Perhaps they’re hearing footsteps – the footsteps of all those teachers who have turned out in recent months to call for better pay and more generous overall support for North Carolina’s public schools.
Perhaps they’re anticipating the footsteps of thousands of teachers, teachers’ family members and teachers’ friends who next year might want to take out their frustrations at the polls.
Whatever their motivation , let’s be glad that key members of our General Assembly seem to be coming around to the conclusion that they really do need to do something about teachers’ lagging pay. However, just what to do and how to finance it remain vexing issues for the legislature’s Republican majority – not easy to square with the GOP’s emphasis on pay for performance and low taxes.
Even if a fair system of merit pay could be devised, perhaps in the form of bonuses for exceptional work, North Carolina still would be faced with base salaries that have dragged average teacher pay down to 46th in the country. Teachers have had to make do with only one raise in the last five years – for 1.2 percent in 2012 – raising understandable concerns about the state’s ability to recruit and retain an adequate teacher corps.
A Thanksgiving Day article in The News & Observer of Raleigh probed the legislative dilemma. For example, a House budget writer, Republican Rep. Bryan Holloway of Stokes County, wants to restore the annual pay boosts formerly given to teachers as they accumulated years of service.
The price tag to reactivate the pay schedule could be as much as $1 billion, and Holloway said any such move would have to be phased in over three to five years. “Cost is a big obstacle,” he acknowledged.
A will and a way?
On the Senate side, one of Holloway’s counterparts, Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale, speaks of “a will to do something for our teachers.” He’s keen on raising entry-level pay, now in the range of $30,000. But he also wants to couple teachers’ salaries to student performance, saying “We have to pay for results.” Sounds good, but what about the teacher who, despite his or her skills and best efforts, can’t overcome the challenges presented by students who lack a supportive home environment?
Any move to pay teachers more might be further complicated by pressure to give similar raises to state government’s non-teaching personnel, who also have seen salaries stagnate as the legislature wrestled to balance budgets amid the recession and its aftermath.
But the biggest obstacle would seem to be the conservative doctrine that puts so much stock in the virtues of low taxes. It’s a doctrine that prevails in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which this year enacted major cuts in the state’s personal and corporate income taxes. It’s one that has been saluted by Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the scaled-down budget into law.
The cuts are envisioned as an economic development tool that hopefully will mean future revenue gains. Yet while waiting for that ship to come in – if it ever does — the state will forgo more than $500 million in revenue just in the next two years. Finding extra money for public schools, or for other state services caught in the budget squeeze, will be a tall order.
A leading national champion of the low-tax philosophy, the American Legislative Exchange Council, recently put North Carolina in a glowing spotlight that must have felt good to the tax-cutters hereabouts.
ALEC, as the group is known, praised the legislature for what it called “monumental tax reform … that immediately improved the state’s competitiveness and put it on the track for higher economic growth.” In case anyone missed the point, ALEC gushed: “Without question, the reforms are among the most significant tax relief any state has passed in the last decade.”
Here’s the rub: To the extent North Carolina has succeeded in lifting itself out of the kind of hard-scrabble poverty that once was all too common throughout the South, it can credit the investment it made in its educational system.
That investment was especially notable at the university level, giving residents a path toward knowledge-based jobs and attracting leading-edge companies and agencies. Attention then was focused on the public schools as it became clear that graduates’ skills needed to be enhanced. More money wasn’t the sole indicator of that attention, nor is it the sole determinant of school quality, but it did enable the state to raise teacher salaries to the middle of the national pack.
A business proposition
North Carolina’s business community has always been mindful of the benefits of low expenses, taxes included. But for many years a consensus prevailed that education investment was essential to prosperity. The ALEC tax-cutting school of thought represents a narrower, more ideological view, driven by national interests and out of sync with North Carolina’s tried and true model.
The good news is that some of the state’s influential business figures have started pushing for a rebalancing of priorities so that education can claim its rightful and necessary place.
They’ve formed a group called Business for Education Success and Transformation North Carolina, or BEST NC. Its 50-plus members include Ann Goodnight of software giant SAS, Jim Goodmon of Capitol Broadcasting, former University of North Carolina system president C.D. Spangler Jr. and Brad Wilson, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of N.C. and former head of the UNC Board of Governors. The chairman is Walter McDowell, retired regional CEO for Wachovia.
“We think that stronger public education outcomes will accelerate job growth and spur economic development,” McDowell told The News & Observer.
It’s hard to disagree with McDowell’s guidance for the group – that it aim for investments that rate as targeted and strategic. “We do not believe throwing a lot of money at public education is the answer,” he said.
Perhaps that’s meant to position NC BEST as brokers in the middle of the debate. Still, what could be more targeted than finding the money needed to bring the state’s teacher salaries back into the range of national respectability, so that well-qualified teachers don’t continue fleeing this state for better deals elsewhere? What could be more strategic than finding the money to raise the state’s per-pupil spending up from its spot near the bottom of the barrel? Even Gov. McCrory is starting to talk a better game, calling for a plan to improve teacher pay.
For many North Carolina residents, the public education system is an indispensible path to opportunity – their best, perhaps their only, hope as a route toward productive lives. It can be a powerful force benefiting people who, because of poverty or other unfortunate circumstance, must overcome steep odds if they are to flourish.
High-quality schools accessible to all thus are central to the ideals of social justice embraced by the N.C. Council of Churches. Treating teachers not only fairly but also wisely – paying them what they deserve as well as what’s needed to keep good ones on the job – has to be a top state goal, and it’s encouraging to see leaders from both government and business begin what could be a move in that direction.