Point of view

McCrory’s new teacher pay plan heads in right direction for NC

May 17, 2014 

My parents worked their entire careers in Charlotte, have retired outside of Charlotte now and are confused.

They have been confused to see the pragmatic, technocratic Mayor Pat McCrory of Charlotte, whom they supported, transformed into an ideological governor rolling back policies that have kept North Carolina a regional leader in education and commerce for years. The differences they note between “Mayor Pat” and “Governor Pat” lead them to conjecture: Is their mayor being outflanked by more politically astute leaders on his right? Was his centrist approach to governing in Charlotte a mask for more deeply held ideological beliefs?

Perhaps the release of McCrory’s new career ladder pay plan for teachers indicates something more than a set of pay policies but a shift in both tone and process that my parents would appreciate.

About teacher pay: Although the single salary schedule in use by North Carolina for decades feels like a comfortable old friend, many in the field of school finance believe it to be broken. The almost linear progression of salary in steps does not align with what research suggests about teacher effectiveness throughout a career. By keeping base pay low, the salary schedule drove teachers into master’s programs to earn additional salary as a way to remain economically afloat while pursuing the profession they loved, but it also paid teachers for degrees in fields that they never planned to use or that did not lead to improved instruction in terms of student performance. The pay gap between teachers and administrators, historically rooted in gender stereotypes, still exacerbates the flight of good teachers into the administrative ranks.

Finally, when combined with district transfer policies, the “salary blind” nature of allocating resources based on positions instead of actual dollars ensures that many schools with high-needs populations are chronically under-resourced in terms of total expenditures for instructional staff.

Still, Gov. McCrory and the legislature’s attempts to address the deficiencies of the single salary schedule in the last session were ham-handed and destructive to teachers, reflecting bad policy and a bad process. Removing salary bonuses for master’s degrees without easing teachers into the new policy and without plowing those savings into salary increases or other bonus programs left teachers feeling demoralized and adrift. Passing the buck of identifying the top 25 percent of teachers to districts when there is little solid research to suggest how to do so and in exchange for laughably small bonuses was either short-sighted or intentionally insulting.

The removal of tenure – little more than an assurance of due process in a right-to-work state such as North Carolina – was an unnecessary symbolic slap at teacher professionalism. Clearly, if the governor and legislature were seeking to empower teachers and strengthen public education, they weren’t doing it right.

The new plan that McCrory outlined seems to address these failings in both process and product. The most basic element is perhaps the most important: an increase in teacher salaries across the board. No salary system can work to attract and retain talent if it is insufficiently funded. Reinstating bonus pay for master’s degrees earned in a teacher’s subject area more closely aligns this component of the governor’s plan with what research tells us about advanced degrees and teacher effectiveness.

Finally, allowing districts to define and pay extra for teacher leadership roles is something that district leaders are equipped to do: see their system needs and find ways to reward teachers for filling them. The use of an incentive fund to identify district-level pay for performance policies both encourages innovation much more than a legislative mandate and allows local leaders and communities to have full democratic say in the policies their boards of education adopt.

As with all things in politics, the devil will indeed be in the details. The governor’s proposal still has to pass unscathed through the halls of the General Assembly. Recent news of a looming $445 million budget shortfall does not inspire confidence that the state will have sufficient revenue to meet these policy goals, since there is competition in the form of other funing needs in other areas such as transportation, infrastructure and healthcare.

But the governor’s attempt – with his advisers – to address deficiencies in the current single salary schedule is itself a signal of policymaking based on research and pragmatism. My parents – and more importantly the teachers of North Carolina – might just be getting “Mayor Pat” back after all.

Eric A. Houck is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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