Last month, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson proposed an across-the-board 10 percent pay raise for all North Carolina teachers. A day later, state House Speaker Tim Moore suggested a much more modest 2 percent raise.
Now, this week, Craig Horn, the influential Republican from Union County who chairs the House appropriations committee for education, tells N.C. Policy Watch that he believes Moore’s idea is much more likely to resonate this session than Atkinson’s sweeping proposal.
Although he called it a “hip shot,” Horn said he expects the legislature may actually approve teacher raises this year in the area of 3 to 3.5 percent.
“I would love to support a 10 percent raise,” said Horn. “But do I believe the numbers will be there? I don’t.”
GOP leadership, including Horn, pointed to this year’s revenue forecasts as one lynchpin in the teacher pay debate. Legislators’ most important revenue forecast is expected to arrive in mid-April. Given that it typically includes fresh data about refunds and tax payments, it can be volatile and difficult to predict, state officials say.
And while it remains to be seen whether April’s report will be good or bad for teachers, in January, the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division reported state revenues were largely on track thus far, coming in about 1.2 percent, or about $120 million, above the state’s revenue target.
What that means for education appropriations, and teachers, is harder to predict. Horn says pay scale proposals are a “crap shoot” at this point. Still, Horn said he expects the legislature will have to consider pay increases for educators this year.
“They deserve it,” he said. “We pay our teachers poorly. It’s an embarrassment. … I don’t think we can afford not to raise teacher pay substantially.”
Some Democratic legislators and public education advocates have suggested Republicans, in an election year, have little choice but to raise teacher pay, and they expect raises in the area of 6 to 7 percent by the end of this year’s short session.
But Horn’s 3-percent raise predictions this week echo similar sentiments in Raleigh from Republican leaders, who consistently suggest Atkinson’s pay proposals are quixotic at best.
Still, with the state’s average teacher pay hovering around $47,000—significantly below the $57,000 national average and, according to the National Education Association (NEA), ranking a lowly 42nd in the nation—some say Republican leaders must change the narrative on public education.
Atkinson’s 10 percent pay raise, which amounts to about $4,700 a year for the average teacher in North Carolina, would cost the state roughly $540 million, the superintendent’s office said.
Comparatively speaking, Speaker Moore’s 2-percent proposal would increase the average teacher pay by less than $1,000. For beginning teachers, the raise would be similar to this year’s $750 bonus, although not in a one-time capacity.
“It’s an election year. They’ve got to do something,” says Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which has skewered GOP leadership in the General Assembly in recent years over its public education funding and teacher pay.
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.
“They have to make the perception that they’re champions for public schools and teachers,” added Ellis. “But it’s going to be my intent to make sure that teachers don’t forget what the last few years have been like for schools and educators.”
When Cumberland County Schools opened the year, the system had a staggering 50 staff vacancies. And when Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools began the year, the school reported 25 vacancies alone at the elementary school level, a grade level that is typically more insulated from North Carolina’s teacher shortage.
Pay, teacher support and rewarding quality teachers can all be blamed for the state’s teaching crisis, superintendents of various ailing school systems told members of the House Select committee on Education Strategy and Practices last month.
Atkinson’s plan, which she described as a “wedding cake” approach in the same committee a day earlier, included multiple layers to address the problem. At the foundation, Atkinson said, teachers need an across-the-board raise, something in the area of 10 percent.
And additional funding would be allocated for local systems’ “educational leaders,” designated peer evaluation specialists, instructional coaches and professional development coordinators.
Speaker Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, largely dismissed that proposal at the House committee meeting in January. Although Moore’s office declined an interview for this story, citing ongoing redistricting work in the legislature, the speaker told committee members in January that Atkinson’s idea was simply unrealistic.
“We’ve got to be responsible with the numbers that we talk about with employee pay raises,” Moore said, according to the News & Observer.
But multiple lawmakers point out the $540 million price tag for Atkinson’s 10-percent pay raise doesn’t seem too pricey compared to the tax cuts handed down by legislators in recent years.
The N.C. Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center (BTC) estimated last year that tax cuts bundled in the state’s 2015-2017 budget would cost the state about $841.8 million in revenue for the biennium. Within four years, the revenue reduction would swell to more than $1 billion annually due to phased-in rate reductions for individual taxpayers and profitable corporations, the BTC reported.
“It’s a matter of priorities,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat from Durham who sits on the Senate’s education committee. “The fact is the money’s there. The surpluses are there. It’s just a matter of how do we want to spend these funds and, clearly, I think the leadership has made other choices.”
Sources in the legislature say it’s a matter of negotiation tactics at this point. Atkinson set a high bar in January, and Moore and other Republican leaders followed by “low-balling” the pay raise, says Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange County who sits on the House Education Committee.
Like many in the legislature, based on the state’s current revenue predictions, Meyer believes teachers may see raises somewhere between the two figures from Atkinson and Moore.
Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who serves as vice chairwoman of the House education committee, isn’t as optimistic.
“I wish I could predict what the Republicans are going to do,” said Cotham. “But if past is any indication, we’re just going to see another slap in the face for educators.”
Cotham called this year’s $750 one-time bonus for teachers a “tip” rather than a legitimate reform for underpaid educators.
“I thought that was an insult to the profession,” she said. “I think there are so many Republicans who want to say we value our teachers and we love our teachers. That’s all nice and that’s fine. However, actions speak louder than words.”
Ellis, of the N.C. Association of Educators, agrees, calling the bonus an “insult to my intelligence.”
“I believe Speaker Moore is right about one thing,” said Ellis. “Ten percent is unrealistic, because they haven’t shown any significant dedication to public education.”
And most lawmakers expect the teacher pay proposal to face to an even more uphill climb on the Senate side of the legislature, which has skewed more conservatively in recent years. Multiple GOP members of the Senate Education Committee did not return phone calls this week, but Woodard said lawmakers in his chamber should at least be seeking to pay North Carolina educators at the national average.
Additionally, Woodard said the lackluster pay extends beyond teachers, pointing out pay for school administrators and classified employees—such as custodians and cafeteria workers—lags the rest of the nation too.
Nevertheless, Horn counters that, no matter the legislature’s detractors, GOP budget writers like him are simply being fiscally responsible. One-time surpluses can’t pay for recurring expenses, he says.
“You can hear anything you want to hear if you just stand in the same spot long enough,” Horn said. “Show me the facts. I will have to make a decision from there, but I don’t buy the doom and gloom predictions.”
What do teachers want most out of this debate? According to Woodard, it may be stability.
“It’s a $750 bonus one year. It’s a small raise on even-numbered, election years. It’s time for us to set some numbers down and get off this rollercoaster ride.”
To Ellis, educators just want fair pay for their work.
“We could make it happen,” he says. “There are resources out there to make it happen. It just depends on your priorities, whether you’re giving tax breaks to the wealthy or you’re showing appreciation for teachers.”
This article was first published by NC Policy Watch on February 24, 2016.