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A troubling sign for teacher pay

As a veteran state representative, Mecklenburg’s Tricia Cotham was encouraged by the first meeting of a legislative task force on teacher pay in February. The task force included 10 non-legislative members of the education community – unusual for such a committee – and those members were told they would discuss and propose solutions about how to better pay the state’s teachers.

But as a former teacher and school administrator, Cotham was worried that educators might ultimately be disappointed. She’d been a part of too many legislatures that didn’t come through for teachers, and she knew that task forces were sometimes more about political theater than progress. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she told the editorial board Wednesday.

Sure enough, when Cotham and other task force members were emailed a draft of its final report last week, it was short on perspectives from educators and education advocates. A subsequent task force meeting Monday changed little; the final report continued to exclude recommendations such as an increase in pay across the board for N.C. teachers, who are currently among the worst-paid in the country.

It’s a clear sign that despite assurances from Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican leaders that N.C. teachers should be paid more, most of them will be neglected again this year.

The 18-member task force, which was led by Republican Rep. Rob Bryan of Charlotte and Republican Sen. Jerry Tillman of Archdale, issued 11 findings and four goals. None veered far from proposals that McCrory and other Republicans have made, including an immediate salary increase for starting teachers only. Most involved general concepts and platitudes – “educators need a competitive salary,” said one – then urged the legislature to get to work studying those issues.

“A cop out,” says Cotham. “Very soft,” said task force member Ellen McIntyre, dean of the UNC Charlotte School of Education. McIntyre said she expected the Monday meeting to be about debating specifics for the final draft. It wasn’t. She voted for the final report anyway, she said, because the alternative was voting to send nothing.

Bryan says the task force was never supposed to issue specific recommendations, although that’s exactly what it did in urging the General Assembly to “significantly increase the salaries for entering teachers.”

Cotham and others on the task force would have included more specifics, most notably increasing the salaries of all teachers to bring them in line with neighboring states and national averages. Even if Bryan and others didn’t agree, the proposals were supported by enough members that they deserved mention in the final findings and recommendations.

Why didn’t that happen? Because, apparently, the task force wasn’t about debating the best way to reform teacher compensation. It’s about Republicans being able to say a bipartisan committee of lawmakers and education professionals has issued recommendations that – surprise – support just what they’ve been proposing all along.

The task force could have done more than that. Members thought it was going to. Instead, they got an education in politics.

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