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Teachers get higher pay but give up tenure in NC Senate GOP plan

By J. Andrew Curliss, Lynn Bonner and Ann Doss Helms
acurliss@newsobserver.com lbonner@newsobserver.com
hartzell
Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
Sterling Elementary School teacher Dave Hartzell greets students l-r Meria Chitpanya, Katia Romero and A'niyah White from his class. Dave Hartzell is a teacher who won't be back next year. He and his wife just had a baby, and they can't afford to keep living on a teacher salary, he says. He's one of the stars, the principal says, and has created the 40 Book Project to send libraries of donated books home with students.

RALEIGH Republicans in the state Senate are set to propose a major overhaul of how classroom teachers are paid in North Carolina, including a pathway to substantial pay raises for teachers who choose to give up tenure. Teachers who want to keep job protections that come with tenure would stay on the current plan – and face stagnant pay.

Draft budget documents obtained by The (Raleigh) News & Observer indicate that Senate leaders are planning to spend as much as $468 million more on teacher pay in the next budget year – a significant amount that would provide an average raise of 11 percent for teachers who move to the new pay plan.

With Republicans pledging to avoid tax increases, it is not clear where the money to fund that scale of raises would come from, or what areas of the public education system or elsewhere in state government would face cuts to direct more money to lagging teacher pay.

Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, ruled out tax increases a few weeks ago.

Gov. Pat McCrory cut 2 percent from the UNC system to help balance his budget and its more modest plan for teacher raises. McCrory proposed spending about one-fourth the amount on teacher raises compared with the Senate plan.

And there was some discussion in the Senate last year about closing one or more campuses in the UNC system.

Berger has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday to “make a major education announcement.” His office declined to comment late Tuesday. Senate Republicans met behind closed doors for several hours on Tuesday to discuss their version of the budget.

Senate leaders are expected to present their complete budget plan later this week, with the teacher plan within it.

The latest documents suggest a change of strategy in Republican attempts to end tenure and link pay and employment to performance. Last year the legislature voted to end tenure in 2018 and provide small merit-based raises, an approach that a judge has blocked. The current plan forces teachers to make a choice, something national experts say no other state has done.

The Senate plan provides significant raises, at a time when public frustration over low teacher pay is at a boil. A new national tally of average teacher salaries shows North Carolina at 48th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, having slipped below New Mexico and West Virginia since the last list.

Like the governor’s plan, the Senate proposal provides big bumps in the early years of teachers’ career, when they’re building skills and often making decisions about whether to stay in the state or in the profession.

While some say they want to know more, Erlene Lyde of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators called the plan “a deal with the devil,” trying to entice teachers to give up their job protections when there’s no guarantee of sustained money for raises. “You’re turning teachers into at-will employees,” said Lyde, a veteran high school teacher.

The Senate’s plan would:

• Create a new pay schedule that has substantial increases built in. Some teachers would see 16 percent to 20 percent increases in pay. In exchange, those teachers who choose the new plan, which is called “professional status” in the documents, would relinquish longevity pay and tenure, which is officially called “career status.”

• Keep pay flat for teachers who keep their tenure.

• Continue to pay teachers an additional 10 percent for having a master’s degree or having started work on one and an additional 12 percent for holding national board certification.

• Jump North Carolina teachers from among the lowest nationally in teacher pay to somewhere in the middle of the pack, depending on which measure is used. North Carolina teachers would be among the highest paid in the Southeast under the Senate plan. Rankings of teacher pay in the state has become a potent political issue, and the movement to address that is reflected in the new plan.

• Repeal a law that had forced schools to eliminate tenure. Two state judges have said the law was unconstitutional, but Republicans had backed it as a necessary reform to increase student outcomes.

Rumors have been circulating that the Senate budget would include a big teacher raise, but representatives from the N.C. Association of Educators and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say it's hard to react without knowing where the money comes from.

NCAE spokeswoman Stephanie Bass said her group has heard it will come from Medicaid cuts. “Some (cuts) are worse than others, but none of them are very good and none of them would make us happy,” she said.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison said he also wants to know details of the plan and how it affects other areas of spending before he comments.

Plateaus of pay

Republicans have been focused on eliminating a long-standing system of pay for teachers that is based on a teacher’s years in the job; the highest-paid teachers are the longest-serving ones.

The new plan creates plateaus of pay that are higher than the current schedule. For example, a starting teacher would be paid $33,000 per year for the first four years, under the draft plan. Currently, the pay schedule pays a starting salary of $30,800 for a teacher’s first six years.

The current plan and the proposed plan take different paths after the beginning years, too. The new plan would add $1,000 a year until the 21st year, where it levels out at $50,000 through year 30. After 30 years, a teacher gets a 1 percent bonus. The current plan pays a teacher at 20 years a salary of $41,710, but it keeps rising each year.

Still, the effort by Republicans to tie pay to performance would remain.

Local school boards would be required to offer four-year performance-based contracts to the top 25 percent of nontenured teachers for the 2014-15 school year. Those teachers would receive an additional $500 in base pay the first year, rising to $2,000 by the fourth year.

Starting in the 2015-16 school year, school systems could offer a similar bonus that would cover, in all, up to 35 percent of its teachers.

Jacob Vigdor, an education expert from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, said it’s not likely the state will see big changes in teaching rosters if the Senate plan is adopted.

Teachers secure in their jobs would be willing to exchange tenure for raises, he said, while teachers who are nervous about their jobs because they don’t get along with their supervisors or feel under-appreciated will keep their tenure and raises.

Changing tenure unique

Two national experts said a statewide plan asking teachers to trade tenure for a higher pay scale would be unique.

The District of Columbia school system asked teachers to give up tenure in order to opt into a higher scale, but no states have done so, said Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan education reform group based in Washington, D.C.

She said North Carolina is among only 15 states that still have a state salary scale, “and they generally have not been the ones changing tenure policies.”

A spokeswoman for the National Education Association said that other states have eliminated tenure for new hires, but the group’s legal counsel is not aware of any that have asked teachers who already have tenure to give it up for higher pay.

The bulk of the new money is directed largely at classroom teachers, which is reflective of research cited repeatedly by Republicans in focusing on improving student learning. They cite studies that say teacher quality is essential to student performance but that other personnel do not have the same impact.

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