Wilmington Star-News Editorial, 7/6/15

Teachers, it seems as if some North Carolina legislators really want you to move to another state.

The state Senate's budget plan would eliminate retiree health-care benefits for teachers (and any other state employees) hired after Jan. 1. 2016.

It's not hard to see why: Health-care benefits for old people can be expensive.

On the other hand, teachers -- especially North Carolina teachers -- endure years of pay far lower than they could get in the private sector. Part of the trade-off is that they can expect generous -- well, comfortable, well, adequate -- pensions and benefits to tide them through their golden years.

Not any more, if the Senate has its way. A lot of the incentive for sticking with the public school system would be knocked away.

Officials in the state employees' association complain that the state has been adding surcharges and other fees to its health plan for years. The increase, more than $1,300 per year for a typical state employee, active or retired -- more than wipes out any pay increase that teachers and others have received in many years.

Teachers aren't eligible for full health benefits as retirees until they've served for 20 years.

This comes on top of a Senate proposal to eliminate 8,500 teachers' assistant positions across the state. The cuts supposedly would pay for around 2,000 new teacher positions to reduce class size.

In fact, eliminating those positions -- more than one-third of the teachers' assistants in the state -- would cause problems in the classroom.

Assistants are not babysitters. They help monitor the standardized tests that legislators love. They deal with unruly or recalcitrant students, so the teacher can still work with the rest of the class. They serve as ad hoc medics in the absence of school nurses. These days, in some school systems, they fill in as bus drivers when regular drivers aren't available.

Throw in a Senate pay-raise formula that gives almost no boost to longtime teachers, and it's no wonder that some teachers are feeling paranoid.

It's as if the senators want young people to work in the schools for a couple of years, then move on to something better. Forget about the value of experience or additional training.

Of course, young and inexperienced teachers are less likely to organize and cause trouble. And teachers' associations, as we know, are one of the last bastions of support for the Democratic Party. Are Senate Republicans playing politics?

The Senate's "reforms," in short, will be bad for education in North Carolina and will make schools worse. If cuts must be made to preserve benefits, moving the eligibility marker from 20 years of service to 25 would be a better solution.

We're in for a long summer of hemming, hawing and horse trading as the state House and Senate thrash out the differences between their two budgets. When it comes to teachers and teachers' assistants, though, the House needs to stick to its guns.