In their first debate, North Carolina’s candidates for governor criticized each other over House Bill 2, taxes, a toll road project near Charlotte and more.
Education, though, was the part of the relatively short debate that saw some of strongest attacks and boldest claims by Roy Cooper and Pat McCrory, as well as some of the biggest audience applause.
Here we’ll try to add a little context that may have been missing from the time-limited debate.
Pat McCrory and teacher pay
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Republican Gov. McCrory said that North Carolina teachers have done well under GOP leadership, especially lately.
“We’ve given the largest teacher pay raise in the United States of America,” he said.
That’s true, at least in terms of percentages. Between 2013-14 and 2014-15, according to the National Education Association, North Carolina teachers’ average salaries rose by 6.3 percent – which was more than any other state.
Even with that raise, North Carolina is still one of the lowest-paying states for teachers. The average North Carolina teacher made $47,819 in 2014-15, compared with a national average of $59,452.
But McCrory said he hopes after this summer’s state budget, North Carolina will no longer be among the 10 lowest-paying states for teachers.
Roy Cooper and teacher pay
Democratic Attorney General Cooper said that when he was in the legislature – including as Senate majority leader – he worked with Gov. Jim Hunt to bring North Carolina’s average teacher pay higher than the national average.
“We had our teacher salaries above the national average,” he said. “And the reason we did that was leadership. We had a vision of where we wanted to go, and we prioritized teacher pay.”
In fact, North Carolina was among the top 25 highest-paying states for teachers toward the end of Hunt and Cooper’s time writing budgets in the late 1990s. But because the top states pay very well, North Carolina never actually beat the national average.
In 1999 the state gave teachers an average raise of 7.5 percent – a level the state has only seen once since, with an 8.6 percent raise in 2006 under Gov. Mike Easley.
The state came close to the national average in the 1999-2000 school year, when the average North Carolina teacher made $39,404 and the average U.S. teacher made $41,807.
But while North Carolina was above the national median under Cooper and Hunt’s leadership, it was not above the average.
Blame on Democrats
McCrory, though, tied Cooper to the Democratic governors who followed Hunt.
“Under the leadership of Gov. Perdue and Gov. Easley – which (Cooper) forgets they were in office under his support – our teacher pay went from 17th to 48th in the United States of America,” McCrory said.
Cooper was the attorney general while both Easley and Bev Perdue were in office. The attorney general’s job doesn’t have anything to do with teacher pay, but it does come with political clout.
But McCrory is correct about the precipitous drop. According to the NEA, no state’s average teacher pay dropped by more between 2001-02 and 2011-12.
When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina’s teachers’ salaries dropped 15.7 percent in that time. The next-largest drop was in Indiana, which saw a 10.1 percent drop.
Most of the blame isn’t on Easley – the average teacher’s salary rose every year he was in office, and he also gave that hefty 8.6 percent raise mentioned above. Perdue, on the other hand, presided over cuts to teacher pay as part of dealing with deficits brought on by the Great Recession.
Republicans aren’t totally blameless either; they took control of the General Assembly in 2011. There was no raise that year, a small raise in 2012 and no raise in 2013.
Cooper slammed Republicans for getting rid of the Teaching Fellows program in 2011, saying it’s something North Carolina needs to bring back because it encouraged some of the state’s best high school students to become teachers in exchange for college scholarships.
The program required students to work for four years as teachers after graduating, but Cooper said its graduates showed loyalty beyond the bare minimum.
That’s true. According to the Public School Forum, 79 percent of them stayed more than four years, and 64 percent – nearly two thirds – remained teaching in public schools for at least six years.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran