STATEWIDE – With teachers in North Carolina among the lowest paid in the nation, a grassroots effort is taking shape to persuade state legislators to raise teacher salaries.
“If (teachers) can go elsewhere and get higher pay, better benefits, and a feeling of better respect for the profession, they’re going to do that,” says UNC-Greensboro education professor Wayne Journell. He’s one of many North Carolinians who, just in the last two weeks, have begun to raise their voices publicly in support of higher teacher pay.
That issue, of course, has been a controversial one for months. Last year, as North Carolina dropped to 46th in the nation in teacher salaries, the General Assembly voted to cut salary bonuses for teachers who earned master’s degrees—while simultaneously reducing funding for teaching assistants and eliminating teacher tenure.
Critics argued then that those moves would drive good teachers out of the state. In fact Chapel Hill-Carrboro assistant superintendent Todd LoFrese said in August that the process had already begun.
“We lost a great math teacher to Kentucky,” LoFrese said then. “That teacher’s making $10,000 more in Kentucky than they would have made here on the North Carolina salary schedule.”
And it wasn’t only the established teachers who were leaving. At UNC-G, Journell says his students were beginning to look elsewhere too.
“And they said, ‘Why–given what’s going on in the state–why should I consider staying in North Carolina to teach?'” Journell says. “And honestly, I couldn’t give them a good answer.”
Journell says that’s why he picked up his pen—and wrote an open letter to Governor Pat McCrory last week urging him to take action to raise teacher pay.
And Journell wasn’t the only one.
On January 4, former Governor Jim Hunt wrote an editorial in the News and Observer challenging the General Assembly to raise teacher pay in North Carolina to the national average. Hunt says he himself led the charge to do just that during his tenure as governor—with bipartisan support. And while the effort was costly—$240 million per year—Hunt says it also paid off: between 1999 and 2001, as teacher salaries were increasing by 7.5 percent per year, he says student test scores were also rising faster than in any other state.
The General Assembly won’t be back in session for months, but Hunt’s editorial reshaped the debate, at least for now. Last week, an organization called Aim Higher NC launched an online petition to urge the GA to raise teacher salaries—and got more than 10,000 signatures in the first 36 hours. A survey from Public Policy Polling indicated that 79 percent of North Carolinians—including 66 percent of Republicans—favored Hunt’s proposal to raise teacher salaries to the national average. Governor McCrory too says he’s committed to raising teacher pay in 2014, though specific details still have to be ironed out.
And in Greensboro, Journell says his open letter got a big response.
“The next day when I opened up my email, I had a bunch of emails to go through,” he says. “I was kind of concerned that some of them would be saying, ‘oh, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’ but all the emails I got were very, very positive.” (No response yet from Governor McCrory though, he says.)
It remains to be seen, of course, whether state legislators will ride the wave. Former Governor Hunt admits that any significant teacher pay raise will be costly—and while there’s bipartisan support for higher teacher salaries, Republicans in particular also remain opposed to any tax hikes.
But Journell says he’s hopeful that the current movement will have an impact in the end—and not just for the benefit of his students.
“You know, I have a kid,” he says. “She just turned one. She’s going to be educated in this state. And I want young, energetic teachers to be in North Carolina…
“I just don’t want us to drive them away.”