The rhetoric and reality of teacher pay and investments in education

The rhetoric and reality of teacher pay and investments in education

- in Fitzsimon File

There is some good news in Raleigh these days for teachers. The state’s top political figures are currently arguing about who is more committed to raising teacher pay in the next few years.

Well one side is arguing anyway—and childishly at that.

It’s not Governor Roy Cooper, who this week released a straightforward proposal to raise teacher pay to the national average in five years beginning with a five percent increase each of the next two years.

Republican leaders, instead of applauding Cooper’s proposal or saying that they look forward to working with him to improving public schools or even reserving judgment until they saw the details of the plan, took cheap partisan shots instead.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he was “pleased that Roy Cooper has finally joined legislative efforts to undo the damage of years of Democratic teacher furloughs and teacher pay freezes.”

Berger and other Republicans like to bring up the pay freezes but never mention that North Carolina, like the rest of the nation, was mired in the Great Recession at the time and thanks to federal stimulus money and a tax increase avoided layoffs or even closing schools temporarily.

Berger and his fellow Republicans opposed both the stimulus plan and the tax hike at the time. Things would have been much worse for teachers and schools if they had prevailed.

It is also worth remembering that many Republicans and their ideological supporters spent many years complaining about investments in “government monopoly schools” and criticizing teachers for not working hard and having summers off.

During the 2013 legislative session, with Republicans in control of the House and Senate and Republican Governor Pat McCrory in office and despite a recovering economy, House and Senate leaders slashed more than 5,000 teaching jobs and more than 3,000 teacher assistant positions and didn’t give teachers a raise.

They decided instead to give massive tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.

That left the state ranked 46th in teacher salaries and even closer to the bottom in per-pupil spending and prompted widespread outrage from teachers and school officials and parents—Republicans and Democrats alike.

Republicans finally realized their woeful underfunding of public education was wildly unpopular with voters so they started raising teacher pay in the last few years, though the state still ranks 41st in the country and the average salary remains lower than in every state that borders North Carolina.

Per pupil spending is still 44th in the nation and funding for textbooks and supplies and teacher assistants remains well below pre-recession levels.  Pay for principals ranks 50th.

But the tax cuts have kept coming, and the reductions since 2013 will soon cost the state $2 billion a year. That’s a lot of books and TAs and pay raises.

There is talk of still more tax cuts this year and the corporate income tax just went down again thanks to a trigger put in the law.

But at least legislative leaders agree that teachers deserve higher pay and maybe once they get all of the petty partisan press releases out of their system they can work with Cooper to get teacher salaries to the national average which he has been advocating for years.

And while the national average is an important measuring stick, it shouldn’t be the final goal. Students in North Carolina deserve teachers that earn more than their counterparts in the average state.

But teacher pay alone is not enough.  Teachers and schools need more investments across the board, in supplies, schools nurses, smaller classes, teacher assistants, counselors and other supports for students and parents.  Just getting back to pre-recession levels would be a start.

And then there is NC PreK—thousands of at-risk four-year-olds continue to languish on a waiting list for program that studies show improves a at-risk child’s chance of succeeding in school.

The Republicans in the General Assembly are funding fewer slots today in the pre-k program than were funded 9 years even though state revenues have grown dramatically.

Cooper’s plan for teacher pay is a good start and if legislative leaders want more political credit for supporting teachers and public schools, they should make more investments in education this year instead of cutting taxes again.

Enough with the childish press releases rewriting history. Let’s see legislative leaders this year put their money where their rhetoric is and actually make education a priority for a change.