A pivotal legislative task force may be just beginning its dive into North Carolina’s school funding maze, but lawmakers’ hints that they may abolish the state’s teacher salary schedule or other state-set funding allocations is already spurring criticism from local district advocates.
Talk of nixing a state-set pay scale emerged this year when lawmakers took on a revamp of school principal pay, and it’s resurfaced multiple times in the Joint Legislative Task Force on Education Finance Reform ’s first meetings in November.
Yet local district leaders and their advocates in Raleigh say the proposal may only exacerbate the state’s looming pay disparities between wealthy and poor counties, spur employment lawsuits and complicate matters for local school boards.
Sen. Jerry Tillman, a powerful Randolph County Republican and majority whip in the state Senate, suggested to legislators this month that North Carolina should retain a scant few of its 37 separate K-12 funding allotments—allotments for students with limited English proficiency, students with disabilities and low-wealth counties.
All other K-12 funding, including teacher pay, could be dispersed via large, all-purpose grants to local districts. District leaders would then set their own pay and funding parameters. “It’s basically who do you trust to handle this funding?” said Tillman. “Are we going to trust the school board, the superintendent?”
Rep. Hugh Blackwell, an influential Burke County Republican, also raised the prospect of ditching the state’s teacher pay schedule this week, pointing out North Carolina is one of just three states in the country that mandate a full salary schedule.
Twelve states set a minimum pay scale and allow local districts to exceed that number, somewhat akin to the way local supplements allow certain North Carolina districts to offer more lucrative pay today. But the majority of states, according to the Education Commission of the States , an interstate compact of K-12 policymakers, stay out of scale-making altogether.
The North Carolina task force’s co-chair, Union County Republican Craig Horn, said it’s too soon to say whether the panel—which is expected to take two years or more to complete its work —will ultimately pursue the grant proposals hinted at by top GOP legislators.
But the reform would mark a major change for the state’s 115 local school districts, one that would somewhat insulate state legislators from frequent criticism over lagging teacher pay. GOP budget writers have been besieged in recent years by complaints that the state legislature has allowed North Carolina teacher pay to wither in national rankings since the 2008 recession.
As of 2016, North Carolina ranked 41st in the nation, according to one national benchmark, although recent pay increases approved by the legislature were projected to lift the state to 35th in 2017. 
The state’s teacher pay struggles coincide with massive teacher shortages in many of the state’s 100 counties, as well as a substantial drop in students seeking teaching degrees in the UNC system.
Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators  (NCAE), the top lobbying organization for North Carolina teachers, said lawmakers’ invitation to ditch the salary schedule would be “short-sighted,” adding it may “jeopardize teacher retention and recruiting.”
“Instead, our elected leaders should be focused on how to make the schedule reflect more of a professional compensation, increase the salary cap which drives experienced educators out of the classroom, and restore pay for Master’s degrees and advanced degree pay,” said Jewell. “North Carolina still remains $9,000 behind the national average in teacher pay and $3,000 behind in per-pupil spending, which is unacceptable.”
Katherine Joyce is executive director of the N.C. Association of School Administrators  (NCASA), which lobbies for local school chiefs at the legislature. The NCASA strongly opposed a push from Tillman last year to eschew the state’s principal pay scale in a similar fashion .
Like Jewell, she said some lawmakers’ inclination to do away with the state’s top-down salary scale could be problematic.
“If they dig into this issue, they will see there are a lot of unintended consequences that could come about,” said Joyce.
Joyce says districts could see yawning inequities in pay between rich and poor counties, on top of increased litigation stemming from pay disparities. Joyce added that the burden may be too heavy for local districts, which would have to prepare their own pay schedules or negotiate scores of teacher contracts.
Mike Griffith, a school finance expert with the Education Commission of the States, says that, in some ways, the fears may be overblown.
“People get really nervous that it’s going to mean fewer teachers, that they’ll divert those resources away or it’ll result in lower teacher salaries,” said Griffith. “But that nervousness usually goes away pretty soon because I’ve never seen a district lower teacher pay when they get more freedom.”
Griffith added that districts would also develop their own pay-scales, avoiding “free agent” bidding wars every year.
But he says concerns about worsening pay gaps between wealthy and poor counties may be well-founded, even if states adopt a similar approach to lawmakers in Tennessee and several other southern states, which implemented minimum pay requirements for districts.
“You will see some separation of salaries of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’” he said. “The low-wealth counties will be right at the minimum. And what we hear from these low-wealth districts is ‘we just can’t compete.’”
But Joyce expressed some skepticism this week that lawmakers’ talk will lead to action in the near future, a sentiment shared by Horn, who argued the task force is still working to understand the complexities of the state funding system before embarking upon major changes.
“I don’t sense that there is a real desire to give total flexibility to school districts, to hand them the block grant and say, ‘Here’s your money, go spend it how you see fit,’” adds Joyce. “The state wants to maintain some control. And block grant funding seems absolutely opposite to the approach we’ve seen lawmakers take on things like class-size limits.”
In that controversy, a state-ordered mandate for districts to trim class sizes in early grades stirred a still-brewing pushback  over efforts to curtail local school board’s flexibility to juggle staff and funding to meet their needs.
Blackwell said this week that lawmakers, as they consider a major facelift for the state’s funding allocation system, will have to balance local district flexibility with maintaining accountability for struggling school systems.
A NCASA panel of local and state school finance experts has prepared an unpublished report with recommendations for the task force, Joyce said this week, although it’s unclear when legislators will hear the details of the group’s proposals.
In the meantime, Horn isn’t ruling anything out, acknowledging the push to nix salary schedules will need to be studied in the coming months.
“One of the problems we see in society today is people make decisions way too early in the process and therefore tend to exclude themselves from new information because they’ve already positioned themselves for or against something,” said Horn. “I try very hard not to do that.”