During the 2012 North Carolina gubernatorial campaign, former Charlotte mayor and Republican candidate Pat McCrory ran on several platforms in which he promised to “help turn North Carolina around.” The state had been suffering from tough financial times, among other issues.
One that McCrory mentioned prominently was the poor education system in the state.
“I have a passion for education. We will never be satisfied until we transform our public schools into centers of excellence,” McCrory said, as quoted on his website. “We cannot achieve excellence by simply spending more money on a broken system. We must make major reforms. Our primary goal must be to empower students to grasp control of their adult lives by providing them with the necessary skill set to get a job.”
He was elected in November 2012 and, with a GOP majority in the General Assembly, helped get across a new education budget, proposed in July. Backlash poured out from Democratic sources, claiming the budget harmed public education, teachers and students, while Republicans said they were doing more to help families and students succeed.
What the legislation means
The new state budget passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in July of 2013 saw sweeping changes to the public education system.
The budget included no raises in teacher salary but does give teachers and other state employees five additional days of paid leave for the year. Local districts have the option to supplement teacher pay, although there are no “step” raises for teachers based on years of experience.
Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said teachers have been expressing dismay about the education changes.
“They are outraged that the profession they love so much is being picked apart,” Jewell said. “They feel extremely disrespected.”
Reduction in funding for teacher assistants is the most significant cut at $120 million, a 21 percent decrease in funding. This could lead to the elimination of up to 3,850 positions across the state.
Additional pay for advanced degrees is being phased out, removing incentives for teachers to pursue a master’s degree or other higher education. Teachers must complete an advanced degree prior to the 2014-2015 school year to keep the advanced degree salary supplement.
Tenure for teachers, formerly known as career status, is also being phased out and replaced by contracts. Historically, teachers in North Carolina received tenure or career status after working for four years. Critics of the policy say it prevents bad teachers from being fired, but those that support tenure say it keeps good teachers from being fired unfairly. Under the new budget, tenure will be completely phased out by 2018.
Olivia Oxendine, a member of the North Carolina State Board of Education, said tenure has not served its purpose since it was installed in the state.
“The time was right to remove tenure,” Oxendine said. “It’s painful now, but 10 years from now people will look back and say it was a good thing.”
Starting in 2018, teachers will be offered one- to four- year contracts that are renewed based on performance. School boards are also required to offer $5,000 raises with four-year contracts to 25 percent of teachers in their district who have taught in the district throughout the last three years. The new policies are meant to reward the top-performing teachers in the state, but critics say it removes job security and discourages recruiting to the state.
“Offering teachers a contract is divisive and it doesn’t promote longevity,” Jewell said. “We need to reward all teachers through pay raises to bring us up to the national average.”
The budget provides funding for students’ fees for advanced placement (AP), international baccalaureate (IB) and career and technical education exams. The state will pay those fees, regardless of the student’s score on the exam.
Funding is being increased for low-income families by offering them $4,200 “opportunity scholarships” to help pay for a child to go to private school. Children with disabilities can receive up to $6,000 for private education. Free pre-K classes are being offered to 2,500 4-year-olds as part of a $12.5 million addition to the budget.
Some educators have voiced concern that scholarships going toward private education have no transparency as to how that money will be used.
“There’s no oversight or accountability with private education. Public dollars are for public schools,” Jewell said.
Oxendine said she supports the vouchers for private education because “parents and families deserve choices.”
“Vouchers take away from public education, but it’s a very small percentage,” Oxendine said.
More money is also being allocated for technology in schools, with $12 million of lottery money going toward classroom technology.
Development of the new budget
Both Democrats and Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly have been responsible for the gradual slide in teacher salary since the recession started in 2008. When Democrats controlled the legislature and the governor’s office that same year, teacher pay was frozen and teacher bonuses for high test scores were taken away. In 2008, North Carolina was ranked 25th in the nation for average teacher pay, according to the National Education Association.
