You know it, June Atkinson knows it, Tim Moore knows it and Pat McCrory knows it: Leaders in government find a way to pay for their highest priorities.
Unfortunately, teachers don’t make the cut in North Carolina.
Atkinson, the state superintendent of schools, last week proposed that public school teachers get a 10 percent pay hike. Moore, the N.C. House speaker, squashed that idea faster than a parent can tell his kids they aren’t going to Disney World. Moore called 10 percent unrealistic. He said something like 2 percent was more likely – if he could get the Senate to go along.
This comes as no surprise to N.C. teachers. Their pay has been among the nation’s worst for many years now. Through some off-and-on efforts by Gov. McCrory and the legislature (off in non-election years, on for legislators when they’re on the ballot), North Carolina’s average teacher pay ranking has inched from 47th to 42nd.
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Given that Republican leaders trumpet that as major progress, it follows that Moore would grip his wallet tightly when Atkinson proposes 10 percent. In this stingy environment, even Atkinson called the idea “extremely bold.”
But is it?
The average salary for an N.C. teacher in 2014-15 was $47,783, the National Education Association estimates. That puts us about $10,000 behind the national average.
Atkinson’s proposal, then, would raise average teacher pay by about $4,800. That’s about half the gap between North Carolina’s teacher pay and the national average. We’d have to raise teacher pay by 20 percent, not 10, to be average.
(Given the importance of good teachers, teacher pay seems like an area where we’d want to rank in the top 10. But when you stumble along in the 40s, even reaching “average” is regarded as ambitious.)
A 10 percent across-the-board hike would cost about $540 million. That sounds like a lot of money. But it represents about 2.5 percent of the state budget. And it’s less than the $600 million in tax cuts the General Assembly approved last year. It’s a bit more than the $400 million surplus the state enjoyed last year. It’s tiny compared with the $2 billion-plus the state drummed up to quickly retire an unemployment insurance debt to the federal government.
OK, so 10 percent in one year is too much for Republican legislators to swallow. How about a commitment to bring N.C. teacher pay to the national average within four years? That would require pay raises of something like 5 percent per year for four years.
Gov. Jim Hunt made that vow in 1996, and he followed through and made it happen with bipartisan support from the General Assembly. North Carolina raised its average teacher pay by 33 percent, jumping to 20th in the country.
Unrealistic, Speaker Moore? Or just something you’d rather not do?