North Carolina’s teachers will no longer face the choice of getting a pay raise or keeping their tenure.
Senate budget negotiators Tuesday abandoned their proposal to eliminate tenure in exchange for an 11 percent pay raise.
Though major issues remain, the offer removes another obstacle toward adoption of a state spending plan and adjournment of the legislative session.
Tenure allows public school teachers due-process hearings but does not prevent low-performing teachers from being fired. As many as 75 percent of teachers have tenure, according to the N.C. Association of Educators.
“By cutting the strings attaching the raise to voluntarily giving up tenure early, we’ve proven just how serious we are about giving teachers the largest pay raise in state history,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph.
The offer came during an open meeting of House and Senate negotiators trying to hammer out a $21 billion budget.
The Republican-led Senate would give teachers an 11 percent pay raise, lifting the average salary to $51,198. The House plan would raise teacher pay 5 percent.
In an interview after the session, Senate leader Phil Berger said he was even willing to reconsider cuts to teacher assistants, a major feature of the Senate budget.
House and Senate negotiators remain far apart on the main issues that have delayed the adoption of a revised state budget.
There’s no agreement on the size of teacher raises or how to pay for them. And the House and Senate disagree on how to overhaul the Medicaid program, government health insurance for poor children, their parents and elderly and disabled people.
Last year’s budget included a provision that would have phased out tenure by 2018. Teachers and the N.C. Association of Educators sued, and a Superior Court judge this May issued a permanent injunction with his ruling that taking tenure from teachers who had earned it was an unconstitutional taking of property rights.
The Senate came back in May with its budget proposal tying significant raises to tenure. Teachers who voluntarily gave up what’s called “career status” would have gotten more money. Pay would have been frozen this year for teachers who kept their tenure.
The latest Senate budget offer would uncouple tenure and raises.
Teachers applauded the plan.
“That’s very encouraging, we support that wholeheartedly,” said NCAE Vice President Mark Jewell. “We believe due process should never be compromised for a pay raise.”
Four teachers who traveled to Raleigh to lobby for raises Tuesday liked the Senate offer – as far as it went.
James Ford, a Garinger High teacher who was recently named state Teacher of the Year, went to Raleigh with three regional teachers of the year.
He called the latest developments “wonderful news,” but added that “we have a long way to go.”
But the Senate may not be giving up on its tenure campaign. Tillman said the Senate would propose separate tenure legislation.
“We’ll get rid of tenure in 2018,” he said. “That issue will be settled.”
The four teachers who traveled to Raleigh said they were encouraged by their talks with Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders and by the Senate’s concession on tenure. But they said they want to see the full education plan before celebrating.
“It’s encouraging to think they’re willing to affirm teachers,” said Kathy Saunders, a teacher at Asheboro High School. But “you can’t celebrate a teacher raise when you lose teacher assistants.”
“The teacher raise is important, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle,” agreed Chris Weaver, a third-grade teacher at Evergreen Community Charter School in Asheville. “I personally and professionally believe that teacher assistants in second and third grade are essential.”
Ford and the group met with House Speaker Thom Tillis and McCrory.
After the meeting, McCrory emphasized his and the teachers’ opposition to the teacher assistant cuts and teacher support for a plan that will lead to compensation for those who become leaders in their schools.
“I want a long-term plan to make it more than a career stop,” McCrory said.
Berger said after the budget negotiation that he was sticking with the 11 percent raises.
“But I don’t think we’re necessarily tied to the teacher assistant cuts,” the Eden Republican said. “We’re just looking for revenue.”
But GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews told fellow lawmakers that years of teacher assistants don’t seem to have made a difference in student performance. “That model,” he told fellow lawmakers, “isn’t working.”
“What the Senate is trying to do is find another model, and that is upgrade the quality of the teacher,” he said. “If you look at the big picture teacher assistants really haven’t functioned as well as people keep bragging about.”
Teacher advocates disagree.
“Anybody who tells you a highly qualified teacher assistant doesn’t work has clearly never stepped into a classroom,” Jewell said. “They do work, particularly in our high poverty schools.”
Staff writer Ann Doss Helms contributed.