News: CJ Exclusives

Berger: Teachers Can Swap Tenure For Big Pay Raise

Senate leader's plan would hike pay on average by 11 percent

RALEIGH — If you like your teacher tenure plan, you can keep your teacher tenure plan, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, told educators at a Wednesday press conference. Just don’t expect a pay raise.

Berger rolled out a $468 million pay hike proposal that would raise teacher salaries by an average of 11.2 percent, or $5,809, the highest teacher pay increase in state history. It would allow teachers to reach maximum pay status in 21 years instead of 37, and push North Carolina from 47th to 27th nationally in teacher pay rankings, Berger said.

“Under our plan, teachers who agree to work under an annual contract in the 2014-15 school year would move to the new pay scale and receive a substantial salary increase,” Berger said. The plan would make it possible for the first time in state history for a classroom teacher to earn more than an administrator.

Among the 37 current pay steps, 18 would get boosts beyond the proposed 11.2 percent average — as high as 20 percent for teachers in year eight, 18.5 percent in year seven, and 18.1 percent in year nine. Average teacher pay would jump from the current $45,938 to $51,198 if the plan were adopted.

Acknowledging “well-documented resistance” to eliminating tenure, Berger said the Senate plan repeals legislation passed last year that would end career status designation as of 2018. That legislation currently is tied up in litigation, and was struck down recently by a Superior Court judge.

Instead, teachers would have “a full choice” to retain tenure under the old plan, or opt for annualized contracts without it in the proposed system.

“Those who choose to retain tenure would remain on the current pay schedule,” Berger said. “That plan is frozen, has been frozen, and will continue to be frozen. … If you choose to stay on that plan, my understanding is there is not a raise, and you won’t get a step [increase], either.”

The ambitious pay raise plan is the result of “the budgeting discipline that we’ve seen since Republicans took over the General Assembly in 2011, because of the improvement in our unemployment rate as a result of decisions that were made to modify the unemployment compensation fund, because we have prioritized where we are going to do our spending,” Berger said.

Paying for the plan will not require a tax increase and the funding will come from recurring sources, he said. The state would move from ninth place to third place in the Southeast region for teacher pay.

The plan received mixed reviews.

“We recognize and share the Senate’s goal to improve education and help teachers. However, the McCrory administration has a different and broader approach that promotes student achievement and rewards teachers,” said Josh Ellis, Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications director.

“The comprehensive Career Pathways for Teachers plan, which is sustainable, fiscally responsible, and provides local flexibility, was developed through a process working with and supported by superintendents, teachers, and business leaders across the state,” Ellis said.

“We have not seen the details on the teacher pay plan and budget yet, so we don’t have a comment right now,” said Anna Roberts, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg. “I’m sure we’ll have more in the coming days as we begin our budget process.”

Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said the 11-percent average salary hike “actually brings us to where we belong in the year 2014. That would be a very welcome investment in public education right now.”

However, he said, “it’s a travesty that they would attach it to career status rights, due process protections for educators.” The state should grant unencumbered raises to demonstrate respect for teachers as professionals instead of using them as “political pawns in an election year.”

The state lost the tenure battle in court and is trying “to circumvent the judge’s order, and actually force teachers to accept contracts or to continue to teach without due process rights. That’s probably the biggest frustration I have with it,” Ellis said.

If teachers were grading the Senate Republicans’ proposal, Ellis said, “I don’t think you’re going to see any A’s or B’s. But you might range from C to F from most educators. For me, it’s closer to a D or an F.”

Reducing the number of steps to get to the maximum salary “is a good approach,” and a long-time goal of NCAE, which submitted a proposal several years ago to ratchet down the steps — or years — on the pay schedule to 15, Ellis said.

But even moving teachers to the maximum pay step 16 years faster than current law allows drew his displeasure.

“I think that’s going to deter a lot of people from coming into the profession who may have teaching in their heart and want to continue to teach for the remainder of their career, which is usually about a 30-year term,” Ellis said. There would be no financial incentive for them to remain in the profession beyond 21 years, he said.

State Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, co-chairman of the Senate Appropriations on Education/Higher Education Committee, disagrees.

“You can top out now after 20 years at $50,000, but we’ve got longevity that’s factored in here, and you will see some small incremental changes” in annual increases among long-term teachers, Tillman said.

Rather than discourage teachers from remaining in the profession, the quick route to top pay will lure more teachers into the profession, which some say is not happening now because it takes too long to get maximum pay, Tillman said.

“In poker terms, the Senate went ‘all in,’” said Terry Stoops, director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.

“They are trying to call the left’s bluff. Those who will oppose this plan will do so based on politics alone, and not whether it is beneficial to the teaching profession,” Stoops said.

“I think most were surprised by the size of the raise. Commentators agreed that a teacher pay raise was inevitable but few predicted that the average raise would reach double digits,” he said.

For most teachers, surrendering tenure in exchange for a huge pay increase is an acceptable trade-off, he said.

“I suspect that House budget writers will make only superficial changes to the Senate plan, thereby accelerating the pace of budget deliberations and passage,” Stoops said.

The proposal would extend supplemental pay for teachers with master’s degrees to those who have completed at least one course in a graduate program as of July 1, 2013.

It expands opportunities for local school systems to recognize and reward top performers by allocating funds for up to 35 percent of teaching staff to receive pay-for-excellence bonus increases. A plan passed last year as part of the tenure reforms now in the courts allowed excellence bonuses for 25 percent of teachers.

The proposal includes $39 million for pay increases to other public school employees, including matching the governor’s proposal to provide principals and other administrators with average 2 percent raises, Berger said. Noninstructional public school employees would receive a $500 flat increase.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.