Michael Martin is a teacher. His wife is a teacher’s assistant. They love their jobs and work in adjacent rooms in their school in Buncombe County, teaching special needs students and raising three kids of their own. But their life’s work comes with a real-world sacrifice, here in the state that ranks 48th in the country in teacher salaries.
“We’ve only had a 1.2 % increase in five years,” says Martin. “We definitely live paycheck to paycheck, without a doubt. It’s been terrible on our family. Up until last year, my kids were eligible for Medicaid.”
To try to improve his family’s financial straits, Martin began taking classes at night to earn a master’s degree – and the ten percent salary bump that would come with it. He was doing well and was about halfway finished when, last month, the General Assembly passed a budget that ended the salary increase – becoming the first state in the country to do so.
“For me and my family, that’s a huge disappointment because I’ve worked for a year and a half and for me, that’s almost a $3,000 a year increase,” says Martin.”
On top of that, the Legislature cut the budget for teacher assistants by 21 percent – and Martin’s wife is a teacher assistant. For Martin’s family, that resulted in a reduction of another $2,600 a year.
Teachers have reacted in a variety of ways. Some have protested. Most are likely to save their choicest comments for the teachers’ lounges. Some, like Martin, are seeing what they can do to finish their degree before the new law takes effect next summer.
And schools like Western Carolina and East Carolina are trying to help them by making more classes available this fall.
“For some of them it will be a choice between do I better provide for my family or do I finish my degree?” says Vivian Mott, the Interim Associate Dean of the College of Education at East Carolina University. “If they’re halfway done, for instance, and they find out that no I’m not going to get that increase in pay, the differential between that increase in pay and how much it will cost them to finish their degree is huge.”
Many teachers who are in the middle of getting their degree are likely not to finish. A good number who were thinking about starting graduate school probably won’t do it.
“The other impact, which we have absolutely begun to calculate, although, personally, I doubt the legislators have, is that it will cause a precipitous drop in our enrollment,” says Mott.
That could mean means millions of dollars of lost revenue for public and private universities and colleges across the state that cater to teachers who want to earn master’s degrees. Some may have to lay off faculty. Others could close down their programs entirely.
Some say, that would not be a bad thing.
“On average a teacher with a master’s degree is no more effective than a teacher without a master’s degree,” says Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.
She says general education master’s degrees are too undirected. She agrees that teachers should be paid more, but it should be based on merit.
North Carolina has a unique problem that complicates the development of such a merit-based system here. Unlike almost all states, teachers here are paid on a rigid statewide pay schedule, instead of a district-wide plan. That makes merit-based experiments and tweaking plans almost impossible.
That didn’t stop Governor Pat McCrory from coming up with one – sort of. A few days after the General Assembly gaveled to a close, he gave a very vague outline of his Education Innovation Fund.
“This program will invest a $10,000 stipend into at least one thousand teachers who will be selected by their peers to implement North Carolina career and college-ready standards,” McCrory announced.
The Governor’s plan is not yet finalized and would re-direct federal Race to the Top money. The state budget also mandates that individual districts develop their own merit-pay plans in 2014. But nothing is in place yet, and even education reformers say that’s a problem.
“No I don’t think it’s a good long-term strategy to have the teaching workforce be poorly paid,” says Roza. “I do think the compensation as you add it back in, needs to be structured in a way that’s sustainable and leveraging the kinds of things you’re trying to get for kids.”
That’s assuming compensation for teachers is going to be added back in. Teachers, like Martin, are losing hope that will ever happen, let alone in time to help their families.
“We plan on staying here,” he says. “Right now, we’re happy, this is where we want to be as a family. But it is by far, very difficult money-wise.”
Martin has little hope that Governor McCrory’s plan – if it is implemented – will help teachers like him. A one-year $10,000 “prize” would be nice, he says, but the odds are long: fewer than one in 100 of the state’s teachers would win it.
Martin says he much preferred the smaller, promised increase that would have come when he finished his master’s degree. That, he believed, was something he could count on.