RALEIGH — With the usual ebbs and flows, North Carolina government leaders have made public education their pre-eminent issue for more than a century.
Democrats in charge nearly all of that time wore the pro-education mantle, led by political giants such as Govs. Terry Sanford and the four-term Jim Hunt. Elected officials and the public saw schools as the way to pull the state out of post-Civil War poverty.
Now Republicans leading the General Assembly and living in the Executive Mansion simultaneously for the first time in more than 140 years have shaken up the education establishment and offered their own formula for success. They say Democrats lost direction and threw money at problems rather than embracing innovation and competition.
“Republicans in the past have been able to talk about education, but now they’re able to do something about it,” said Phil Kirk, a former State Board of Education chairman and aide to previous Republican governors.
But the transition has been rough on Republicans as they’ve faced lawsuits over their laws for taxpayer-funded private-school scholarships and the end of job-protecting teacher tenure rules. There have been angry rallies and criticisms from Democrats and their allies. Meanwhile, no pay raise for teachers this year sent the average salary further toward the bottom of the states.
“It’s very hard for a person in education to look at the laws that have been passed and felt the pain they’ve caused and not think that they’re not trying to destroy public education,” said Kristin Beller, a teacher at Millbrook Elementary School in Raleigh who supports raising teacher pay to the national average in four years.
McCrory and legislative leaders have scoffed at criticisms and highlighted their strategies for student reading proficiency, school performance standards and vocational education. But they’ve come under tremendous pressure to address teacher morale.
So last week McCrory, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and legislative leaders held a news conference three months before the legislative session to announce plans to raise salaries for the least experienced teachers to $35,000 by the fall of 2015. Base starting pay is now $30,800.
“Now it’s time we start showing respect for our teachers right here in North Carolina, and start letting them know that they’re a top priority,” McCrory said last week at his alma mater of Ragsdale High School in Jamestown. He added: “This is not a partisan issue. This is not a political issue. It’s the right issue.”
The debate over which party best champions public education has heated up in recent years as North Carolina has truly become a two-party state. It should intensify again as all 170 General Assembly seats are up for election in November.
Democrats and their governors like Hunt and Mike Easley raised teacher salaries dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s while aiming to reach the national average.
Pay raises dried up during the Great Recession as Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Democratic-led legislature dealt with multibillion-dollar shortfalls. Both Democrats and Republicans, who took over the General Assembly after 2010, made spending reductions that led to dwindling personnel. The GOP-led legislature passed a small raise in 2012, but McCrory blamed a Medicaid shortfall for stopping a 2013 raise. Some teachers will get raises if they give up tenure rights next year.
McCrory and other Republicans said repeatedly last week’s pay announcement was a “first step.” Additional pay raises were ahead if the revenue picture improves, McCrory said, and so are efforts at creating a positive environment for career teachers.
Skepticism about the plans was palatable at last week’s Emerging Issues Forum, an annual meeting developed by Hunt through N.C. State University that focused this year on teaching. The more than 1,000 attendees gave McCrory a tepid response when he spoke there about his plan.
The next day, a national speaker received a standing ovation at the forum while criticizing Republican education policies, while Democratic legislators got more applause than Republican counterparts during a round-table discussion. While Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, acknowledged both parties have failed to address teacher pay recently, he wondered aloud if the GOP plan would be a “trust me, we’ll get to the rest later proposal” to raise all teacher salaries.
Mac McCorkle, a Duke University professor and former adviser to Easley and Perdue, said Democrats need to offer more to voters than being pro-education, such as plans for generating economic growth. As for Republicans, McCorkle warned passing laws perceived as harming public schools won’t play well with the electorate.
“What we’re seeing is that they’ve branded themselves as the anti-education party, and that’s like touching the third rail.”
Today, Republicans don’t seem united on exactly the next steps toward teacher pay. Senate Republicans have focused more on linking teacher pay increases to classroom performance. Rep. Brian Holloway, R-Stokes, a chief budget-writer and trained teacher, sounds more interested in providing across-the-board salary increases.
“We as Republicans have got to try to make educators understand that we do care about them,” Holloway said.