If this year’s session of the N.C. General Assembly were a work of drama for stage or screen, the plot would be coming to a head. And we in the audience would be perched on the edge of our seats as the actors resolved the mystery: Will the state’s public school teachers get a raise, and if so, how big?
There’s little doubt that the state capital powers-that-be – Gov. Pat McCrory and his Republican allies who control the House and Senate – have decided teacher pay is an issue they can’t afford to ignore.
The case has been made on the merits, what with average teacher salaries that rank 46th in the country becoming a source of embarrassment and convincing many teachers that North Carolina is not a good place to start or extend their classroom careers.
Politics enter the equation as well, and as sometimes happens, when politicians feel the urge to protect their flanks from campaign critics, they can end up doing things that serve the public interest. Lagging teacher pay has indeed become a point of leverage in efforts to push back against capital conservatives whose agenda has featured tax cuts and painfully tightened budgets. At the Moral Monday protests outside the Legislative Building, it was hard to miss the throngs of energetic teachers and other public school supporters in their red t-shirts.
Still, a goal that all sides agree to in the abstract has proven elusive within the context of budget realities and intertwined policy disputes.
McCrory has aligned with House Speaker Thom Tillis to support teacher raises averaging 5 percent. The Senate, under president pro tem Phil Berger, favors 11 percent raises – but only for teachers willing to surrender their protection from arbitrary firing commonly known as tenure.
That trade-off would be a dramatic policy shift with overtones of retribution against a teacher corps that often has worked to elect Democratic candidates perceived as being friendlier to public education. For McCrory and House Republicans – mindful as well of Tillis’ U.S. Senate candidacy in a race with national implications — it has shaped up as a bridge too far.
What’s more, the Senate’s $465 million pay raise plan would be funded in large part by laying off some 7,400 teacher assistants who now help manage second- and third-grade classrooms. The savings would be $233 million in the fiscal year that began July 1.
Senators who support the layoffs argue putting assistants in those grades hasn’t been shown to improve students’ performance. Yet even if the data are inconclusive, common sense suggests that regular teachers will have more time to deal with students’ individual needs if they have some back-up. And kids’ success or lack of success by the time they finish third grade is seen as a key milestone.
The House, sensibly, would keep the assistants in place. But that has forced House budget writers, even with their more modest pay raise aims, to scramble for the $176 million those raises would cost. There’s been a move to lean more heavily on proceeds from the state lottery – not a popular option in the Senate, again with good reason.
The question of teacher pay even has gotten caught up in the vexing effort to resolve differences between the two chambers over Medicaid spending. In a nutshell, the Senate has wanted to put much more money aside to cover projected cost overruns than has the House – meaning that less would be available for teachers. The two sides now appear to be on the verge of a compromise, but it remains to be seen whether a less cautious Medicaid strategy can be adopted in keeping with the requirement that the state budget be balanced.
Tax cut damage
The state’s outlays for public education, while creeping upward in raw dollars, have been put through a wringer that has reduced per-capita spending – now ranked a dismal 48th in the country. Some of that shrinkage came as legislators tightened state government spending across the board in response to the revenue-deflating recession.
But even as North Carolina’s economy began a slow recovery, Republican majorities in the House and Senate last year teamed with newly installed Gov. McCrory to enact a series of tax cuts that punched a conspicuous hole in the state’s revenue bucket. That has put programs and services, including education, under extraordinary strain.
Lowering taxes was supposed to be all about enhancing the state’s economic competitiveness and creating jobs, and it’s true that the cuts in personal and corporate income tax rates do let North Carolina compare itself more favorably to neighboring states.
But smoothing the path toward prosperity for companies and individuals alike involves more than keeping taxes down. In particular, a strong education system at all levels – the public schools, community colleges, public universities – is essential. When tax cuts weaken that system or block needed improvements, as the ones approved last year unquestionably have done, then whatever benefit they may have in promoting “business-friendliness” is undermined.
What we’re left with is the dismaying spectacle of legislators who now realize they’ve been underfunding education but who have forfeited in the range of $500 million a year that could be applied to teachers’ salaries and professional development, to textbooks, technology, smaller classes. Or, some of the money could be channeled into other important state responsibilities such as pollution monitoring that now are getting short shrift.
While no one wants to see taxes pegged any higher than necessary, when the state’s revenue base allows per-pupil spending on the public schools only at a level trumped by 47 other states, it ought to be obvious that taxes have been cut too much.
At least it’s obvious from the perspective of the Council of Churches, which sees ample education spending as a bedrock issue of social fairness. How else are young people who perhaps start out in life saddled with the disadvantages of poverty supposed to attain that equality of opportunity that should be theirs by right – if not via access to excellent public schools, staffed by excellent teachers? And their efforts to get ahead are to be hampered because of tax cuts that mainly benefit people at the high end of the income scale?
House and Senate budget chiefs, looking for a deal that will clear the way to adjournment of the legislative session, find themselves in a pickle of their own making. Because of their rash tax-cutting, they’ll have to make hard choices between unpleasant options if teachers are to receive even a modest pay boost. One such choice, guaranteed to rile tax-cut advocates but a good one all the same, would be to cancel a second phase of cuts scheduled to take effect next year. That at least would stop the bleeding.
Putting more money in teachers’ pockets and toward the public schools in general would be both smart policy and smart politics. If teachers are upset now, imagine how they’ll feel if the pay-raise talk from McCrory, Tillis, Berger et al. over the past months turns out to be just blather, with nothing in the budget to make it happen.
As a plot twist in the budget saga, that might be anticlimactic. Or then again, it might set the stage for an even bigger showdown