CHAPEL HILL — Gov. Pat McCrory outlined his plans for education Thursday, including a proposed $30 million innovation fund that would reward 1,000 top teachers with $10,000 stipends.
He also called for a sharp reduction in standardized testing in North Carolina classrooms and pledged his support for the Common Core learning standards that have been a target for conservative critics, including Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
Speaking to a friendly audience at a state chamber of commerce conference in Chapel Hill, McCrory maintained that he is pro-education and a supporter of teachers.
“Education is more than testing, pay scales and rankings,” McCrory said. “It’s about unleashing teachers and focusing on outcomes that will produce highly qualified workers for well-paying jobs.”
McCrory’s announcement came days after angry teachers traveled by busloads to the state capital, where they demonstrated against the Republican state budget that eliminated 3,850 teacher assistants, ended extra pay for teachers with master’s degrees and phased out teacher tenure.
Outside the conference at the Chapel Hill Sheraton, a crowd of educators and others protested, wearing red T-shirts and waving placards. Many tried, but were unable to get tickets to the sold-out event. But after watching a live media feed of the speech, some educators were less than enthusiastic about what they heard. Some questioned the numbers the governor used to bolster claims in his speech, and others challenged his commitment to public education.
“It came out as a bunch of smoke and mirrors to me,” said Rodney Ellis, president of the N.C. Association of Educators. “I guarantee you’re going to see more teachers leave than you’re going to see come to North Carolina.”
The governor’s proposed innovation fund also would spend money on digital learning and innovative schools, said McCrory, a Republican. About $4 million would come from the recently approved state budget; the rest would have to come from changes to North Carolina’s Race to the Top grant award. That would require federal approval by a Democratic administration.
Master teachers who receive the stipends would be chosen by their peers, McCrory said, and would give direct feedback to policymakers about what works best in the classroom. “We want to get input from the best of the best,” he said.
Change in pay
The innovation fund would represent a move toward teacher compensation based on performance and away from an archaic pay scale, McCrory said.
“Productive teachers whose students achieve higher academic outcomes are paid the very same as teachers who do just enough to possibly get by,” he said. “Teachers are not a class, but professionals who should be rewarded based on their individual value to their students and their school.”
McCrory said the issue of flat teacher pay has worsened under both Republican and Democratic leadership and that North Carolina’s low teacher pay ranking was not much different now than in recent years under Democrats.
“It was unacceptable then and it’s unacceptable now,” McCrory said.
The governor also said he wants to free teachers from what he described as “ineffective and very burdensome” testing. He said he wants to spend the next year working to eliminate many, but not all, standardized tests.
“When do teachers teach, if all they’re doing is giving tests?” he asked. “This is the feedback we’re getting, and we’re listening. With this testing load we are turning our teachers into proctors. We need to slow down and regroup with all these tests and let our teachers teach.”
The governor expressed his approval of the Common Core State Standards on reading and math, which have been adopted by 45 states but have recently been bashed by some conservative commentators and state legislatures. McCrory said the standards are high and relevant.
“It’s not the standards that are bad; it’s the execution which must be improved here in North Carolina,” he said.
State Superintendent June Atkinson said she is glad McCrory supports the Common Core standards. “It is important for our teachers and communities to recognize that they are rigorous standards and we need to move forward.”
Carol Vandenberg, executive director of the Professional Educators of North Carolina, a nonpartisan organization with a membership of 7,000 North Carolina educators, said that while the governor’s declaration of support for public education was encouraging, “it’s incredibly difficult for educators to believe in his words.”
Vandenberg’s organization has been fact-checking statements after the legislative session that ended last week. Some legislators claimed that though the budget offered no raises for teachers, that tax law changes would actually mean they keep more money that essentially amounts to a 1 percent raise. But after running numbers on five teacher-pay scenarios with information provided by legislative research staff, Vandenberg said she did not find a situation in which teachers actually would have more.
The N.C. Association of Educators, which has threatened to sue over the teacher tenure phaseout and the abandonment of higher pay for teachers with master’s degrees, put out a political briefing Thursday that countered many of McCrory’s assertions at the chamber conference. The organization contends that an average teacher salary is $45,000 and that the tax package McCrory referenced “does nothing to help low- and middle-income earners.”
Ellis and his organization also contend that McCrory used a calculation put out by the John Locke Foundation, an organization that receives the bulk of its funding from family foundations tied to Art Pope, the governor’s budget director and a heavy political contributor to conservative causes.
“A public claim that money was added to North Carolina public schools is a plain and simple falsehood,” said Ellis, one of the people unable to get a conference ticket. “One only needs to look at the budget – the entire budget and not just select money reports – and the cuts to the classrooms are clear.”
Both Vandenberg and Ellis said teachers did not turn out in force to protest the legislative session that just ended because of the flat salaries. They said a merit program that rewards only 1,000 of the state’s 95,000 teachers in a given year underscores what teachers have described as a “disrespect” for them and their work. Teachers go into their profession, the education advocates said, knowing their pay is not going to be high.
“It assumes only one top performing teacher in any one school,” Vandenberg said. “I’m not saying it’s a bad plan, because I’ve not seen the details. But at a time when morale is at an all-time low, it’s incredibly difficult to think about paying certain teachers more than others.”