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Forward, back on teacher pay

At least one thing is certain about the teacher pay plan unveiled Wednesday by N.C. Senate Republicans: It shows what lawmakers can do when they put their mind to it.

The plan, announced by Senate leader Phil Berger, would boost teacher pay by an average of 11 percent – the largest increase in N.C. history, Berger says. It’s significantly more than Gov. Pat McCrory proposed this month in his teacher pay plan, and it would lift North Carolina all the way from 46th to 27th in the nation in teacher pay.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

The plan, however, comes with a big question – and an even bigger caveat.

The question: How will the state pay for the proposal’s $468 million cost? Berger says it will require no tax increase; instead, the money will come from “recurring dollars.” That doesn’t really tell us much, but more details should arrive with a full examination of the Republican budget, which was released late Wednesday. McCrory’s teacher pay plan was offset in part by $49 million in cuts to higher education. Will Senate Republicans inflict similar pain on N.C. programs in order for teachers to get their raises?

Then there’s the plan’s caveat: If teachers want to receive the substantial pay increase Republicans are offering, they must give up the “career status” – or tenure – that N.C. law guarantees. Republicans already tried to eliminate tenure last year, but a Superior Court judge ruled this month that it is unconstitutional to take that career status away from teachers who already have earned it.

Now Republicans are trying to make teachers give tenure up “voluntarily” by dangling the pay increase in front of them. We’re not sure how the two – tenure and pay – are otherwise connected. Tenure offers teachers two primary protections – a hearing process when a teacher is being dismissed or demoted for any of 15 reasons that include poor performance and neglect of duty, plus a similar hearing process when a teacher is dismissed because of budget or staffing issues.

Both protections make it more time consuming and costly to fire teachers, but neither is costly enough to be paired with teacher pay, as Senate Republicans are doing. If they want to argue that teachers don’t deserve protection from layoffs that most of the rest of us don’t get, as Berger suggested Wednesday, that’s a legitimate and separate debate to have. But to finally give teachers the raise they’ve earned, only to make them give up the tenure they’ve also earned, is unfair.

Lawmakers should take up tenure later and concentrate on the intended task at hand – raising the pay of our public school teachers. As Senate Republicans and the governor are showing, it’s something that’s within reach, if they want it to be.

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