Garner Cleveland Record

McCrory: Increase teachers’ base pay $4,200 over two years

The proposal Gov. Pat McCrory announced Monday to raise the base pay for early-career teachers was met with praise and immediate questions about raises for those with more experience.

Under the plan, teachers with up to 10 years in the classroom – about 42,000 of them – would see their pay rise to $35,000 by the 2015-16 school year. The raises would cost the state about $200 million over two years.

The state’s beginning teachers are among the lowest-paid in the nation, and the current $30,800 beginning salary is not competitive with surrounding states.

“That’s not even enough to raise a family or pay off student loans,” McCrory said in announcing his plan. “How do we expect someone to pay that loan with that starting salary?”

McCrory credited the salary increase to hard decisions made by the GOP legislature, and blamed the absence of raises this year on Medicaid cost overruns and government inefficiency.

The proposal was presented as a joint agreement between McCrory and legislative leaders. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis were with McCrory at Ragsdale High School, the governor’s alma mater, to present the plan. The legislature needs to pass the increases.

“Our hope is to improve the opportunity that high-quality teachers have to teach in North Carolina because we know a high-quality teacher at the head of a classroom is the one important thing that can be done to improve student achievement,” Berger said.

After McCrory’s presentation, Katie McNeill, an English teacher at Ragsdale, said the proposal was “a good start,” but she worried that it doesn’t address pay for long-term teachers.

“You’ve got a lot of veteran teachers who are in it now, who care about it now, and they’re going to see this pay increase and wonder whether it’s ever going to come to them,” said McNeill, who is in her seventh year as a teacher.

An experienced math teacher left Ragsdale last year because he could make more as a manager at Freightliner, McNeill said. His departure was a huge loss to the school, she said, because he was one of the best teachers in the math department.

“I think we’re going to see more of that unless they can cover across the board veteran teachers who deserve to be paid more than they’re paid,” she said.

An unusual move

It’s unusual for the governor and legislative leaders to announce pay raises so far outside budget-writing season. But well-publicized low teacher morale has put pay and the broader environment for teachers into the spotlight. Teachers have become dispirited after years of stagnant pay and were left reeling after the legislative session which ended in July.

Lawmakers passed a two-year $20.6 billion budget – $400 million higher than the previous budget – that took effect July 1 that did not include raises for teachers. It also phased out tenure and the practice of giving raises to teachers who earn master’s degrees.

Legislators can adjust the budget when they return for a short session in May. That’s when they’ll take up the governor’s raise pay proposal. McCrory said Monday that the state had the $200 million to pay for the raises without raising taxes. Legislators passed a major tax overhaul last year that cut corporate and individual income tax. Revenue collections for the first half of the 2013-14 fiscal year were $83.5 million above the $10 billion target.

A variety of groups have proposed plans for increasing teacher pay and improving recruitment. Earlier this year, former Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, prominently called for the state to raise teacher pay to the national average over the next four years.

Hunt and McCrory appeared on stage together at the Emerging Issues Forum on Monday afternoon. The topic this year is Teachers and the Great Economic Debate. McCrory has called Hunt a mentor.

McCrory told the forum audience full of teachers about his pay plan.

Responding to questions after the official program and after McCrory had left, Hunt suggested raising just the base pay wouldn’t be good enough.

“I think we need to have a major pay increase in North Carolina, and we need to get to the national average in the next four years,” Hunt said.

Making starting salaries competitive should be part of a larger plan that will give all good teachers a major pay increase, Hunt said.

“Not a tiny one,” he said. “A major one.”

Backtracking on master’s pay

In addition to the pay announcement, McCrory and legislators backtracked somewhat on the decision to end supplemental pay for teachers who earn master’s degrees.

Berger said the legislature would pass a law giving the pay supplement to teachers who had completed coursework in a graduate program by July 1, 2013.

In retrospect, Tillis said, the law ending the master’s supplement was wrong, and the mark of good leadership is to acknowledge a bad decision, change it, and move on. The change would not bring back master’s pay permanently, and would apply only to those teachers who began pursuing the advanced degree before mid-2013.

Midcareer and veteran teachers are not included in the pay plan, though McCrory said the goal is to announce increases for more teachers and state employees as the “revenue picture becomes clear.”

Past legislatures and governors have approved different levels of teacher pay increases depending on salaries and experience. In 2008-09, for example, teacher raises covered a range from 2.39 percent to 6.63 percent, with the average at 3 percent. In 2002-03, some teachers saw no raises, while others received up to 5.85 percent. The average that year was 1.84 percent.

Iris Sutton, a teacher for more than 25 years, was glad to hear McCrory’s proposal, but it is only part of the answer, she said.

“I think it’s great for the new teachers, and it’s needed,” she said. “The thing about it is how many teachers are leaving because we haven’t had raises?”

Sutton teaches social studies at Wendell Middle School. When she started in public schools, she said, the starting salary was $18,500. For most of her career, she worked more than one job to make ends meet.

Then she retired, taught in a private school, and finally returned to public education.

Other measures could improve teachers’ lives, such as more time off and more flexibility, she said. As for raises, she said: “Throw us a bone more than once every five or six years.”

Teacher retention problem

Kimberly Kopp, 32, a fourth-year teacher at Odell Elementary in Cabarrus County, called the new pay proposal a great first step.

“This will help with hiring, but it’s not assisting with retaining highly qualified teachers,” she said.

New teachers have worked for years without seeing much of a reward in their paychecks, Kopp said.

Teacher salaries have been stagnant for years. Compression at the lower end of the salary schedule means that teachers in their fifth year make the same as teachers starting their first day of work, $30,800 a year. The plan won’t help with the salary compression, but this is just the first step in a more detailed plan being developed, said Eric Guckian, McCrory’s senior adviser on education.

“This is a long-term, complicated issue,” he said.