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Teacher pay debate deserves more than a flare-up

On the scale of political controversies, the recent squabble over the pay of teachers rates as a standard-issue state capital flare-up. And yet, it demonstrates anew the current inability of education policymakers to put the state on a faster track toward increasing the pay, quality and supply of classroom teachers.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson ignited the spark with his maladroit comment that a $35,000 salary represented “good money’’ for young, novice teachers in rural communities. That remark came a few days after he had uttered the time-worn canard that public schools offer “one-size-fits-all’’ instruction.

In turn, the N.C. Association of Educators let it be known that Johnson is not invited, as state superintendents regularly have been, to its annual convention. The NCAE, long a strong voice for teachers during Democratic and Republican administrations, apparently considers Johnson too weak in his advocacy of the “public instruction” in his title.

Clearly, there’s political rivalry involved here – who’s surprised? Johnson is a 34-year-old Republican, still relatively new to the capital. The NCAE aligns mostly with Democrats in election years. It would be naïve to think that, in a democratic system of power struggles, personal and institutional rivalries won’t flare up from time to time.

Still, the system also benefits from disagreement, debate and dialogue. What kind of signal does the NCAE send to teachers and students of civics when it rejects talking to or even listening to a statewide elected official?

A convention discussion between teachers and Johnson might grow heated, contentious – pick your adjective.  But maybe, just maybe, the NCAE ought to try a civil dialogue that does what educators do: educate.

Indeed, the state needs a wider-angle deliberation over teacher compensation. Attention needs to turn from a focus on how the state ranks in average teacher compensation to more relevant standards: to pay teachers in line with similar professionals, to assure teachers can sustain a middle-class standard of living, to attract not only novice teachers but also experienced instructors to work in hard-to-staff schools in small towns and certain city neighborhoods.

In its new report, “Accelerating the Pace: The Future of Education in the American South,” the Columbia Group, a coalition of seven state-level education-advocacy organizations, lists a package of teacher-related issues – recruitment, preparation, leadership roles, as well as pay – at the top of its four ways to close gaps in achievement.

“Research shows that effective teachers are the most important factor in a child’s education,” says the Columbia Group report. “…Preparing and supporting more high-quality teachers needs to become one of the Southern states’ top priorities. In fact, each state in the South should aspire to become among the nation’s best places to teach.”

In general terms, the report recommends that states overhaul teacher pay structures to reward “these professionals’ success with students and for assignments in high-need areas.” The report does not define a pay plan, but it notes that in some high-performing nations teachers earn a salary “on par with engineers and accountants.”

What’s more, North Carolina also faces compensation issues in attracting highly qualified principals and in upgrading the much-too-low pay of staff in pre-kindergarten and early childhood programs. For North Carolina to rise to the challenges will require establishing policy pathways that move beyond year-by-year incremental raises and tinkering with the salary schedule.

It will require the hard work of learning from research, re-balancing priorities, building coalitions and rejuvenating public confidence and will – in other words, for North Carolina to act like one of the nation’s top-10 states that it is.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.