As members of the North Carolina General Assembly make their way back to Raleigh this week for the 2015 legislative session, many have education at the top of their agendas—which is no surprise given that the lion’s share of the state budget is devoted to public schools.
After years of frozen salaries, the busy 2014 session saw large pay bumps for beginning teachers and relatively small raises for veteran teachers—but those raises came at the expense of teacher assistants and classroom supplies as well as cuts to other critical areas of education spending.
But as North Carolina faces a year in which some predict tax cuts will lead to inadequate state revenues that leave lawmakers with little choice but to rob Peter to pay Paul, what can we expect for our public schools?
Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union) told N.C. Policy Watch this week that teacher pay is his number one priority for the upcoming legislative session.
“I want to raise the [salary] floor for everybody,” said Horn. “For both younger teachers and veterans. We need to keep high quality veteran teachers, and to do that we need to pay them appropriately — and we have not,” he said.
Last year, the General Assembly passed what some characterized as a historic teacher pay raise. The average salary increase was a disputed 7 percent, with Governor McCrory telling reporters it was really a 5.5 percent increase when you take into account that longevity pay was lumped into the salary schedule.
But early career teachers saw a much bigger pay hike as compared with veteran teachers, who complained that they received a raw deal. One veteran teacher with approximately 30 years of experience told N.C. Policy Watch he only received a 0.3 percent pay increase, thanks—or no thanks–to the new legislation. Beginning teachers saw pay increases as high as 18 percent.
Worth highlighting is that former Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Berger announced that the big pay bump for beginning teachers, which they said would go farther in attracting high quality teachers to the state, would take place over a two year period. That means that this year, if lawmakers hold to their verbal commitment, then beginning teachers should see another $2,000 increase that would result in a starting salary of $35,000.
But with veteran teachers up in arms over the shaft they received last year, lawmakers are facing substantial pressure to level the playing field and reward the teachers who have invested considerable time and training into their careers with higher salaries.
Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick) told the Brunswick County school board last week that it’s also his intention to give all teachers, not just beginning ones, a $2,000 pay raise this year.
“Teachers are the heart of the classroom,” Iler said, as reported by the StarNews. “They are the ones who are imparting knowledge to our children. We’ve got to take care of them and keep the best in Brunswick County and North Carolina.”
To make Iler’s promise a reality, however, the state would need an additional $200 million. That sounds like a tall order when considering that the state is currently running a $190 million revenue shortfall, thanks to a tax cut plan lawmakers put into effect in 2013.
“And that $190 million comes after state officials revised the cost of the tax plan upward for this fiscal year,” said Cedric Johnson, a policy analyst with the N.C. Budget and Tax Center. “Which makes any new spending priorities impossible without new revenues.”
Asked if he believes the legislature can raise salaries again in 2015 for all teachers, Rep. Horn said, “If I can, I will.” Horn added that if the opportunity arises to chair the House education committee, he’d be all for it.
“If they [leadership] feel I am the best guy for the job , I’ll jump at it,” said Horn.
Back on the subject of teacher pay, Horn said, “I’m thinking about the same thing we’re all thinking about, though – the projected [revenue] shortfall.”
“I’m not convinced we’re going to have the projected shortfall everyone fears, but I also don’t think we’re floating in dough – we’re not,” added Horn, who has been a heavy hitter in education debates at the legislature.
Last year, since lawmakers then also lacked a surplus of funds, they took from the pot designated for teacher assistants to pay, in part, for the teachers’ raises. Teacher assistant funding has already been cut back dramatically over the years, and last year hundreds of teacher assistant positions were eliminated once again thanks to a budgetary maneuver that siphoned $105 million away from TAs to pay for the raises.
Could lawmakers zero out the teacher assistant budget this year to pay for teachers’ raises, or will they raid another fund – like that of the beleaguered UNC system — to placate veteran teachers with higher pay?
Incentives to attract high quality teachers
Salaries alone aren’t the only agenda item when talking about teacher compensation. According to the North Carolina Association of Educators’ President Rodney Ellis, getting the salary supplement reinstated for teachers who hold advanced degrees is one of several top priorities for his group.
“We’ve got to restore master’s pay,” Ellis told N.C. Policy Watch.
Back in 2013, lawmakers did away with paying teachers more for obtaining advanced degrees – a move that many said would hurt North Carolina’s ability to attract and retain high quality teachers to the state’s classrooms.
While steps were taken to grandfather current advanced degree holders and those who were on track to receive advanced degrees, the new salary schedule lawmakers enacted last year doesn’t reward advanced training, something that Rep. Horn says he wants to fix.
