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Education had its moment in the gubernatorial debate Tuesday night among heated attacks between Governor Pat McCrory and Attorney General Roy Cooper on each other’s records and stances on issues ranging from access to abortion to the presidential candidates.

Cooper first brought up public education in his opening statements as one of the ways that he says McCrory has taken North Carolina backwards, claiming the governor has “failed to make education a priority” over the last four years. “That’s why we’re 41st in teacher pay,” Cooper said.

And the candidates were given a chance to delve into public education’s needs when moderator Chuck Todd from NBC asked about pay for teachers in their first years in the classroom. “You said the average teacher salary next year will be over $50,000,” Todd said to McCrory. “But according to the North Carolina public school salary schedules, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree doesn’t get to make $50,000 until their 25th year of teaching, or until the 20th year if they have a master’s degree.”

The teacher salary schedule for 2015-16 is here and for 2016-17 is here.

“How can you raise teacher salaries early on so that you don’t risk seeing teachers move to other states for higher-paying jobs?” Todd said.

McCrory, who responded first, said beginning teacher salaries were stagnant for five to seven years under Governor Mike Easley and Governor Bev Perdue’s administration. During his second year as governor, McCrory said he raised the average salary for teachers with one to seven years of experience from $30,000 to $35,000.

“Which is still not enough,” McCrory said. “But it’s 5,000 more dollars than Beverly Perdue and Mike Easley did with no objection from you (Cooper) whatsoever during all those years as attorney general and a candidate for governor.”

McCrory went on to say that he has a teaching degree, unlike Cooper, and knows what it’s like to do the hard work of educating children. “I’m proud of our teachers,” McCrory said. “And this governor has shown them respect and given them pay raises that they deserve.”

Cooper said his mother was a public school teacher, and he is aware of the challenges those in the profession face. He said the figures McCrory uses to tout his education record paint a dishonest picture.

“They are contrived and they do not reflect reality,” Cooper said. He went on to say that North Carolina is 41st in teacher pay and 44th in per-student expenditure — rankings from the National Education Association — that teacher assistants are being fired, and teachers are leaving the state for better pay.

“You need to be straight with the people about public education,” Cooper said.

McCrory immediately fired back: “You’re about as straight as another trial lawyer who became a politician in North Carolina – John Edwards.” McCrory said that his administration has not only improved average teacher salary, but has given teachers $15-16,000 annually in benefits and “tripled the rate of money for supplies and books.”

Cooper said that education must be one of the state’s top priorities. When he was Senate Democratic majority leader, Cooper said he moved teacher pay from 42nd to 21st in the nation within four years. “Governor McCrory has had four years,” he said. Cooper vowed to do the same thing as governor — raise average teacher pay to at least the national average — along with investing in early childhood education and making sure classrooms have adequate resources.

Todd attempted to prolong the conversation on education, asking McCrory why he hasn’t given higher raises if he thinks teacher pay isn’t enough? “Why not do it now?” Todd asked.

“First of all, I had to rebuild the economy,” McCrory said. He said that Cooper failed to mention that, when McCrory became governor in 2012, the state was 48th in teacher pay and has since gone down to 41st.

“And by the way, next year’s teacher pay, with our pay raises, is going to be in low 30s,” McCrory said.

After the debate, Cooper responded to a question from EducationNC on what should be prioritized in the school grading system, which may have to be reworked due to requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act. At the most recent State Board of Education meeting last week, board members brainstormed what indicators should be included under a new system. Cooper said that educators and parents must be a part of the process in deciding how to measure the quality of public schools.

“We have to be accountable to the people for education outcomes,” Cooper said. “But first, we have to make sure that our schools have the resources that they need, and right now, they don’t.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.