Anyone remember when, at the beginning of his term, Gov. McCrory gave salary hikes of up to 11% to key members of his cabinet? Under Gov. Perdue, salaries for cabinet secretaries had been set at a little under $122,000, but last summer the legislature gave permission to her successor to raise that cap and set compensation levels. McCrory’s raise increased the pay of some cabinet members to $135,000.
Given the financial health of the state and the governor’s failure to provide an equitable increase for the run of the mill state worker, the salary hike didn’t go over too well. McCrory was put on the defensive, having to provide justification for what looked to many like good old-fashioned cronyism.
In an interview with Raleigh’s News & Observer, McCrory stated, “I’m trying to make it at least where they can afford to live while running multibillion-dollar departments.” According to the Associated Press, McCrory spokesperson Chris Walker also justified the pay increases, suggesting that they would help attract the type of talent needed that running large departments requires. The assumption, then, is that one must provide more than adequate compensation to attract and retain the best and the brightest.
It’s important to remember that assumption, since the General Assembly has passed a $20.6 billion, two-year budget and sent it to the governor for his approval. Anyone who has been following the news for the past few days knows what the budget portends for public education in the state. North Carolina now ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay, but the budget provides no pay increases. Likewise, educators will no longer receive additional pay for holding advanced degrees, a move which effectively provides no incentive for teachers to further their education. In addition, the budget eliminates career status or “tenure” for all teachers, replacing it with a short-term contract system that lacks any real job security. The budget also eliminates thousands of educational positions, including teachers, teaching assistants, and support personnel, and generally shifts money away from the public to the private sector through a voucher program. All in all, what the budget does for education is largely consistent with McCrory’s own view of how to “reform” public education.
Although supporters think that the reforms the budget pushes through will ultimately raise educational standards and outcomes in the state, it’s difficult to see how that could ever be the case. We can, I think, all agree that when it comes to education, we want bright, talented, and passionate teachers in the classroom. We want the same in government too, especially in high-level cabinet positions. Yet whereas McCrory increased overall compensation to these and other similar positions to attract the very best, the opposite logic appears to hold for teachers. Only wishful thinking would ever assume that the way to attract bright, talented, and passionate teachers is to provide no pay increase on top of a low, non-competitive salary, all the while cutting any form of job security.
A former student of mine teaches public high school in the eastern part of the state. I’ve visited his class before, and he’s one of the bright, talented, and passionate teachers that we need on the front lines of our education system. He also works a second job on weekends slinging burritos, since he doesn’t make enough as a teacher to provide for his family. Understandably, he’s thought about doing something else. Anecdotal evidence, I know, but he’s certainly not alone, especially when the average starting salary for a public school teacher in NC is less than $31,000.
If we really want to “reform” education in this state, we need to value our teachers more, not less, as this budget does. McCrory’s cabinet secretaries may have a salary that fits with running multi-billion dollar departments, but our teachers are charged with our children. Our teachers—and our children—deserve at least as much.
Hollis Phelps is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College.