Horn also wants to encourage differentiated pay options by offering higher salaries for high needs subject areas, such as math and science, and offer pay supplements to attract teachers to challenging geographic areas. It’s an initiative that was also introduced by Gov. McCrory last year during budget negotiations.
“We need more high quality teachers in inner city schools as well as extremely rural areas,” said Horn. “And we need to set up a system where our teachers who are high performing can make serious money. I want to keep high quality teachers in the classroom—I don’t want to chase them out into administration or other jobs.”
Folks on both sides of the political aisle are in agreement that students are subject to too many tests.
“We want to see a reduction in the number of high stakes tests students are required to take,” NCAE’s Ellis told N.C. Policy Watch, adding that reducing testing was another of the teachers’ association’s top priorities for this year’s legislative session.
Likewise, Rep. Horn was also concerned about the amount of testing going on in classrooms.
“We hear lots from teachers, parents, and kids about the burdensome testing regimen, and a lot of it is a result of [federal] Race to the Top money,” said Horn, who noted that those federal dollars are coming to an end soon.
Race to the Top funds largely paved the way for the arrival of the hotly contested Common Core State Standards, which North Carolina is currently reexamining with an eye toward repeal, possibly replacing them with home-grown, high quality alternatives.
“It’s time to look at the assessment regimen and look at what we need to do to allow teachers to teach to the subject and not to the test,” added Horn, who was a key lawmaker behind the creation of the review commission tasked with reviewing the Common Core.
Why students are subject to so many tests is a matter of dispute. Some attribute the increase in testing to the Common Core, while others say it’s a problem that goes back farther in time.
“The tests we see today are a result of the General Assembly’s requirements that were passed into law over the past several years, and the result of the federal No Child Left Behind law,” State Superintendent of Public Schools Dr. June Atkinson told N.C. Policy Watch last year.
“And those testing requirements were in existence before the Common Core standards were developed,” Atkinson said.
One piece of legislation that did unintentionally pave the way for increased assessment for some is the Read to Achieve act, authored by Senate leader Phil Berger.
Last spring, third graders were subject to as many as 36 assessments to determine whether or not they were reading-proficient by the end of the year. Those who were not proficient were unable to fully advance to the fourth grade.
Lawmakers could look for a legislative fix to reduce the amount of testing North Carolina’s eight-year-olds must undergo, and stakeholders such as the NC School Boards Association will also urge a second look at the retention, citing research that suggests that holding students back negatively impacts their academic performance over the long term.
Other key issues to watch
While teacher pay and testing are two of the hot button issues lawmakers are likely to tackle in 2015, there will also be many other items to watch when it comes to education.
Last year, lawmakers scrapped funding public schools on the basis of enrollment figures. Public schools that experience increases in student enrollment from one year to the next must now wait until state lawmakers finalize a budget for the next fiscal year to know if enrollment growth is fully funded. This could put a big squeeze on local districts that must fund enrollment growth and potentially never receive reimbursement from the state.
It’s unlikely that lawmakers will push any legislation related to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program (aka school vouchers), given that litigation appealing a Superior Court ruling that the program is unconstitutional will be heard by the state Supreme Court on February 17. But if the high court also finds the program to be unconstitutional, it’s conceivable that lawmakers could push a bill that would address the ruling and enable the program to continue on.
The NC School Boards Association plans to push legislation that would allow local boards of education to approve charter schools and keep them under their governance.
A-F school grades
Schools will receive grades based on their students’ performance on standardized tests on February 5, and some say the new 10 point grading scale (previously a 15 point scale) is too punitive and fails to adequately reflect schools’ improvement over time. Look for legislation that seeks to amend the formula to better account for student academic growth.
Last year, lawmakers put the burden on local districts to fund driver’s education beginning July 1, 2015. Only a small portion of the cost can be passed on to students, so the locals are scrambling to find funds to keep the statutorily-required programs going. The blowback from school leaders and parents who are unhappy about the prospect of increased local taxes to pay for driver’s ed could mean a legislative fix to provide sufficient state funds once again is in the works.
Lawmakers have phased out funding for the highly praised NC Teaching Fellows program, which awarded full college scholarships to North Carolina students who promised to teach in the state for at least four years. Funds were earmarked for Teach for America instead, even though some say the Teaching Fellows program retains more highly qualified teachers.
Funding for textbooks has fallen off a cliff over the past several years – in 2008 the state spent $119 million on textbooks, and that figure is now down to just $23 million. Students are working with dilapidated textbooks and teachers are dipping into their own pockets to provide students with the educational materials that are necessary for their academic success.
Follow education reporter @LindsayWagnerNC on Twitter for updates from the 2015 legislative session. You can also reach her at email@example.com.