Pushing back for teachers

Jan. 22, 2014 @ 05:17 PM

Many who have lived in North Carolina more than a couple of decades remember the longtime mantra when we talked about our national ranking in income and education:

“Thank God for Mississippi.”

Then came a long arc of progress as North Carolina embraced and nurtured the mantle of a New South state.  Successive gubernatorial administrations and legislatures invested heavily in education and educators.

By 2000, the average salary for North Carolina teachers ranked 22nd in the nation.

Now, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics published in The Washington Post last week, we rank fourth from the bottom.

At least, we can again be thankful for Mississippi – and South Dakota and Oklahoma, the three states that muscle us out of last place.

Coincidentally, this week, there were at least a couple of signs that the tide is turning against the salary stagnation that has put North Carolina so near the bottom in paying those who educate our young people.

Perhaps most significantly in the real world of politics, Gov. Pat McCrory vowed he is determined to see teacher pay increased in this year’s General Assembly session.

Our ranking among average teacher salaries, the governor told a news conference Tuesday, “is unacceptable to me, unacceptable to the legislature and unacceptable to the people of North Carolina.”

At the same time, a movement is growing among educators to reject the legislature’s ill-conceived plan that the top 25 percent of teachers in a district be offered $500 bonuses in exchange for abandoning career status before that status is eliminated in 2018.

The Herald-Sun’s Greg Childress reported Wednesday that teachers at the highly regarded – and exemplary-performing – Durham School of the Arts have signed a letter vowing not to accept the bonuses.

The DSA letter is similar to one from teachers at Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet School, presented to the DPS school board last month. That letter argued that “we are colleagues and collaborators working together to help our students succeed.”

Or, as Chris Gilbert, a Buncombe County English teacher, blogged in The Post:
“The idea that a single teacher’s influence can be isolated is absurd. My students benefit from my instruction, but they also benefit from our counseling staff, strong administrators, current teachers who assist and tutor them, past educators, and of course, their parents and community resources as well.”

Stagnant pay, a flawed bonus system, the end of a pay premium for an advanced degree – all have contributed to a climate many teachers with good reason see as increasingly hostile.  We can expect an exodus of our best teachers, to bordering states with higher pay. Recruiting teachers from other states – vital to ensure enough teachers in our classrooms— will be difficult.

We take Gov. McCrory at his word. Whether he can influence a legislature where a majority has been the architect of the present state of affairs remains to be seen.

But nothing less than the education of our children is at stake.