Many of North Carolina’s political leaders may still be roiling over the backlash to the state’s broad anti-LGBT law this week, but Gov. Pat McCrory wants to talk about public education.
On Tuesday, the governor offered a snapshot of his upcoming education budget proposal to the legislature, calling for a 5 percent average pay increase for North Carolina teachers as well as one-time, $5,000 bonuses for some of the state’s most experienced educators.
The statement, which offered no firm details on the structure of the pay raises or how it would be funded, has been met with little response from GOP budget leaders in the N.C. General Assembly, but poor reviews from education advocates and Democrats began rolling in shortly after McCrory’s announcement.
Calling it “political theatrics,” Mark Jewell, vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), the state’s largest advocacy organization for teachers, Jewell said he expected such an announcement this year from the governor, particularly given that it is an election year.
“This is not a long-term strategic plan to move North Carolina from the cellar of teacher salaries in the country,” said Jewell, who was recently elected to take over as president of the teacher’s organization in July. “It will do very little to get us out of that bottom tier.”
The governor’s announcement came as members of the N.C. State Board of Education readied a draft of their legislative priorities this week, which includes a call for teacher pay reforms that would make North Carolina the highest paying state in the southeast.
Georgia offers the highest pay in the region, state staff say, at about $53,000. According to the National Education Association, North Carolina’s average teacher pay, which exceeds $47,000, ranked a lowly 42nd in the nation.
As board members pointed out Wednesday, even if all other states in the southeast remained static on teacher pay, the governor’s pay proposal would fall short of leading the region.
In January, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson called for a 10 percent, across-the-board raise for the state’s teachers. A day later, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, dismissed that proposal as unrealistic, saying the legislature could likely afford a more modest 2 percent raise.
Meanwhile, Rep. Craig Horn, the Republican from Union County who chairs the House budget committee on education, could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in February he told Policy Watch that any raise would be closer to 3.5 percent.
The governor’s pay proposal—which he announced Tuesday while surrounded by teachers and administrators at his alma mater, Lucy Ragsdale High in Guilford County—falls somewhere in the middle.
“Two years ago, when I announced a significant pay raise plan right here at Ragsdale, I promised that we would not stop there,” McCrory said. “Today, I am following through on that promise and introducing an aggressive education budget that will bring average teacher pay to more than $50,000 for the first time in state history.”
On Wednesday, Catherine Truitt, McCrory’s senior education advisor, told members of the State Board of Education that “a lot of thought” went into this week’s announcement.
The proposal includes a $5,000, one-time bonus for teachers with more than 24 years of experience, and about a $1,100 bonus for teachers with less than 24 years of experience, Truitt said.
The proposal would cost the state about $250 million in recurring expenses for teacher salaries, Truitt added, on top of $165 million for the one-time bonus.
And while Republican lawmakers frequently point out that the $8.3 billion allocated in funding for state public schools this year is a 7.4 percent increase on last year, education experts note the state’s support for public schools, on a per-pupil basis, still lags behind North Carolina’s pre-recession funding when adjusted for inflation.
According to the NEA, the state’s per-pupil funding actually dropped from 2013-2014 to 2014-2015, stalling at about $8,620—good for a national ranking of 46th.
The governor’s statement also claimed the governor’s budget—which he’s expected to reveal in its entirety later this month—would bundle in $2 million for a scholarship program for 300 students to earn education degrees in teaching math and science at in-state universities, part of an effort to address massive teacher shortages in the state in recent years.
It comes five years after a new majority in the legislature axed annual appropriations for the Teaching Fellows program, which offered college scholarships to budding teachers in exchange for a four-year commitment to teach in North Carolina.
House lawmakers and McCrory have suggested similar scholarship ideas in recent years, but such proposals have not survived negotiations with the more fiscally conservative state Senate.
McCrory’s plan would also funnel almost $160 million toward Internet connectivity in classrooms and tablet programs for students, in addition to $5 million in scholarships for students with disabilities, which could be used to send such students to private schools or therapy.
