As Session Starts, Education Again at the Top of the Agenda
NC Policy Watch previews the General Assembly session, which begins today, with an eye toward education. In the short session last year, education and particularly teacher pay was a probably the top legislative priority, due mostly to advocacy organizations pushing the issue.
The teacher pay raise that was passed last year is supposed to provide another raise this year and some lawmakers are talking about doing more for veteran teachers. There are concerns though that there will not be enough money available for even the promised raises. State tax revenue receipts, through just the first few months, are already down $420 million from the previous fiscal year. Lawmakers may need to take a second look at the reckless tax giveaways they passed in 2013 if they want to really invest in public education.
The salary increases also came with a promise of even more raises to come in 2015.
But as North Carolina faces a year in which some predict tax cuts will lead to inadequate state revenues that leave lawmakers with little choice but to rob Peter to pay Paul, what can we expect for our public schools?
Rep. Craig Horn (R-Union) told N.C. Policy Watch this week that teacher pay is his number one priority for the upcoming legislative session.
“I want to raise the [salary] floor for everybody,” said Horn. “For both younger teachers and veterans. We need to keep high quality veteran teachers, and to do that we need to pay them appropriately — and we have not,” he said.
Last year, the General Assembly passed what some characterized as a historic teacher pay raise. The average salary increase was a disputed 7 percent, with Governor McCrory telling reporters it was really a 5.5 percent increase when you take into account that longevity pay was lumped into the salary schedule.
But early career teachers saw a much bigger pay hike as compared with veteran teachers, who complained that they received a raw deal. One veteran teacher with approximately 30 years of experience told N.C. Policy Watch he only received a 0.3 percent pay increase, thanks—or no thanks–to the new legislation. Beginning teachers saw pay increases as high as 18 percent.
Worth highlighting is that former Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Berger announced that the big pay bump for beginning teachers, which they said would go farther in attracting high quality teachers to the state, would take place over a two year period. That means that this year, if lawmakers hold to their verbal commitment, then beginning teachers should see another $2,000 increase that would result in a starting salary of $35,000.
But with veteran teachers up in arms over the shaft they received last year, lawmakers are facing substantial pressure to level the playing field and reward the teachers who have invested considerable time and training into their careers with higher salaries.
Rep. Frank Iler (R-Brunswick) told the Brunswick County school board last week that it’s also his intention to give all teachers, not just beginning ones, a $2,000 pay raise this year.
“Teachers are the heart of the classroom,” Iler said, as reported by the StarNews. “They are the ones who are imparting knowledge to our children. We’ve got to take care of them and keep the best in Brunswick County and North Carolina.”
To make Iler’s promise a reality, however, the state would need an additional $200 million. That sounds like a tall order when considering that the state is currently running a $190 million revenue shortfall, thanks to a tax cut plan lawmakers put into effect in 2013.
“And that $190 million comes after state officials revised the cost of the tax plan upward for this fiscal year,” said Cedric Johnson, a policy analyst with the N.C. Budget and Tax Center. “Which makes any new spending priorities impossible without new revenues.”
Asked if he believes the legislature can raise salaries again in 2015 for all teachers, Rep. Horn said, “If I can, I will.” Horn added that if the opportunity arises to chair the House education committee, he’d be all for it.
“If they [leadership] feel I am the best guy for the job , I’ll jump at it,” said Horn.
Back on the subject of teacher pay, Horn said, “I’m thinking about the same thing we’re all thinking about, though – the projected [revenue] shortfall.”
“I’m not convinced we’re going to have the projected shortfall everyone fears, but I also don’t think we’re floating in dough – we’re not,” added Horn, who has been a heavy hitter in education debates at the legislature.
Last year, since lawmakers then also lacked a surplus of funds, they took from the pot designated for teacher assistants to pay, in part, for the teachers’ raises. Teacher assistant funding has already been cut back dramatically over the years, and last year hundreds of teacher assistant positions were eliminated once again thanks to a budgetary maneuver that siphoned $105 million away from TAs to pay for the raises.
Could lawmakers zero out the teacher assistant budget this year to pay for teachers’ raises, or will they raid another fund – like that of the beleaguered UNC system — to placate veteran teachers with higher pay?