NEWTON — Legislators and policy experts agree that North Carolina teachers need more pay. They disagree on how to dole out the money.

Pay raises should be based on how a teacher performs in the classroom, said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, at an education policy debate Oct. 24. The event, hosted by the N.C. Institute on Political Leadership and the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce, was the final installment of a three-debate series also broadcast by Spectrum News.

Panelists included Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, Terry Stoops, vice president of policy and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, and Kris Nordstrom, education policy consultant at the North Carolina Justice Center.

The debate will air Oct. 29 on Spectrum News channel’s “In Focus with Loretta Boniti,” who moderated the debate.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said at the NCIOPL debate reforming teacher compensation will be a hard slog. (CJ photo by Kari Travis)

Merit pay is a bad idea, said Jewell. Lawmakers first should address a “broken pay system.”

“The teacher salary schedule is a mess right now. It’s been tampered with for the past two or three years. It’s basically a five-tier system,” Jewell said.

In 2016, lawmakers adjusted average annual teacher pay to reach an average of almost $50,000. That number is set to reach $55,000 by 2019.

But that doesn’t help young teachers who can’t afford to live on $35,000 for the first five years of their career, Jewell added. Many are forced to work two or three jobs just to pay the bills. That’s not fair to them — or to the children they teach, he said.

North Carolina has plenty of money to spend on across-the-board raises for all teachers, Nordstrom said. Blanket cost-of-living raises are a better move, since performance pay tends to drag down camaraderie and goodwill among teachers, he added.

If the General Assembly wants pay incentives for teachers, they should be team-based so that teachers work together, he said.

“Current leadership in the General Assembly has been talking about performance pay, but they’ve yet to implement a high-quality performance pay system because it’s hard work. They haven’t put in the hard work yet,” Nordstrom said.

A blanket raise does little more than put a band-aid on a bigger problem, Stoops said.

Spending more money will do nothing to actually keep teachers from leaving the classroom or the state, Stoops said. Higher teacher performance would follow if there are incentives to compete.

“I feel like we’re going to be constantly chasing our tail here … because people will never be satisfied with where the base [salary] is.”

The system is antiquated and doesn’t respond to market demands, he said. North Carolina has a shortage of math, science, and special education teachers. That gap requires incentives to entice new talent, he said, including paying teachers more who pursue fields with high demand.

Everyone can agree teachers deserve to be paid more, but not all teachers are good. Each one should be awarded accordingly, Horn said.  

Changing teacher pay is a long hike uphill, he added.

“It’s like climbing a glacier with ice skates on your feet. Everybody thinks they know how to fix education. Everyone went to school. And what everybody thinks worked for them should work for everyone else.”

“There is no perfect solution, and legislators get a little tired of getting beat up all the time, because no matter what it is they decide to do, or try to do, it’s wrong,” Horn said. “I think we are moving in the right direction. We’re not going to get there overnight, and it’s a challenge.”