Educators grill Soucek at forum
by Kellen Short
A robust panel discussion on education issues with Sen. Dan Soucek drew enough furor from the audience Thursday that one woman was led from the building by a deputy after several shouts from the floor.
The event, held at the Deep Gap Volunteer Fire Department, drew dozens to question Soucek on the rash of legislative changes to public education made last session.
Soucek explained the legislative majority's philosophy in crafting legislation regarding teacher compensation, the elimination of extra pay for master's degrees, and other issues, while panelists shared their perspectives on those bills' effects.
"The issues that we are dealing with, whether it be tenure, teacher pay, pay for master's or whatever, one thing that needs to be realized statewide is every decision that is made affects a child," said panelist Phil Howell, director of secondary education and accountability for Ashe County Schools. "There is a trickle-down to all this that happens."
The discussions were frequently interrupted by shouts and laughs from the audience, and a sheriff's deputy led one woman out of the packed room about 10 minutes from the event's conclusion.
Soucek also requested at the start that audience members not film the event, and an aide was seen questioning at least two people who took out smartphones during the discussion.
Some of the toughest questions and strongest opinions came from teachers Darcy Grimes, immediate past N.C. Teacher of the Year, and Katie Matthews, Watauga County Schools Teacher of the Year. Other panelists included WCS Board of Education member Ron Henries, Ashe County Principal of the Year David Blackburn, homeschooling parent Anne Margaret Wright and parent Todd Chasteen.
Soucek tried to frame the debates within the larger scope of state spending, saying the Republican majority entered three years ago amid massive Medicaid overspending and budgetary woes.
"We have a finite amount of money in the state legislature," he said. "While education is our top priority ... it's not our only priority."
Regarding teacher pay -- currently 46th of all states in the nation, teachers said -- Soucek said he agreed that it was too low but said the state didn't have funds to make increases this year.
"I will admit that, I agree. I think (teachers) do a lot bare bones," he said. "There wasn't the money to do it."
Soucek said the legislature's goal was to create a new plan for education funding that attracts and rewards the most effective teachers and is sustainable for the state during the long term, recession or not.
Matthews questioned why school systems were directed to choose, with no directive how, which 25 percent of teachers to offer bonuses through a tenure phase-out plan.
Soucek said they desired a plan that would reward the best teachers, not just all teachers across the board. He characterized it as a first step in the right direction, one that gives local boards discretion.
"In the end, no one is worse off, and some people are better off," Soucek said to a unified shout of "wrong" from the crowd.
"There's so much more that goes into this than just finances," Matthews said. "We're talking teacher morale."
Howell called the elimination of teacher tenure "one of the most undermining moves" he'd seen in years regarding teachers, while Henries said it would be detrimental to a school's cohesiveness when local boards "start picking winners and losers."
Wright, the homeschooling parent, provided an opposing viewpoint when she asked more about the issue.
"I can't think of a single profession where everyone is paid the same," Wright said. "I'm kind of confused where that's hurt morale."
The forum also touched on topics of school vouchers, calendar flexibility, an abundance of tests, pre-kindergarten and the Common Core curriculum.
Soucek said frequently throughout the evening that these issues were challenging ones and ones that legislators were continuing to consider and evaluate.
"It was not our intention to harm morale," he said. "I will acknowledge that I've heard from lots and lots of teachers ... that this is a serious issue."
Soucek said he and the majority in the General Assembly tried to base their decisions as much as possible on empirical data, rather than emotion or other factors. Legislators found, for example, that a master's degree had no discernible effect on a teacher's classroom effectiveness, he said.
He said they also refused to raise taxes or extend a 1 percent temporary sales tax put in place by a former administration. He suggested that only with economic growth would education -- or any other sector of state government -- see the increases they want and need.
"The way that we spend more money in education is to have the economy growing," Soucek said. "The more the economy grows, not by raising taxes but by increasing the tax base, that's how funding for education grows in the long-term."