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How to craft a teacher pay plan

It may be both exhilarating and excruciating this week to be an N.C. teacher watching N.C. lawmakers decide how much of raise you might finally get.

The exhilarating part: Legislators are talking about anything from the 5 percent raise that’s in the House budget (as well as a separate proposal from Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis) to an 11 percent raise championed by Senate leader Phil Berger. Each of those plans also includes schedules for future raises, as well as incentive pay for other achievements.

The excruciating part: No one has agreed on anything definitive, and talks aren’t going smoothly. On Wednesday, Senate budget negotiators walked out of a meeting with House colleagues after the House negotiators wanted to hear from critics of proposed Senate cuts to teacher assistants. It’s possible that the House and Senate will refuse to compromise and punt teacher pay to a later session.

That delay is unlikely, however, given the widespread acknowledgment among lawmakers that N.C. teachers have waited long enough for better pay. So what’s the best way to get there? Here’s how Raleigh can craft a teacher pay plan worth passing.

How much to pay: It’s likely that lawmakers land between a 5 percent and 11 percent raise, but what’s equally important is that each of the proposed plans offers a compensation structure that ensures teacher healthier pay throughout their careers. One caveat: The Senate plan doesn’t offer raises for teachers in years 20-29. The initial House plan supported by McCrory cut off raises after 36 years, as the current state structure does, affecting an estimated 1,500 teachers.

We don’t like the message either plan sends to experienced teachers. If those teachers are performing well, they should be valued the same as others.

How to pay for it: This is where budget negotiators have the most work to do. House negotiators need to abandon the fantasy of paying for teacher raises by increasing lottery advertising and hoping more people play. Senate negotiators should abandon the notion of paying for the raises in part by cutting 7,000 teacher assistants. The latter would mean offering teachers more money but making their jobs harder and hurting their classrooms.

A reasonable alternative: The McCrory/Tillis plan relies on $116 million from past-year lottery surpluses, plus $81.6 million once earmarked for reserves. At the least, teacher raises shouldn’t be paid for by inflicting pain on other critical resources or programs.

Teacher tenure: Senate leaders have wisely removed a provision that would have given substantial raises only to teachers who choose to give up tenure protections. There’s a legitimate debate to have on teacher tenure. Keep it out of the teacher pay discussion.

Finally, the target: Each plan lacks one important item – a goal. That may seem cosmetic, but having a stated target for teacher raises – reaching the national average, for example – holds lawmakers accountable and gives teachers concrete comfort about how their pay matches up with peers.

Two decades ago, Gov. Jim Martin set an teacher pay goal of reaching the national average in four years. Lawmakers went to work. The state reached its target. Let’s do it again, smartly.

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