When Republicans gained a majority of the legislature in 2011, a 1.2 percent raise was given to teachers and other state employees, but none was given in 2012. A new teacher now goes five years without receiving a raise.
Republicans blame rising Medicaid costs for not providing raises for teachers and other state employees this fiscal year. Throughout the next two years, $1.4 billion of the budget will be spent on Medicaid services.
Phil Berger, president pro tempore of the North Carolina Senate and one of the biggest proponents of the legislation, declined to answer questions for this article through his office and directed all inquiries to an op-ed he wrote for the News & Observer.
In the piece, he wrote that public education was not about “spending money” or “growing bureaucracy or guaranteeing employment and generous benefits regardless of performance.”
“We believe it’s about teaching our children and empowering them to be productive, successful members of society,” Berger wrote. “Last fall, voters overwhelmingly re-elected a Republican legislature to strengthen our schools so students succeed. And that’s a responsibility we take seriously.”
As soon as the budget was announced, the criticisms began to flow in from all sides. Democrats were especially frustrated.
“For the first time in my career of more than 30 years in public education, I am truly worried about students in our care,” June Atkinson, North Carolina’s state schools superintendent and a Democrat, told the Associated Press. “I am disappointed for the children in our state who will have fewer educators and resources in their schools as a result of the General Assembly’s budget.”
In August, the North Carolina Democratic Party put advertisements in newspapers across North Carolina to criticize the cuts enacted by Republicans.
“We wanted to lay out plainly the negative effects of Gov. McCrory and Republican legislators turning their backs on public education in our state,” Micah Beasley, a spokesman for the N.C. Democratic Party, told The Technician. “From increased classroom sizes to aging textbooks and dwindling supplies, these cuts are felt profoundly from pre-K all the way up to our public universities. Voters need to know this and they need to understand it.”
The advertisement claimed that “Republican leadership has failed teachers in North Carolina,” citing six different ways in which the budget failed teachers. The ad finished by encouraging readers to “tell” Republican leaders, including Gov. McCrory, to “study up on the 3 R’s: Raises, Resources and Respect!”
Negative response to the budget was bipartisan. Ann Goodnight, a member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors and a Republican, wrote a letter to the editor of the News & Observer that called the budget a “grievous mistake.”
“We need aggressive action to improve education across our state,” Goodnight wrote. “What we have is worse than inaction: It is harmful action. The only winners will be places that are investing in education and using the playbook we once embraced.”
Thomas Ross, president of the UNC school system that includes institutions in Chapel Hill, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Wilmington, also expressed concern about what the budget meant for his schools.
“I worry about the impact additional reductions will have on our ability to provide high-quality educational opportunities to our residents and to assist in North Carolina’s economic recovery,” he said in a statement when the budget proposal was released in March.
There hasn’t been much positive public reaction to the budget passed and initiatives enacted. An Elon Poll released in September showed that four out of five registered voters in North Carolina believed teachers were paid too little, and 53 percent of responders supported teacher tenure.
Berger claimed “dishonest” opponents of the budget cared more about money than about the students.
“There are some dishonest but powerful special interests in Raleigh who are forgetting what our public schools are all about,” he wrote. “Instead of focusing on the kids, they’re focusing on one thing: money for their union members. The way they talk, you’d think North Carolina schools are not going to open this year because there is no money and all the teachers have been fired.”
Berger wrote that the purpose of the budget was to help make schools in North Carolina better, not cut teachers or funding. He wrote that the budget actually allocated the most money on K-12 public education in state history.
The N.C. GOP’s website features an entire page on “the facts” on state education spending. The page offers answers to “some of the liberal left’s most outrageous claims.”
“It’s shameful how the hyper-partisan teachers' union — the largest and most organized group of paid lobbyists in the state — and their mouthpieces in the media continue to scare hard-working teachers and parents with wild claims that never seem to materialize,” the page says.