by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
The May 16 teacher gathering in Raleigh is inspired by teacher demonstrations in other states and is energized by the desire of public school advocacy groups to weaken Republican control of the General Assembly. It’s political mobilization disguised as a “rally for respect.”
The N.C. Association of Educators has been unusually forthcoming about the partisan nature of the walkout. Referring to the N.C. General Assembly, NCAE’s Mark Jewell told WRAL reporter Travis Fain, “We don’t anticipate much change from this group. So, we’re going to change the players in the game.”
“If legislators don’t want to listen now, they WILL hear about it on Nov. 6. See you at the polls. – Rest assured, the journey begins May 16” read an NCAE Twitter post.
As one would expect, increases in teacher compensation and per-pupil spending top the list of demands posted on the May 16 Coalition website. No public education rally is complete without demands for increased education spending made possible by higher taxes on those who they believe do not pay their “fair share.” Walkout leaders also want lawmakers to discontinue performance pay programs, freeze any increases in health-care costs, accept federal funds to expand Medicaid, and “stop the attacks on public schools” by placing a moratorium on charter schools and private school vouchers. Basically, they want North Carolina to be the Vermont of the South.
Clearly, the Republican record of creating targeted performance and incentive pay programs, lowering taxes, passing prudent budgets, curtailing regulations, and maximizing school choice doesn’t fit the bill. Predictably, walkout leaders contend Republican efforts to boost teacher compensation have been unsatisfactory.
Had teachers ditched a day of classroom instruction for a mass protest four years ago, their complaints about compensation would have carried more weight. Between 2011 and 2014, Medicaid shortfalls, in particular, crippled the ability of the General Assembly to increase teacher compensation. Medicaid, a program that provides funding for health-care services for low-income individuals, required $1.8 billion in additional taxpayer funding to stay afloat. It’s likely those dollars would have been used to fund teacher salary increases during these post-recession years.
By the 2013-14 school year, average teacher pay had dipped to $44,990 and was among the lowest in the Southeast. In contrast, benefit payments (conspicuously missing from the teacher pay debate) steadily increased during this period. Social Security and retirement contributions for individual teachers neared $9,200, and the state added close to $5,300 for health insurance.
With Medicaid spending under control, the Republican-controlled legislature had access to sufficient revenue to resume the practice of awarding salary and experience-based increases, enacting targeted bonus programs, and keeping up with the rising costs of employee benefits. And that’s what they did.
After four consecutive years of compensation increases, average teacher pay surged to $51,214 this year and is in the top half of southeastern states. Social Security and retirement contributions exceeded $11,600. The state subsidy for health insurance nears $5,900 and will climb to more than $6,100 next year. At the same time, lawmakers added a slew of teacher training and incentive pay initiatives that corresponded to their education reform priorities.
Compensation hasn’t been the only area of improvement. While not the direct result of Republican efforts, teacher working conditions arguably are better. Last year, the number of reportable crimes in public schools was the lowest rate in the past five years. Short- and long-term suspensions and expulsions are dropping. The overall teacher attrition rate dipped last year and remains relatively low at 8.7 percent. On the Teacher Working Conditions Survey, the vast majority of teachers report their school is a “good place to work and learn.”
Of course, working conditions won’t be an issue for many schools May 16 because there will be no work. Multiple school boards decided to cancel classes that day due to the number of teachers requesting a day of personal leave.
Class cancellation will create hardships for some public school families, particularly for those who must forgo hourly wages to care for their children. In response, the president of the Durham Association of Educators remarked, “We recognize the inconvenience, particularly for working-class parents, but our bigger concern is the inconvenience that the General Assembly has been imposing on all of us.” Some sympathetic groups on the Left and Right have offered to help families deal with the “inconvenience,” but their charity won’t be enough.
The public sympathizes with teachers and will support them until their personal or political activities begin to interfere with instructional duties and responsibilities. In other words, most North Carolinians have the reasonable expectation that teachers hired to teach focus on teaching when teaching is supposed to occur, such as on May 16.