“I’m very excited about this,” said Truitt. “It’s slow but steady progress.”
Yet McCrory’s proposal has been met with a lukewarm reception from the state’s education leaders thus far.
Rep. Graig Meyer, an outspoken public schools advocate from Orange County who sits on the House Education Committee, said most teachers believe the governor’s pay proposal is “too little, too late.”
“It’s going to continue to be (the GOP’s) dialogue that they’re going to put out in an election year that they’re trying to take care of teachers,” said Meyer. “… But the governor has failed to put forth a concrete vision for a pay plan that is commensurate to teachers’ value to society. The governor is pulling out an election year budget gimmick rather than giving us real solutions.”
And Jewell said it’s unclear whether the governor’s statement will address the state’s “overlooked and undervalued” veteran teachers, many of whom received little to no salary increases in recent years.
“It’s disingenuous of the governor,” said Jewell. “He has shown blatant disrespect over his administration to teachers.”
Keith Poston, executive director of the N.C. Public School Forum, a longtime research and policy group in Raleigh, said there are “simply too many unknowns” in the governor’s plan at this point. Poston questioned whether the governor’s budget will include recurring funds for teacher pay or if his proposal will reward experienced teachers where other budget plans have favored cheaper raises for beginning teachers.
“We believe the poor treatment of teachers on a host of issues over the last few years, whether it’s pay or classroom resources, has contributed to the decline of our teacher prep programs and our teacher turnover. Pay matters.”
Indeed, in February, a UNC system official told members of the State Board of Education that, since 2010, enrollment in bachelor’s and master’s education programs system-wide had plummeted 30 percent.
While the governor’s proposal does include scholarships for prospective science and math teachers, Jewell pointed out the state is facing a teacher shortage across multiple subjects, noting some elementary and high schools in rural counties are relying on substitutes to fill teaching positions for more than a full academic year.
Still, on Wednesday, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey, a McCrory appointee, told leaders that he was “encouraged” by the governor’s statements.
“We know we probably can’t be number one in the southeast overnight,” Cobey said. “But without a target we’ll never get there. My position all along has been let’s be competitive in our neighborhood. We have a vast country, but when we focus on average teacher pay, let’s focus on our region. People are starting to hear that now.”
State board member Eric Davis, another McCrory appointee, also complimented the governor. “I hope the public will rally around this,” said Davis.
But the board’s non-voting, local board of education advisor Christine Fitch grilled Truitt for more specifics Wednesday. Fitch said the governor’s ideas “look good on paper,” but legislative pay proposals have often excluded veteran teachers.
“Though the governor’s statement talks about giving a pay raise, I can’t see that’s really happening,” said Fitch. “When you look at those who get left out, it creates rancor among those in the teaching profession. It’s put out to the public that it will benefit all teachers and it does not.”
Fitch also chided McCrory’s office for lobbing one-time bonuses as part of his pay plan. “Let’s not call this a raise,” said Fitch. “Call it what it is: a bonus. Tell them that you’re giving them a one-time bonus.”
Many, including leadership in the NCAE, responded with anger to the legislature’s move to fund a $750 one-time bonus for teachers this year, arguing that it did little to assuage educators’ long-term financial struggle.
Truitt responded by arguing that the governor’s office did not mislead with Tuesday’s statement. “We’re not claiming that all teachers would receive a raise because that would be inaccurate,” she said.
Of course, some said, the debate over McCrory’s statement may be moot when the legislature reconvenes later this month.
“He’s the governor of North Carolina,” said Poston. “But if the last two sessions are any indication, what comes out of the General Assembly will probably bear little resemblance to what he puts out.”
Agreed, says Jewell.
“Clearly, he’s going to sign whatever the legislature provides,” said Jewell. “And we’re already getting some signs of disrespect from his own party. He clearly isn’t leading his own party.”
Editor’s Note: This article was published by NC Policy Watch on April 6, 2016.