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Dan Casey: Privatize teachers? It could happen

Dan Casey: Privatize teachers? It could happen

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Recently, the Roanoke County School Board has debated whether to offload its nursing, cafeteria and transportation services to private contractors. The Roanoke city school system has wrestled with the same money-saving questions in years past.

This column is not about whether they should or shouldn’t privatize at least some of those services. That appears almost inevitable, given that the only other option is increasing revenue, aka raising taxes. A vocal minority will scream that’s akin to treason.

Rather, we should gaze into our crystal balls at the future, to the coming days of privatized teachers.

It won’t happen this year or next, nor is it likely to happen in the next five years, at least in the Roanoke Valley. But sooner or later the day will come when the question is likely to be on the public agenda.

Mike Stovall, a 19-year veteran of the Roanoke County School Board, says the notion is ridiculous.

“I have, in all of my travels to state and national conferences over the years, never heard of a school division that outsources teachers,” he told me. “Will we see it in our lifetime? No, we won’t. I would never vote to outsource teachers.”

So I asked him: When he started on the school board in 1995, did he ever imagine he’d be faced with the question of outsourcing nurses, cafeteria workers and bus drivers?

His answer was no. Yet here we are.

The fact is, Roanoke County and other Virginia school systems have been under severe financial pressure for years. That’s why the city of Roanoke has closed schools, privatized busing and nursing, and sold off school property such as the former Huff Lane Intermediate School.

Roanoke County has taken a $14 million funding hit in past the five years, Stovall noted. It’s dealt with that mostly through attrition and as a result has about 200 fewer employees than in 2009. He called those cuts “the low-hanging fruit.”

But there’s only so much you can save that way, which is why the question of outsourcing nurses, bus drivers and cafeteria workers is now on the table. Stovall termed that “the higher-hanging fruit.”

And once that is plucked, where will school boards turn? They’ll look at highest-hanging (and most expensive) fruit of all, the teachers. Their salaries are the biggest single category in the Roanoke County schools budget.

In Virginia last year, according to the state Department of Education, the average teacher’s salary was $52,000, not counting benefits. (In Roanoke County the starting salary was $36,000 and the average was just above $50,000). Compared to your average Walmart stock boy, that may seem outrageous.

But many teachers hold master’s degrees, and come on, their work is much more important than putting toasters on store shelves. In a best-case scenario, their salaries allow them to afford a half-decent house, a used car and a night or two per week dining at Red Robin.

In some places, baby steps already have occurred toward privatizing teachers — there are private companies that contract with school systems to provide substitute teachers. One of the largest is Kelly Educational Staffing.

Back in 2011, a lawmaker in Michigan, where Kelly is based, proposed legislation allowing for the outsourcing of full-time teachers as well. That came from Michigan Sen. Phil Pavlov, a Republican. He’s hardly some legislative gadfly — he’s chairman of the Michigan Senate Education Committee.

The trial balloon was defeated. But it’s naive to assume such a move would necessarily fail in the future. There’s no shortage of companies right now that outsource other professionals, such as computer programmers, nurses and engineers. And their business is booming.

Meg Gruber, president of the Virginia Education Association, said the VEA hasn’t had to deal with this question yet.

But she noted that conservative activists have made great strides during the past two decades in attacking public education and its funding. “Their long-range plan,” she told me, “is all about getting public money into private hands.”

Two years ago, Virginia slashed retirement benefits for new teachers. The natural effect of that is that fewer people will be attracted to the profession, she said. “They don’t want career teachers anymore,” Gruber said, “because they don’t want to provide for their retirement.”

Who will step into the breach when school systems begin having trouble filling teacher positions? Private contractors, that’s who. The same situation is what led to companies that outsource the other professionals.

I also put the question to Fuzzy Minnix, a school board member and former Roanoke County supervisor.

“Privatizing teachers? Could it happen, long range?” he asked. “Maybe yes. Maybe no.”

The fact is, we live in a country where right now state legislatures, under the guise of “religious freedom,” are actually passing laws to legalize discrimination against gay people.

When things get that crazy, outsourcing teachers is hardly out of the question.

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or dan.casey@roanoke.com. Follow him on Twitter @dancaseysblog.

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Dan Casey knows a little bit about a lot of things but not a heck of a lot about most things. That doesn't keep him from writing about them, however. So keep him honest!

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