Earlier this year, I called for a state commitment to raise teacher pay to the national average in the next four years. It was a bold proposal, but that’s what leaders do. Since that time, teachers got a raise, but what they didn’t get was a commitment. State lawmakers need to go back to the drawing board if they are going to show teachers that they are valued.
I recently met a veteran public school teacher who moved to North Carolina in the late 1990s because our state made a serious long-term commitment to invest in public education. Central to our commitment was not only providing a fair and competitive pay structure for teachers, but we also reduced class sizes, added accountability, hired teaching assistants and incentivized both professional development and student achievement.
The result? North Carolina led the nation in math score improvement on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
Unfortunately this teacher and dozens of others that I have spoken to recently almost uniformly say they would not have pursued teaching in North Carolina had they known what was to come. It’s not just poor pay, but working conditions for teachers have deteriorated with rising class sizes, fewer textbooks and supplies, cuts in teaching assistants and political leadership that too often disparages teachers.
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While both political parties deserve to share some of the blame, the fact is that as our economy improves, the current state leadership continues to keep our public schools on a bare subsistence diet and makes education policies that are an affront to teachers, especially experienced ones.
Teachers are a smart bunch. The recent pay raises have been sold as 7 percent – but that’s not what many teachers are seeing in their paychecks. Young teachers are getting a modest raise, but those veteran teachers who have worked and sacrificed to give our children a good education have seen the longevity pay they counted on abolished. And the new salary schedule treats them very unfairly. A teacher in Clayton wrote that she got a raise of only $47.60 per month. One Wake County teacher told WRAL-TV that when she saw her increase was only 1.39 percent she “sat down and cried.”
Not surprisingly, many North Carolina teachers are voting against education cuts with their feet. States like Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas are actively recruiting them. (The Houston School District just hired 28.) Other teachers are retiring early, and many top teachers are going into better paying jobs in business and science.
I think we should be especially alarmed by the message current policies and low teacher pay is sending to the young people of North Carolina who should be our “future teachers.”
Enrollment in Schools of Education on our University of North Carolina campuses has dropped precipitously. I received my undergraduate degree in the School of Education at North Carolina State University. Over the last several years new enrollment in my alma mater’s program has gone down every single year – a drop of 52 percent in four years.
At UNC-Greensboro (my teacher mother’s alma mater) total undergraduate enrollment in the School of Education has gone down 44 percent in the last six years.
Where will our future teachers come from? Will we even have enough to teach our kids?
Once North Carolina had a Teaching Fellows Program that attracted “the best and brightest” of our students with four-year scholarships if they promised to teach for four years or more. Now the legislature has abolished it.
I believe the status of our public schools and teachers is the No. 1 concern of North Carolina’s resident today. Some say we don’t have the resources and can’t do any better. I know that we can.
Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser believed we could when he supported the establishment of public kindergarten in 1973 and raised teacher pay to 27th in the nation.
In 1996 I campaigned for governor on a platform of raising teacher pay to the national average. In 1997 we built a bipartisan coalition with support from Democrats and Republicans, business leaders, education advocates and teachers to support the Excellent Schools Act. And over the next four years we increased teacher pay by almost 33 percent, raising pay to the national average and 20th in the country.
It is my hope that when the General Assembly convenes in 2015, there will be a new sense of cooperation and a firm commitment to do three things:
First, respect veteran teachers by restoring longevity pay and giving them the minimum 5.5 percent raise they were sold.
Second, increase salaries for all teachers, moving North Carolina to the national average in the next four years.
Third, improve working conditions for our teachers and send the message that North Carolina values its teachers.
That will show the real respect that North Carolina teachers deserve.
Jim Hunt, a Democrat from Wilson, served four terms as governor of North Carolina from 1977 to 1985 and 1993 to 2001.