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Former U.S. Rep. and state superintendent Bob Etheridge speaks about education issues Tuesday at Jaycee Park in Boone. Kellen Short | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2013-06-18 16:09:14
Last modified: 2013-06-18 16:14:32

Education advocates speak out

Former state superintendent Bob Etheridge and other public education advocates gathered Tuesday in Boone to "sound the alarm" about state government decisions affecting the schools.

"Our public schools are under assault," Etheridge said. "North Carolina needs to be concerned about what's happening in Raleigh."

Etheridge and others railed against several issues affecting schools statewide, including a bill that may eliminate the current class size cap of 24 students for grades K-3.

Proponents of the change say it would give school districts greater flexibility to decide how to use their state-funded teacher positions. If a school system feels it can raise class sizes and use the money for other educational purposes, it would have that opportunity, Sen. Jerry Tillman, one of the primary sponsors of Senate Bill 374, has said.

Sen. Dan Soucek of Boone is among the co-sponsors of the bill, filed in March.

Critics of the proposal, including Etheridge -- who served as N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1989 to 1996 -- say the bill would force schools to herd children like cattle into packed classrooms.

Etheridge also served 14 years in the U.S. House, two terms in the N.C. House and was a 2012 gubernatorial candidate in the Democratic primaries. For the last several months, he has toured the state with Public Schools First NC to advocate on their behalf.

His stop at Boone's Jaycee Park was the 14th on a statewide tour. About 25 people attended the event.

On Tuesday, he reminisced about what he saw as a better time in state government, when North Carolina made "tremendous strides" in public education, increased teacher pay and school funding and became the envy of other states.

"The General Assembly invested in it, and now they've said it doesn't matter," Etheridge said. "We're going to take the money away."

Sherri Jaquays, a parent representative on the Blowing Rock School PTO, said she, too, was concerned about school voucher proposals, cuts to funding, the elimination of class size caps and the lessening of pre-K availability.

"How will any child get individualized attention?" she said.

Susan Phipps, who taught primary grades for more than 30 years inWatauga and Avery counties, also expressed concerns about the quality of education students are receiving and the morale among teachers.

"Teaching is not a factory job," Phipps said. "We are not factory workers. We deal with individuals."

She also worried that young teachers like those she instructs at Appalachian State University will not be treated like professionals when they enter the work force.

Phipps also expressed dismay about a part of the proposed state budget that would eliminate the 10 percent pay raise teachers currently receive if they hold a master's degree.

If the proposal comes to fruition, teachers will not seek the higher degrees, and ASU and other schools will also suffer from decreased enrollment, she said.

Those and other decisions dealing with public schools ultimately affect the state as a whole, socially and economically, she said.

"If we don't value our public schools and produce good children and adults, people are not going to move to North Carolina," Phipps said.