As Courtlyn Reeves, a 25-year-old math teacher at North Mecklenburg High, begins his fourth year of teaching, he’s looking at a frozen salary that’s becoming less competitive with other states.
He had started work on a master’s degree that would have earned him a 10-percent raise, but the state just eliminated extra pay for advanced degrees.
“I’m ticked off, and so are my colleagues,” Reeves told an overflow crowd at a forum on state education issues last week.
It’s a sentiment that’s been widely echoed since lawmakers passed the budget in July. North Carolina’s educators find themselves stranded between two compensation systems.
The current one is disintegrating: Bonuses based on student gains and experience-based raises have vanished during the recession, and this year legislators eliminated pay for advanced degrees.
But a new system hasn’t been created.
The result has been turmoil and angst. Officials remain uncertain how this summer’s changes will play out. Teachers are protesting and voicing dismay for their profession. Critics of this summer’s legislative session say North Carolina is losing its national image as a state that values education.
Legislators who approved sweeping changes to public education, including an end to teacher tenure and pay for advanced degrees, say the current system rewards the wrong things – longevity and credentials – instead of paying teachers for classroom results.
But the budget includes only small steps toward performance pay, with school districts authorized to give 25 percent of teachers four-year contracts that include $500-a-year raises. A statewide task force was created to study a more comprehensive plan.
Meanwhile, the 2013-14 budget included no raises for teachers or other state employees.
“I think it certainly is a work in progress,” said Jordan Shaw, spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg Republican. “We need to be able to pay teachers more. We need to be able to pay police officers more. We need to be able to pay firefighters more. The challenge is how we get there.”
Local educators who support performance pay say it’s a mistake to make teachers compete for a fixed number of higher salaries. Instead, Superintendent Heath Morrison and teachers who have studied performance pay say the goal should be pushing all teachers to improve.
“You’re telling the other 75 percent there’s no way you’ll ever get an increase,” said Joanna Schimizzi, a Butler High biology teacher who served on a recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools compensation task force. “That would be like saying (to students), ‘Only 25 percent of you are going to pass this class.’ ”
Both parties – and the recession – hold responsibility for the erosion of teacher pay and morale.
In 2008, after years of salary hikes designed to bring the state in line with national averages, North Carolina was rated 25th in the nation for average teacher pay, according to the National Education Association, a teachers union that collects widely used national data on teachers. That was well above such other Southeastern states as Virginia (30th), South Carolina (37th) and Tennessee (40th).
The recession hit when Democrats controlled the legislature and the governor’s office. That’s when the state started freezing pay and withholding teacher bonuses based on test scores.
Those moves continued when Republicans gained a legislative majority in the 2011 session. The GOP-majority legislature granted a 1.2 percent raise to teachers and other state employees in 2012, but none this year.
The teacher pay scale promises “step” raises with each year of experience, but the freezes pushed those raises back. New teachers now go five years before they get a raise. As experienced teachers left and younger ones didn’t advance in pay, North Carolina’s average slipped, from $47,354 in 2008 to $45,947 in 2013, according to the NEA tallies.
Most other states held steady or saw small gains, including those neighboring North Carolina. In the 2013 rankings, North Carolina landed 46th on average teacher pay. Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee saw little change in their rank, except that they now look good in comparison with North Carolina.
While the erosion has been gradual, outcry over this summer’s budget has been intense, with thousands of educators swelling the crowd at a Moral Monday protest in Raleigh after the budget vote. Some attribute that to partisan politics – the N.C. Association of Educators traditionally leans Democratic – while others cite the speed and sweep of change to public education, along with legislators’ decision to cut taxes as the economy recovers.
“It was so much so fast,” said Morrison, who is not affiliated with either party. “It is kind of stunning when you step back away from it.”
Hunger Game tactics?
The legislative plan to give the top 25 percent of teachers $500 raises is tied to the demise of tenure. By 2018, all teachers will be converted to one-, two- or four-year contracts, making it easier to get rid of low performers when their contracts end.
