Earlier this year, as the North Carolina General Assembly was just beginning its session, Senate Leader Phil Berger stood before the media to explain what he hoped to accomplish. Not surprisingly, much of his efforts were going to be focused on education.
“The goal obviously is to make sure that our kids have every opportunity to succeed in their educational environment but also in life,” Berger said. “Right now, our public educational system is failing too many of our students and we need significant improvement there.”
Berger had come to the Legislature fourteen years ago as a small-town attorney from Rockingham County; he was now arguably the most powerful legislator in Raleigh. But he had yet to pass his education overhaul.
By January of this year, everything was in his favor. A Republican, Pat McCrory, now occupied the Governor’s Mansion. A former mayor of Charlotte, McCrory came to Raleigh without a well-defined education policy. That was fine with Berger, because he was more than happy to fill the void and pass his plan.
That doesn’t mean Democrats like Senator Josh Stein didn’t try to stop him during floor debates over the budget:
“This is a radical policy change to K-12 education. We didn’t debate it once. It’s in this budget. That is wrong."
To understand Berger’s education reform efforts, it’s important to grasp the basic philosophical differences between the parties when it comes to education policy. Democrats had, for decades, been elected with the help of teachers – specifically the North Carolina Association of Educators. They had also enacted strict state-control of public schools and had slowly and steadily spent more money, granted teachers job protection, and raised teacher salaries. This got the state up to the national average for teacher salaries by 2008, and number two among southern states. Along the way, Democrats had dismissed or buried any reform efforts proposed by Republicans.
Many veteran Republican legislators, meanwhile, looked out of their office windows across the Halifax Mall and saw a building they derisively called “The Pink Palace.” The Department of Public Instruction building is noticeably nicer and newer than most government buildings, and it stands as a monument – Republicans feel – to a bloated, inflexible education establishment.
That was what Berger and his colleagues wanted to address – and 2013 was their year to do it.
“They did it all at once,” said Terry Stoops, the Director of Education Studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation. “They don’t get style points for it but the number of reforms that were passed received some awe from some of my colleagues in other states who said ‘I can’t believe North Carolina was able to do all that in one year.’ And in particular, the elimination of the master’s degree supplement.”
That master’s degree supplement is a symbol of the larger battle over public education. It gave salary bumps to teachers who earned advanced degrees – something Republicans argued simply doesn’t exist in the private sector. So they eliminated it – making North Carolina the first and only state in the country ever to take that master’s salary increase away.
But that’s just one reform. Teacher tenure is gone. So is the cap on class size in the primary grades. The Teaching Fellows program that gave college scholarships to aspiring teachers was zeroed out of the budget, replaced by an expanded program run by Teach For America. A private-school voucher program was enacted, as was charter school expansion.
“There’s a movement against the one-size fits all system and the centrally controlled system from Raleigh,” said Stoops. “Giving local districts more autonomy. That seems to me to be a more free-market, more entrepreneurial approach to not only paying teachers but structuring the public school system.”
When the dust cleared and the bills became laws, many teachers were stunned. Thousands crowded the Halifax Mall back in July to protest. Smaller groups shadowed Governor Pat McCrory’s appearances. And earlier this month, teachers held “walk-ins” outside their school buildings.
Newspaper Op-Eds joined in, slamming the Republicans for a so-called “Race to the Bottom.” A poll from Elon University in September showed that 80 percent of those surveyed thought teachers were underpaid – just two percent thought they were overpaid.
Republicans fought back, mostly blaming the media for misrepresenting the reforms.
“I need to let you know that funding for K thru 12 has not been cut,” Governor Pat McCrory said during a speech in August. “Now if you‘ve heard the media reports you’d think funding for K through 12 has been cut. It has not been cut.”
“We put the money there and most school systems chose to put them in the classroom with the teaching positions,” State Senator Jerry Tillman said earlier this month during the Legislative Oversight Committee on Education. “We’ve heard so much about that that I get tired of hearing how we devastated education.”
But some Republicans have become more measured in their response.
“When you take away tenure - any time you sort of put a stick you want to put a counter carrot out in front,” said Rob Bryan, a first-term state Representative from Mecklenburg County who sits on the Legislative Oversight Committee on Education. “And I think there was some sense that some people felt like there was a stick this year – no more tenure – but there wasn’t much of a carrot.”
Bryan says the carrots are coming, in the form of a merit pay system for teachers. Other Republicans are quietly looking for money to try to give teachers a small raise next year – most likely taking it from the university system budget.
Even Governor McCrory has struck a more empathetic tone of late.
“I think there are legitimate concerns being expressed by teachers and by many other people in academia,” he said earlier this month during the first Governor’s Teachers Advisory Committee. “I’m here to listen, and also give feedback. But my goal is to have recommendations. Not just declare what the problem is, but declare the solutions.”
That acknowledgement, and whatever slight salary increase may be coming, may be too little, too late for many teachers, who feel their profession has been permanently devalued.
“Why should I stay in North Carolina?” asked Jennifer Spivey, a science teacher at South Columbus High School in Tabor City. “North Carolina wants to be competitive in the education market nationally, but they’re not being competitive in attracting the people they need to attract. And it’s really hard to stay, it’s no wonder there are other states moving ahead of us. Progressive. Because we’re just not keeping up with the times. Happy teachers make happy classrooms.”
North Carolina currently ranks 46th in the nation in average teacher salary – and is number one in the decline in educator pay over the last ten years. Even more startling: North Carolina now ranks 11th of 12 southern states – and in last place among states that contain the word “Carolina” in their name.
And Spivey, in Columbus County, can practically – as they say - see South Carolina from her house - or more accurately, from her parent’s house. “I can’t afford to move out” she said. “Glad my momma cooks dinner every night, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to live if I didn’t.”
And how much more could she make a year in South Carolina?
“Seventeen thousand dollars more,” she said. “For my levels of experience and my masters pay, it would be seventeen thousand dollars. And then with my coaching supplement on top of that because I coach cheerleading. I mean, that’s 55 percent of my salary now.”
Spivey says she‘ll make her decision on whether to stay or go sometime this spring, but she’s leaning toward going. If enough of her colleagues decide to follow her, it will have a significant impact on the future of teaching in North Carolina.
These reports are part of American Graduate-Let’s Make it Happen!- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.