Soucek defends education budget at town-hall meeting

'All schools all over feel beat up'
Nov. 22, 2013 @ 07:50 AM

The Republican who represents Caldwell County in the N.C. Senate largely defended on Thursday night controversial state budget decisions affecting public schools.

During a panel discussion with local educators at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, Sen. Dan Soucek of Watauga County, who is also co-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the legislature wanted to focus on balancing the budget and growing the economy, which would in turn benefit public education. He said he believes education in the state is on an “upward trajectory” but that he understands things are difficult now.

“I still believe that there are some sound empirical and philosophical reasons for why we did what we did, but the thing that disturbs me most is, teachers of all walks of life, all political persuasions, all schools, all over feel beat up,” he said. “That right there is a tragedy.”

When asked about elimination of the pay increase teachers have traditionally gained after earning a master’s degree, Soucek said studies show little difference in effectiveness between teachers who have advanced degrees and those who don’t -- but he acknowledged that it likely had a “greater effect on morale than anything else we did.”

“Is it possible that the fix could be worse than the problem?” he said. “Yeah, I acknowledge that.”

Audience members and the two teachers on Soucek’s panel brought up the issue of the $1.2 million cut in funding for teacher assistants. Braley Speagle, a Granite Falls Middle School teacher and 2012-13 Caldwell County teacher of the year, said that without a teacher assistant she doesn’t have enough time to spend with her students individually. Granite Falls Elementary second-grade teacher Vicki Jetton works with a teacher assistant twice a week but has had to have students facilitate some activities because of the one-on-one assessments she is required to do.

“I have my kids being teacher assistants,” Jetton said. “You have to get very creative and, you know, hope to God that I’ve modeled everything that I teach and say, OK, who wants to be a teacher assistant today? Because there’s nobody else but me, and I need to assess.”

Soucek said it was more important to have highly effective teachers and that there were “varying amounts of information” on teacher assistants’ effectiveness. He said the legislature gave counties flexibility to hire teacher assistants for the upper grades.

“We don’t say, ‘You can’t have them in those grades,’” he said. “We say, ‘You’re going to have to find the funds elsewhere.’”

Seven of the audience questions passed in on index cards focused on school choice – a keynote of the legislature’s education budget, which expanded options for charter schools and routed some public money toward vouchers for private-school tuition. Soucek said school choice was created with ineffective schools in urban centers such as Charlotte in mind – not rural areas like Caldwell County. 

“Those are the people that I see as benefitting the most,” he said. “And quite frankly, the lowest-achieving people and the biggest drain on society and the biggest challenges for the community are those children in failing schools that never get off the ground.”

Throughout the panel discussion, Soucek stuck with his theme of a long-term upswing for public education but said several times that he understood educators’ anger. Toward the end of the evening, he also said he knew his responses may not be much consolation.

“I feel like I’m throwing pennies,” he said, “and you’re screaming, ‘I need $100 bills.’”