I am an attorney, and my firm is devoted to the practice of education law. Practicing in this field for the last 32+ years in North Carolina has given me a broad perspective and a lot of history on education in North Carolina. I am writing to impress upon you that, in my opinion, NCCAT (The North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching) is the most effective program I have ever seen to improve teacher performance and make a lasting difference in the lives of teachers and their students.
For about the past 15 years, I have devoted much of my time and energy, and considerable sums of my own funds and those of my law firm, to support this outstanding program. I have helped raise millions of dollars in my role as President of NCCAT's foundation board, and have devoted endless hours to such things as making the NCCAT campus on Ocracoke a reality. Why? Because NCCAT is the most innovative, inspiring and effective program I have ever seen come out of state government and its education programs, and I have seen it first hand, up close and personally.
Years ago, during the budget crisis that arose from Hurricane Floyd and the state losing a couple of huge lawsuits, we began talking about creating an endowment to help sustain what was then NCCAT's most expensive program (an annual seminar at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in DC). I was urged by the Executive Director to participate in this trip. I agreed, only if I would not be taking a slot from a teacher and only at my own expense. I took a week out of my law practice to do this, and it was one of the most important weeks of my life. I got to see and participate in a truly transformational experience with teachers from all over North Carolina, and saw them nearly explode with creativity and excitement during a week when they worked their tails off, and loved every minute. That, I came to learn, is the typical NCCAT experience. Teachers work hard for the week they are at NCCAT, and they are so inspired, and treated so professionally by NCCAT's incredible staff, in beautiful surroundings, that they cannot get enough.
I have spent a lot of time at NCCAT over the years. I see teachers working and talking late into the night, long after their formal sessions are over, yearning for more. I often try to ask them one simple question, and I never get to finish asking it. It usually goes like this: I will approach a group of teachers talking among themselves and listen to their excitement near the end of the week. It is usually a mixed group from all over the state; maybe a 1st grade teacher, a middle school math teacher, a high school coach and social studies teacher and a special education teacher, for example. Here is my standard question: "You all look like you are excited, but have you learned anything this week that you can..." That is as far as I have ever gotten with this question, because they ALWAYS interrupt me and answer me, telling me everything they have picked up, what inspiring things they have learned that they intend to take back to their schools and implement, in their classrooms, with their fellow faculty members, etc. Beyond that, these teachers stay in touch with each other, via email, SKYPE, blogs, wikis, etc., and share their ideas, successes, techniques, responses and more. They become leaders at their grade levels, in their departments and in their schools.
NCCAT's seminars are simply amazing. So, too, are NCCAT's programs for first year teachers (Connections) and for second and third year teachers (Connect To Your Future), providing beginning teachers with the tools they need to be successful at the most vulnerable points in their careers. And NCCAT's program for National Board certification is so successful (in its passing rate) that the National Board folks have come to see what NCCAT is doing to produce such strong results.
NCCAT pays for itself in many ways, including the teacher retention rates of NCCAT teachers when compared to the state and nation.
Over the past several weeks, while the General Assembly has been dealing with the budget crisis, I have spoken with approximately 50 superintendents about NCCAT. EVERY ONE of them wants NCCAT saved. I have told them that the choice being posed by some is that it will cost teaching positions to save NCCAT (which, of course, is not the only option). NCCAT could be fully funded for less that the cost of one teaching position per school system. EVERY superintendent with whom I have spoken has said they would gladly lose that position to save NCCAT. They know the value of this program, far better than most. They see the difference it makes. And they all understand that a teaching position speaks only to the issues of QUANTITY and class size, whereas NCCAT addresses the issue of teacher QUALITY. I hear a lot of talk about making sure there is a highly qualified and high quality teacher in every classroom. THAT, more than anything else is what makes the difference, and NCCAT is all about teacher QUALITY.
As for the "savings" of not maintaining this $6.1 million program, they are, in many ways, overstated. If NCCAT dies, there is no resulting savings of that money. The buildings and property (which were uniquely designed to meet the needs of NCCAT) will still be there. The state will either have to let them deteriorate through no use, or (far more likely) put them to another use, which means someone else will be looking for money to retrofit the buildings, and then to staff and run the programs there. Where are the savings?
Finally, I want to share with you what a lifelong friend of mine, the former runner-up for New York Teacher of the Year, once told me. After he learned about NCCAT, we discussed it and I suggested he explore whether NY could start such a program. He just shook his head and laughed at me. He said, "Our legislature would never have the wisdom to do something like this. It could never happen here."
Please don't let that happen here and now, in North Carolina, after the state has invested 25 years in this incredible program and built it up to be one of our shining jewels. This budget crisis will not last forever, and it would be foolish to destroy the state's long-term investment over a short-term crisis.
Please support NCCAT, and sustain it. Nearly all other professional development money and programs for educators have been eliminated. Please don't eliminate the very best there is, perhaps in the entire nation. If the goal is really to put a high quality teacher at the front of every classroom, then you need to be expanding NCCAT, not slashing it.
Thank you for all you are doing in what is a most difficult time. If you have any questions about NCCAT, please let me know.
Richard A. Schwartz
Schwartz & Shaw P.L.L.C.