In retrospect, it’s not a surprise that the General Assembly approved a budget with a complicated and uneven teacher pay raise that has caused mass confusion across the state or that local school systems are now struggling with deep cuts to funding for teacher assistants, even as legislative leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory claim that TA funding was not reduced.
That disconnect was entirely predictable when you consider how this legislative session began, the ideology of the folks running it and the huge political consequences of how the decisions lawmakers made would be perceived.
Legislative leaders and McCrory have been under fire since the end of the 2013 session for the deep cuts to public schools. The cuts and the lack of a teacher raise left the state ranked 46th in teacher salaries and even closer to the bottom in per-pupil spending and they prompted widespread outrage from teachers and school officials and parents — Republicans and Democrats alike.
Legislative leaders and the think tanks that reflexively defend them at first fought back, challenging the credibility of the rankings, distorting the funding numbers, even attacking teachers by saying they don’t work very hard and have summers off.
That proved an ineffective strategy, as parents simply didn’t buy it. They saw their children’s teachers leaving the state or taking a second job to make ends meet. They noticed when the teacher assistants were gone and there weren’t enough textbooks to go around. They wondered why school fundraisers were being held to raise money for basic classroom supplies.
Then the calendar changed to 2014, an election year, and not just any election year. Not only are all the seats in the General Assembly, House Speaker Thom Tillis is running for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Kay Hagan in a race that could decide which party controls the Senate.
Having voters furious at Tillis and his legislative colleagues about their cuts to public schools simply would not do, so McCrory and legislative leaders began talking about a teacher raise as their priority.
McCrory opened the bidding with an increase for starting teachers, then Senate leaders passed a budget calling for an 11 percent increase, but only for teachers who gave up their career status protections, and fired thousands of teacher assistants to pay for it.
The House countered with 5 percent and vowed to protect funding for teacher assistants too.
After weeks of negotiations, they agreed on a final budget that demolishes the teacher salary schedule, replacing it with a plan that gives teachers early in their career a big increase, with some veteran teachers barely receiving a raise at all. The new plan raises more questions than it answers, ending lump sum longevity pay and a salary supplement for teachers who earn advanced degrees.
And the final budget pays for the raise with budget gimmicks and by cutting education spending elsewhere.
The right-wing propaganda outlets are swinging into action again of course, defending the budget at every turn and citing the improvement in teacher salary rankings as a result of the raise.
The message is clear. Legislative leaders, especially Tillis, really care about public schools and support the state’s teachers. But the confusion about the raise and realization of the cuts made to pay for it are once again making the claims a tough sell.
It didn’t have to be this way of course. Lawmakers could have simply given every teacher a 5 percent raise — or more if they canceled the next round of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations that take effect Jan. 1. T
But their ideology was too deep seated to allow that. Instead they forced the raise to fit their ideological filter, give starting teachers more, beginning to divide teachers into groups on the road to sketchy merit pay schemes and the end of career status protections.
They also could have given the across the board raise and set up a process to develop a new pay structure for next year that included public hearings and teacher input, but instead they rolled out a confusing plan developed in a backroom with no teachers having a say.
That is the real story of this session, that legislative leaders tried to have it both ways, give themselves political cover by seeming to support teachers but never abandoning their fundamental animosity towards public education, as a funding increase for the private school voucher plan makes clear.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.