Weeks after a legislative plan to scrap North Carolina’s school principal pay schedule drew a swift rebuke from educators, top state Republicans are seemingly backing off on the controversial proposal while pushing forward with at least modest raises for the state’s underpaid administrators.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, an influential state Republican representing Moore and Randolph counties, told lawmakers in an administrator pay study group this week that district superintendents across the state were “scared” of a proposal floated by lawmakers last month that would have done away with the salary schedule—which sets a floor for pay based on experience and credentials.
But at least a five percent bump in the state’s base pay for school administrators, which ranks a lowly 50th in the U.S., will be on the front-burner, according to Tillman, a former school administrator himself.
“Over the next few weeks, we’re going to work to come up with a plan that makes sense,” he said.
At the heart of the debate, legislators are hoping to boost principal pay and improve a much-criticized salary schedule riddled with inconsistencies. However, critics warned a Tillman-led proposal to completely nix the principal salary schedule and create a pot of funds for local districts to negotiate principal salaries themselves would spur inequalities in pay between rich and poor counties and “sweetheart” deals for principals with friends on local school boards.
Tillman didn’t rule out his earlier proposal completely this week, but he said lawmakers should be moving aggressively to confront the problem in North Carolina.
“You’re not going to have a good school if you don’t pay the principal,” he said.
Raising the base pay would cost the state between $30 million and $50 million to implement, lawmakers estimated, although legislators are also expected to push for differentiated pay schedules that reward administrators making academic gains as well as boosted training.
At one point, lawmakers also talked of a special fund to incentivize school administrator posts in low-income and rural counties, where experts say recruiting has been especially fallow.
Brenda Berg, president and CEO of Best N.C., a coalition of business leaders pushing education reform, pointed to wildly varying local supplements for administrators in wealthy and poor counties in the state, including a $14,000 gulf in pay in neighboring Wake and Franklin counties.
Study group members have yet to schedule another meeting this year, but lawmakers are expected to move quickly in the coming weeks to ready legislation and budget figures before the General Assembly returns for its long session in late January.
Principal pay, while often overshadowed by public debates over lagging teacher pay in North Carolina, has emerged as a keynote item for Republican education leaders as they prep for a 2017 return.
While the reforms affect a small portion of state workers—officials said it would impact a few thousand administrators—leaders say it’s a pivotal discussion nonetheless.
Research suggests top-notch school leadership can have a dramatic impact on student performance, particularly in low-income locales, but state leaders say North Carolina’s ability to recruit star principals and assistant principals has been badly blunted by poor pay and a sometimes irrational salary schedule divorced from teachers’ pay schedule.
For instance, a long criticized inconsistency in the teacher and principal salary schedules may allow some experienced teachers to earn more in base state pay than assistant principals who outrank them.
“We are really in crisis mode,” says Shirley Prince, executive director of the N.C. Principals and Assistant Principals Association, a Raleigh-based group advocating for school administrators at the General Assembly.
“Without a great principal at the helm, every penny you’ve invested in the schools will not be maximized,” adds Prince.
A.L. “Buddy” Collins, vice chairman of the N.C. State Board of Education, agrees, although he joined a host of local district leaders in cautioning lawmakers against nixing the salary schedule altogether.
“I would encourage you not to go that fast and in that direction at this time,” said Collins.
Nevertheless, the prospect of change for North Carolina school principals seems especially bright this year with the momentum in the legislature.
Rep. Craig Horn, an influential K-12 budget writer from Union County who co-chairs the state House Education Appropriations Committee, pointed out many can agree on the need for action, although he noted that, with total cost estimates still pending, lawmakers may have to rank their priorities.
“I don’t want anyone to go away thinking we’re going to fix this in one fell swoop,” said Horn.
Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican who co-chairs the K-12 budget committee with Horn, seemed to agree, indicating he expects reform to be a multi-year process.
And while it seems likely that Democrat Roy Cooper—who campaigned bullishly on public school investment—may soon hold the governor’s seat in North Carolina, current Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration seems to back reforms in administrator pay too.
Catherine Truitt, a senior education adviser for McCrory, said this week it’s an item she’s “very excited” about, adding that she was once a teacher who left her position because of poor school leadership.
A good administrator “is not a silver bullet,” Truitt said. “But it’s the closest thing we’ve got.”
Indeed, experts say North Carolina leaders should take note of the mounting evidence that, in addition to quality teachers, top-flight principals and assistant principals can have a dramatic impact on beleaguered schools.
Steve Tozer is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he helped found a much-lauded principal prep program that’s reported sizable progress in many of Chicago’s poorest schools. Tozer says the focus on school leadership is worth it for North Carolina. It was certainly worth the investment for Chicago, a city chockablock with lagging, low-income schools.
Tozer said his program’s principals consistently outperform other schools in the state, particularly when it comes to teaching low-income and minority children.
“Chicago has no business being on an upward trajectory,” said Tozer. “And yet we are because we have focused on principals.”
Experts such as Tozer say improved training, greater pay and a better salary schedule will all be key if North Carolina wants to draw in and retain talented administrators.
And while a number of details remain up in the air and lawmakers have yet to produce legislation taking action, state education leaders such as Collins seem optimistic that the legislature’s discussion of North Carolina’s long-standing principal pay problem will yield results in the coming year.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a constructive pay proposal that will directly impact performance in the classroom,” said Collins.