A raise with a catch

Jun. 01, 2014 @ 08:31 PM

The State Senate, mindful of widespread dismay that North Carolina has fallen to 46th in the nation in teacher pay, has provided a path to teacher raises averaging more than 11 percent.

But also mindful that a Superior Court judge has blocked their plan to phase out career status for teachers who have earned it, the Senate has tied the raise to a bargain – creative or cruel, depending on your point of view.

Teachers could get the raise only by giving up their rights to the career status protection, also known as tenure, that has been law in North Carolina for four decades.   For teachers who have seen only one raise since 2008, that poses a potentially excruciating choice – forgo a desperately needed salary boost now, or forego protection against capricious or unfair dismissal later.

To be sure, from the standpoint of those in the legislature – and elsewhere – who believe that teacher tenure has clogged our classrooms with mediocre teachers, this provides a path to a solution more equitable than simply phasing out the protection with little or nothing in return.

And an argument can be made that effective and competent teachers would have little if anything to fear. As Mount Pleasant Middle School teacher Deanna Jones told the Associated Press, “If you do your job and you don’t get into trouble like with the law or anything like that, you don’t have to worry about having tenure to back you up because you’re not going to get fired.”

But the same AP story that quoted Jones also cited a Court of Appeals finding late last year that a Perquimans County teacher had been fired without clear cause, and possibly as retaliation for reporting mistakes by a fellow teacher how happened to be a school board member’s wife. The temptation for school boards, especially in smaller counties, to dabble in personnel decisions is one reason teachers value contract status.

And the career status law makes it clear that teachers can be fired or demoted for poor performance, insubordination or immorality.  Too often it is a lack of administrators’ resolve, not career status, that keeps a poor teacher in the classroom.

The senate’s budget has other problems on the pay-raise front. The raises are financed by eliminating thousands of teacher assistants and the state would continue to woefully underfund textbook purchases.

The draconian cuts no doubt will raise far less public rebuke than the failure to raise teacher pay, but the dilemma is the inevitable result of sharp tax cuts, disproportionately favoring wealthier North Carolinians, adopted in earlier legislative sessions.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham Republican, tried to fend off criticism of the other cuts by stressing the raises. “Make no mistake about it – you vote against this budget, you’re voting against a substantial raise for teachers,” Berger said.

Such hardball tactics are not uncommon – after all, as the saying goes, politics ain’t beanbag.

But it ought not to be three card Monte, either.