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A chance for governor, legislators to be heroes

You’ve heard the outcry over teacher pay in North Carolina. But do you recognize just how much worse North Carolina has been than every other state in the nation over the past decade?

North Carolina ranks dead last – 51st – in what has happened with teacher pay in recent years, and we’re not even close to 50th. Average teacher pay in the state dropped nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012 when adjusted for inflation. The median change across all states was a 1 percent drop. Average N.C. teacher pay rose almost 8 percent during that time in raw numbers. But the median state rose 26 percent, and North Carolina again ranks a distant last.

That all puts North Carolina 46th overall for teacher pay, $9,500 behind the national average and ahead of only New Mexico, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Dakota.

Clearly it’s time to act, and the Republicans who control state government recognize that. Legislative leaders say they want to do something, and Gov. Pat McCrory told the Observer editorial board last week that he’s willing to spend political capital to get it done.

“I don’t think we have any choice,” McCrory told us. “Being 48th in the nation is unacceptable and I think we’ll get good return on our investment.”

Some have alleged that Republicans’ new-found desire to raise teacher pay is just a political calculation in an election year. We don’t really know or care whether it is or isn’t. All that matters is that the legislature and governor agree on a sustained commitment to getting N.C. teacher pay where it needs to be. And remember: Democrats were in charge for most of that decade when North Carolina was tumbling down the rankings.

The question is whether the governor and legislators will make meaningful progress. The public needs to keep the pressure on them to do so. The business community – which has legislators’ ears – should also give them cover by pushing for it to be their highest priority. The quality of teaching in this state, after all, certainly affects our economy.

There are legitimate questions around what a pay raise plan should look like. The biggest is whether the legislature can give teachers a raise without giving the same raise to all state employees. That is purely a political question, and the answer is yes. It wouldn’t be popular, of course, but it would be far more affordable, and it would help recruit and retain the brightest people to shape young minds and our state’s future.

Other questions: Do teachers of harder-to-fill subjects get bigger rewards? Should most of the raise pool go to boost entry-level pay or to reward experience? Should the raise be across the board or tied to specific performance measures? (Both, we think.) And how does the state pay for it?

McCrory must figure out the answers and persuade members of both parties to get on board in the short session that starts May 14. He has a blueprint: In 1997, N.C. teacher pay ranked 42nd. Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, crusaded on raising it to the national average over four years. Republican House Speaker Harold Brubaker joined him, and large bipartisan majorities pushed North Carolina’s ranking up dramatically.

McCrory and this legislature should do the same. It’s past time.

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