Raise teacher pay – but how?

Gov. Pat McCrory previewed a plan for improving teacher pay to several North Carolina superintendents Monday and will unveil it to the public this week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison said.

The remarks came after last-minute twists at a forum on teacher pay sponsored by The Charlotte Observer and PNC Bank, which drew about 350 educators, students, elected officials and advocates to Central Piedmont Community College on Monday. State legislators and local officials who spoke on the panel agree that North Carolina teachers deserve better pay.

“It’s embarrassing,” state Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, said of the state’s low national ranking. He added that there is “a need and a will to increase teacher pay,” though the amount remains unclear.

“I’ve always been one who nurtures teachers, sees them in my classroom and encourages them to go into the profession,” said Erlene Lyde, a West Charlotte High School teacher. “I can’t honestly do that anymore.”

Morrison told the crowd that he hopes McCrory’s plan “can be something that everybody rallies behind.”

He said afterward that the plan will go beyond the early-career raise plan announced in February and provide better pay for all.

“I believe it’s going to be bold,” Morrison said, declining to elaborate. He said he’s still reviewing details, but “I support it in theory.”

State Rep. Rob Bryan, a Mecklenburg Republican, said after the forum that he has also been briefed on the governor’s plan. He said he can’t disclose details, but it shares some of the elements of the CarolinaCAN proposal outlined in Sunday’s Observer.

That plan, proposed by a group that advocates for changes in teacher pay and evaluation, includes providing across-the-board raises with bigger boosts for teachers early in their careers, restoring pay for those with master’s degrees who have demonstrated a link to student achievement, and creating new jobs for classroom teachers to earn higher pay.

The forum, moderated by WBTV’s Paul Cameron, came as state lawmakers and local leaders prepare to confront what many say is a crisis in teacher pay and morale. It was designed to bring together people affected by the issue with key decision-makers, as the state legislature and local governments prepare to make key decisions about teacher pay.

Eric Guckian, McCrory’s senior education adviser, had agreed to be on the panel but canceled Monday afternoon, saying McCrory had him busy in Raleigh working on “education issues both short and long term.” Tarte, who was among several legislators in the audience, agreed to step in, joining state Reps. Bryan and Tricia Cotham; Mecklenburg County commissioner Dumont Clarke; Lyde, who is vice president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators; and Morrison.

‘Let’s give voters a choice’

Several audience members pressed for details about finding money to boost teacher pay. After several years of pay freezes, North Carolina has slipped from near the national average to 46th in the nation on teacher pay. No state has seen bigger declines in inflation-adjusted dollars, and teacher turnover is at a 10-year high in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Arthur Griffin, a former CMS board chairman, suggested holding a statewide or county referendum on a tax for teacher raises. “Since we love choice so much in this state, let’s give voters a choice,” Griffin said, referring to various proposals to let families choose schools.

Morrison said polls consistently show that voters would support a tax increase if it went toward teacher pay.

Clarke, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the county commissioners, speculated about using a quarter-cent local-option sales tax for that purpose. The county can add the tax with voter permission but cannot designate it for a specific purpose, though commissioners could make it clear they plan to use the money for teacher raises, he said.

“We might actually have that opportunity,” he said.

Some speakers asked legislators to explain last year’s decisions, such as ending tenure and pay for master’s degrees.

Bryan said he has talked to superintendents and other educators about tenure: “Most teachers I talked to, they’re not concerned about it,” he said, to skeptical sounds from the audience.

Jerold Griggs, a Kannapolis Middle School math teacher, said he had started working on his master’s degree last summer, only to have state lawmakers take away his eligibility for a 10 percent raise.

“When we make a mistake, we need to correct it. That was a mistake,” Tarte said. He said teachers who had already enrolled in a master’s program before last summer’s vote will be grandfathered into the old pay scale. Lawmakers can discuss whether to restore the additional pay for some who enroll in the future, he said.

A price tag on performance?

Other speakers posed questions about tying teacher pay to student test scores and other measures of performance. Kirby Overcash, an Independence High science teacher, said when firefighters and police officers get raises, no one talks about designating a small portion of top performers for rewards. He said it’s understood that all those workers do essential work: “We’re doing the same thing on the educational level.”

But Tarte said he doesn’t support across-the-board raises. He called for a multitier pay system that would put the state’s best teachers well above the national average, withhold raises from lower performers and push the bottom 2 percent of teachers to leave the profession.

The crowd’s biggest reaction came when Steven Hemingway, an eighth-grader at Trinity Prep in Matthews, posed a question: “What can be done to encourage kids like me to become teachers when the pay is so low and a lot of state leaders don’t seem to care a lot about education?”

Cotham, a Mecklenburg Democrat who used to teach, agreed the pay is not good. But she said the feeling of making a difference in a student’s life is the best feeling in the world. “I hope you become a teacher, Steven.”

Morrison posed his own questions to Steven: “Do you want a job where you can change lives? Do you want a job where you can actually save lives if you do it right?”

Steven nodded.

“Do you want a job where you have to work three part-time jobs to make a living?”

Steven shook his head.

“Just remember that when you get old enough to vote,” Morrison said, as the crowd applauded and cheered.