One Republican agenda item for the 2014 legislative session appears clear: pay increases for teachers.
But as Republican legislative leaders began this month to look at how to boost stagnant salaries for educators, they are finding little agreement about how to make it work.
House and Senate leaders are moving in different directions. And both are confounded by how to pay for the raises, especially after GOP leaders passed a tax law that cut the corporate tax rate and lowered the individual tax rate to 5.8 percent for all individuals, a significant cut for those currently paying the 7.75 percent rate.
Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, said recently that he remains skeptical about an ultimate deal given the legislature’s posture toward education in this year’s session. “It’s important that educators stay engaged,” he said.
The lawmakers’ efforts, six months before the session reconvenes in May, are a reflection of the public outcry.
The average pay for North Carolina teachers was $45,947 for the 2011-2012 school year, compared with the national average of $55,418, ranking the state at No. 46 in the nation. Reports indicate some teachers are leaving the state to find better salaries in nearby states.
Teacher pay took its first hit under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue as she grappled with the state budget during the recession. Pay has since stagnated with only one pay raise in the past five years – 1.2 percent in 2012. Then last year, Republican lawmakers eliminated tenure and ended bonus pay for future teachers who earn master’s degrees.
Saying teachers have “legitimate gripes,” Gov. Pat McCrory is developing plans to pay them more, and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest even suggested that North Carolina teachers should be the highest-paid in the country, an unlikely scenario. New York currently has the highest average teacher pay at $73,398 according to the National Education Association.
But any discussion about a pay increase starts as a math problem. A 1 percent raise for state employees and teachers would cost about $160 million a year, legislative leaders said. It’s unlikely lawmakers would give teachers a raise without doing the same for other state workers.
“Cost is a big obstacle,” said Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Republican House budget writer.
Even with the state’s financial situation improving, costs related to Medicaid, a health care program for low-income residents, are still growing at an unpredictable rate, lawmakers said.
Republican budget writers left $251 million unspent in the current fiscal year, which began July 1, and $356 million on the table in fiscal year 2015. Outgoing Senate budget writer Pete Brunstetter, a Winston-Salem Republican, said the money could be used for salary increases if other areas of the budget don’t overshoot projections. “We agreed with the House that we would discuss compensation with all state employees when we get to the short session,” he said.
Restore annual pay hikes
Despite the building momentum, the state House and Senate are not united on how help teachers.
In the House, Holloway is drafting legislation that would restore annual pay hikes for teachers based on years of service. Teachers are still accumulating service years, but in fiscal year 2009, state lawmakers suspended the pay bumps that come with each step.
“We definitely need to show our educators that we appreciate them,” said Holloway, a former social studies teacher from King. “I know they feel beaten up and that they are not appreciated.”
But reactivating the pay schedule is a costly undertaking. A rough estimate indicates it may cost $1 billion. Holloway said such a move, if even possible, would be phased in over the course of three or five years.
Though his concept is still being formulated, Holloway said he is finding support inside the Republican majority. “I think we all have an attitude that we want to do something for teachers, but we just don’t have our thumb on what we want to do.”
But House Speaker Thom Tillis said it is too early to draft proposals. “We are sensitive to the issues of pay raises, but putting any pen to paper or numbers right now is premature,” said Chris Hayes, the speaker’s chief of staff.
Senate has different approach
In the Senate, the approach is cautious. But Sen. Jerry Tillman, an education budget writer, said the impetus is present. “There is a will to do something for our teachers,” said Tillman, a retired public school administrator from Archdale.
Concerned about training teachers who then leave the state for better paying jobs, Tillman said his focus is raising entry-level salaries, which are currently about $30,000.
“I don’t want teachers or anyone else to think Republicans aren’t trying to increase their lot,” he said. “We have to find the money, and you are talking about a pretty good price tag.”
But Tillman is keen on linking pay increases to student performance, a point of contention among teachers and lawmakers. He wants to pay the teachers he feels are the most deserving, though exactly how he would accomplish this remains unclear. “We have to pay for results,” he said.
He said Holloway’s proposal to increase pay across the board will face opposition, particularly because of its cost. It also pays for experience and not necessarily performance. “I don’t think we can do it,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers are skeptical of the GOP focus on teacher pay in an election year.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat, said Republicans are following the playbook of the previous session, in which they approved the 1.2 percent pay increase after cutting education budgets a year earlier.
Glazier said he expects the same pattern in the short session in May. “There is no question in my mind they are going to alleviate some of the harm they’ve done in the spring,” said Glazier, a top Democrat on the education budget committee. “They are going to go to the public and say ‘vote for us in November.’”
When lawmakers reconvene, all other issues should be secondary to increasing teacher pay, Glazier said. He said he wants to see a “sustained series of raises” at 5 percent a year until North Carolina’s average teacher pay approaches the national average. It would require roughly a $10,000 boost from North Carolina’s current average pay, according to National Education Association figures.
But Glazier said a piecemeal approach to raises won’t work.
“Otherwise, we are simply going to fall behind or remain constant,” he said.
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