The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” During hard times we recognize the need to hunker down and reduce spending. During good times we can spend more and invest.
State leaders saw the need to cut spending during The Great Recession; now our state budget has recovered and is healthy. Reliable estimates indicate that a combination of lower spending than was budgeted, coupled with tax revenues exceeding projections, has resulted in approximately $1 billion in available money during this short session. We would never advocate wholesale spending like proverbial drunken sailors but now is the time to invest in areas of greatest need.
One of those areas is teacher pay. Lawmakers pay lip service to increasing teacher pay but until last year little was done. In 2014 teachers and state employees received a $750 one-time bonus, an amount that Governor Pat McCrory admitted in an NC SPIN interview was “chickenfeed.” Last year’s increase of starting salaries for teachers entering the profession was a good step, but only a step.
WRAL television in Raleigh aired a documentary this week, “Grading Teacher Pay,” reporting that North Carolina raised teacher pay in the 1990s to 19th in the nation, almost the national average. By 2014 our state had dropped to 47th, some $12,000 per year below that average and lower than our neighboring states.
Teacher pay now ranks in the bottom quartile, at 42nd. North Carolina reduced education spending, cut teaching assistants, eliminated additional pay for those obtaining Masters degrees and eliminated a Teaching Fellows program that encouraged college students to go into the classroom. The workload for those remaining wasn’t cut, merely shouldered by fewer people. No wonder so many are leaving the profession and so few are enrolled in colleges of education. Erick Houck, UNC Professor of Education, said there was a real dollar cost in having to constantly interview, hire and acclimate new teachers.
Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said teachers don’t go into the profession to get rich, but neither do they take a vow of poverty. One teacher in the documentary said she would have to work 20-25 years under the current pay schedule before earning $50,000 a year. Another 17-year veteran who recently left teaching said it is obvious that North Carolina doesn’t care about teachers.
Is that true? Aside from the parent, the teacher is the single most important person in a child’s education, but do we really believe that is true? If so, now is a season for lawmakers to put our money where their rhetoric is. Perhaps a 10 percent raise, as Superintendent Atkinson proposed, might be too large a leap, but there is little reason why lawmakers cannot agree to Governor McCrory’s proposal for an average 5 percent increase, with the goal to make average pay $50,000 per year.
If our children (and their futures) are our most important investment, then excellent, long-term career teachers are essential to their success. Adequate pay makes teachers feel successful and want to stay on the job. Additionally, lawmakers should end the ridiculous practice of one-time bonuses and increase the pay of all state employees.
It is past time we take the subject of teacher pay off the table, because when we get distracted by issues like pay – important as they might be – we are not focusing on the most important goal of how to dramatically improve student outcomes.
Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin.