, annual out-of-pocket expenses, $1,000. “The building smells old and dank. There are holes in the ceiling, the walls need paint and I still use an old chalkboard. More importantly, my students need new desks and computers and books.”

Kathryn Vaughn, art teacher in Tennessee, salary $50,000 with 11 years’ experience, annual out-of -ocket expenses, $1,500. “I have become incredibly resourceful with supplies. My budget is $100. I do receive donations from families. I personally have to work several jobs to survive and support my family. I live in a modest home and drive a 15-year-old car. I have a master’s.”

Abby Cillio, elementary school teacher, Aurora, Colorado, salary $48,000, annual out of pocket expenses, $1,200. “My third-grade students are in a mobile classroom that is basically a trailer. The classroom is the size of a hotel room. The bathrooms are in the main building. I’ve been ready to strike for a year.”

Michelle Gibbar, Rio Rico, Arizona, high school teacher, salary $43,000 with 20 years’ experience, annual out-of-pocket expenses, $500. “I have 148 students this year. We have 10-year-old class sets of books and we do not have enough for students to take them home. I’m passionate about my subject and my students, but not about living from paycheck to paycheck or retiring at poverty level.”

Ivonne Rovira, Louisville, Kentucky, salary $53,000 with 13 years’ experience, annual out-of-pocket expenses, $1,400. “I work at Westport Teenage Parent Program, an alternative high school. The program recently lost $477,000 in funding. The printer I use was donated. I buy my students lined paper and pencils and more. I’m no different than millions of teachers nationwide.”

These are but a small sampling of teachers who are clearly dedicated to their mission. To be a teacher, however, should not mean that you must stand before a capitol asking for the bare minimum. Regarding the deteriorating school infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D-plus. Many are manifestly unsafe.

Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.

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