Tenure, formally known as career status, provides a series of steps that must be taken to dismiss teachers. Many administrators say it’s difficult to do; in the most recent state tally, only 17 of 11,791 teachers were fired.
Questions remain about the 2014 selection of the 25 percent who will be rewarded, which is left to superintendents and school boards. Morrison says he fears that any selection process will send a discouraging message to good teachers who don’t make the cut.
“That four-year contract will be a value statement,” he said. “There’s just a plethora of issues.”
In remarks made after the budget was approved, Gov. Pat McCrory proposed an even more elite competition: Create a $30 million innovation fund to provide $10,000 stipends to 1,000 top teachers – about 1 percent of the state’s teachers.
The state pay scale currently runs from $30,800 a year for new teachers with bachelor’s degrees to $65,520 for those with maximum experience and credentials. A $500 raise might not be a significant bump, but $10,000 would boost a young teacher’s pay by almost one-third.
“Teachers are not a class, but professionals who should be rewarded based on their individual value to their students and their school,” McCrory told a state Chamber of Commerce gathering.
Pam Lilley, librarian at Cornelius Elementary, dubbed McCrory’s plan “Hunger Games for teachers,” a reference to the popular movie and novels about impoverished provinces forced to send “tributes” to fight to the death for a year of plenty.
“If they want to do merit pay they shouldn’t put a cap on it,” Lilley said. “That makes it a competition.”
Value of degrees
Until now, teachers have had two routes to significant pay hikes: Earn National Board Certification for a 12-percent raise, and/or earn a master’s degree for a 10-percent hike.
The budget eliminates the master’s supplement for anyone who doesn’t have it by the end of the 2013-14 school year.
The argument for cutting that pay comes from studies – including one done in CMS during the 2010 push for performance pay – indicating there’s little connection between such degrees and student performance on exams.
But the UNC system’s research on North Carolina teachers found that those who earned graduate degrees after they started teaching had a significant positive impact on student scores in high school math and English. For other grade levels and subjects, the effect was positive but too small to be statistically significant, said Alisa Chapman, an academic vice president in the UNC system.
The abrupt change and uncertainty about the deadline created turmoil for teachers who are working on graduate degrees. At UNC Charlotte’s College of Education, for instance, about 400 teachers are enrolled in graduate programs, according to Dean Ellen McIntyre.
The only teachers sure to qualify for the pay hike in 2013-14 are those who finish their degree at the end of this year’s fall semester. The state may extend the deadline to allow completion in spring, but that’s unclear.
For many teachers enrolled in master’s programs, there’s no way to finish, even by spring.
“Many of these people have families and they’re working full time,” said Marshall Jones, director of graduate studies at Winthrop University’s College of Education.
Reeves, who’s working on a master’s in educational leadership at Winthrop, said he has no hope of accumulating enough hours in time. He has already spent “several thousand dollars,” he says.
Schimizzi, who’s about to complete a master’s degree at Northeastern University, will make the deadline. She, like many others, says the pay hike is essential to help recoup money spent on tuition.
Tillis supports providing a small raise – similar to the 1.2 percent granted state employees in 2012 – in the 2014 legislative session, Shaw said last week. But getting teacher pay to a competitive level requires developing a performance pay system and “getting the overall budget under control,” including rising Medicaid costs, he said. That’s likely to take years.
Eric Davis, a school board member who’s politically unaffiliated, also talked about systemic budget reform. Davis said current employees should keep the benefits they’ve been promised, but new hires “need to enter an entirely new system, one where they’re paid what they’re worth and they have a health-care and retirement system that we can afford.”
Meanwhile, the quest for a better pay system will continue, in North Carolina and across the country.
Morrison has convened another employee task force to study compensation – the fourth in four years for CMS. He says he supports performance pay, but only if the base for all teachers is raised.
In the short run, he has a two-prong strategy: keep pushing legislators to make solid commitments to better teacher pay in coming years, and try to build morale and recognize great teachers despite the shortage of financial rewards.
Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms