Ayear ago, Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" was Gov. Pat McCrory's theme song. Today, as public school teachers blast him for their frozen pay and swollen classes, a chastened McCrory says he wants to give them a raise—if he can.
But the budget he signed last year, with tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, blew a hole in state revenues, putting McCrory's ability to offer any pay hike in doubt.
The first thing McCrory needs, therefore, is a new theme song, maybe a little country. Like the Dierks Bentley tune, "What Was I Thinkin'"?
See, like young Bentley, who wasn't thinkin' about the consequences when he sneaked out with his girl past her shotgun-toting daddy, McCrory failed to think ahead. Looking for love from the Republican right-wing, McCrory didn't foresee that cutting tax rates for the wealthy, as the right insisted he should, couldn't possibly produce more revenues for the state.
Sure enough, when state budget analysts reported last week following the April 15 tax filings, they projected a $445 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30.
And the red ink won't end there, according to the report by the General Assembly's fiscal staff and McCrory's budget office. Add another $191 million to the shortfall for next year's budget, plus $140 million in unbudgeted Medicaid costs. The total shortfall is about 4 percent of the state's $20 billion-plus budget.
In Bentley's words: "I knew there'd be hell to pay, but that crossed my mind a little too late."
The volatile mix of revenue shortfalls and a starving public school system is the fundamental problem confronting the General Assembly in its upcoming "short session." Will the Republicans cough up a pay raise for teachers somehow?
At an education forum Saturday in Raleigh, Rep. Tom Murry, R-Wake, said Republican legislators "will reward teachers this year" with added compensation, though he didn't say how much. Other Republicans have forecast a 1-2 percent pay hike.
In February, McCrory announced a plan, supported by Republican leaders in the Senate and House, to boost starting pay for teachers from the current $30,800 (not including local supplements) to $33,000 next year and $35,000 the following year. Full cost would be $200 million a year. Under the plan, teachers would gain if they're brand new or if they've been working for one to five years at the same frozen rate of $30,800.
For the two-thirds of the state's 95,000 teachers with more than five years experience, however, the GOP plan offered nothing beyond McCrory's expressed hope that, if more revenues materialize, he'd like to help them too.
Education groups panned the plan and looked to a special legislative task force on teacher compensation for a better one. But in mid-April, the task force—a Republican production co-chaired by Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph and Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg—endorsed paying starting teachers more but otherwise punted. More study is needed on the key questions, it said, to the dismay of teacher-members who said their input was never sought.
McCrory is reportedly working on a new scheme, but what it will be—and whether Republican legislators will buy it—is unknown. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, says Democratic legislators will be "willing partners" if McCrory seeks their help raising teacher pay. So far, Blue said, the governor hasn't called.
While we wait, the forum Saturday, sponsored by Public Schools First NC, put the competing sides in the education debate into sharp relief.
On the conservative side, Murry and Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, suggested that the public schools don't need more money, they simply need to be more efficient. Murry recommended using satellites to help the best teachers reach more students. Stam said a billion dollars is wasted reducing class sizes "past the grades where that is shown to have any significant effect." Small classes are the enemy of teacher compensation, Stam said.
Almost in passing, Murry added that it's harder for teachers to show progress with good students than with high-needs kids who come to school behind—and can make up more ground quickly.
That comment irked Nora Carr, a Guilford schools administrator. "I quibble with that [statement]," she said coldly. "I quibble with it a lot."
Carr said public schools "take all kids, and we're the only game in town where all means all." Meeting that challenge, for kids at every level, is why the schools need more personnel and smaller classes, she and other school advocates argued. Helping high-needs kids who show up for kindergarten not knowing the alphabet or even how to hold a pencil is an especially tough job requiring personalized, often one-to-one, instruction.
Teachers need more time to confer with each other about how their students are doing. They need more time to observe and help each other teach better. Research proves that teachers get better with experience, Duke University professor Helen Ladd said. It makes no sense not to pay veteran teachers more—and pay them to help train the newcomers.
This concept of collaborative teaching—not one teacher per class but multiple teachers sharing classes and expertise—is an emerging goal of the education profession. Work as a team; get better results.
Will it cost more? Put it this way: With North Carolina now 48th in the nation in per-pupil spending for K-12 schools, it won't cost less. Not if we're trying to help every child. If not—bring on the satellites.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blood from a stone."