Changes Aim to Improve Teaching, Add Choices
In part I of this two-part series on the shape and direction of education reform in North Carolina, we looked behind the education budget numbers. Now in Part II we discuss this year’s legislative steps to address concerns about student achievement, teacher salaries and school vouchers.
While Democrats and Republicans disagree on much, one thing both can agree on is the need to raise student achievement. If we are to improve our economy,provide young people with a solid chance to obtain good jobs and to support themselves and their families, our students must improve academic performance. Much research suggests one of the best ways to improve student achievement is access to a high-quality teacher. A 2012 study by researchers Raj Chetty and John Friedman found effective teachers are linked not only to better academic outcomes but also many other positive life outcomes.  No matter the study — and there have been many — the results are the same: high-quality teachers can have a tremendous impact on student achievement.
Conservatives and Republicans have embraced these findings and sought to make high-quality teaching an important element of an education reform program. Improving teacher quality was a constant theme of the past legislative session. It wasn’t always a popular option, in part because the action assumed the teacher workforce needed improvement. However, if we are honest, teachers are like other professionals. The vast majority are hardworking, conscientious, productive professionals who care about the kids they teach and whose efforts contribute significantly to their students’ academic performance. Still, like all professions there are some whose efforts — for whatever reason — fall short of acceptable standards. If North Carolina truly cares about improving academic performance, it won’t rest until all children have access to a quality teacher.
This past session legislators took steps to do just that. The legislature approved significant improvements to teacher licensure in North Carolina. The number of total education requirements was increased. In addition, there are now licensure requirements in content specific areas. Before receiving a license, K-6 teachers must now have a minimum score for subtests in reading and math before receiving a license. Lawmakers also approved the development of the NC Teacher Corps program and expanded the Teach for America program in North Carolina.
While this legislation was important, the most significant provision to improve teacher quality was approval of legislation to eliminate teacher career status. The legislation also granted school boards the authority to offer teachers contracts ranging from one to four years, based on years of experience. The change gives local school districts authority to decide who teaches in the classroom. In essence the legislation puts the school board back in the middle of hiring decisions and creates a much-needed link between hiring and job performance.
Aside from criticism over the state budget, the single biggest area where conservatives and Republican legislators have been criticized is teacher salaries. The 2013-14 budget failed to provide a salary increase for teachers. In 2011-12, meager as it may appear, teachers and other state employees did receive an average 1.2 percent pay raise. In 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 teachers and state employees received no pay raise. If you’re looking for trends, the last five years have been difficult for teachers with only one pay raise.
However, the five-year period previous to that (2005-2009), annual salary increases for teachers totaled 23.7 percent and averaged 4.7 percent annually. So, truth be told, it seems as if teachers have been subject to wide swings of the pendulum.
When the legislative session ended, many lawmakers were heavily criticized for not giving teachers a pay raise. Most legislators wanted to do something for teachers. However, the budget shortfall and $550 million in Medicaid cost overruns eliminated that option. It is clear that teacher salaries need to be improved. Still, it would have been irresponsible for the legislature to spend the millions required for raises when the money clearly wasn’t available.
The tight budgets and low salaries have only upped the criticism of lawmakers. It is difficult to miss, however, the selective indignation of the Left. During the recession years of 2009-10 and 2010-11 – when the legislature was controlled by Democrats – there were similar if not greater budget reductions and staff layoffs in the public schools. Yet, one is hard-pressed to find teacher rallies and the endless vilification of the party in power by education groups. The simple fact is the current wave of budget reductions for the public schools didn’t start with the Republicans.
These are tough times and tough decisions need to be made. Instead of just paying teachers, lawmakers evaluated how teachers were being paid. Critics blasted Republicans for the state’s relatively low starting and average teacher salary, a condition that makes it difficult to attract and retain quality teachers, and new provisions to eliminate supplemental pay. The budget bill included provisions to eliminate differential pay (10 percent) for teachers and other staff with master’s degrees currently not collecting the benefit. Differential pay for those with doctoral degrees will also be phased out beginning
next year. While understandably not popular with many teachers, the legislation was driven by stark realities: limited funds and the absence of a strong linkage between a master’s or doctoral degree and enhanced student achievement. Though a difficult sell, the legislation was the right thing to do. The savings should free up additional monies to help improve teacher salaries in the future.
The average starting teacher salary in North Carolina continues to be a point of discussion. An average starting salary for a new teacher is $30,800. Such a salary will do little to entice good teachers to come to North Carolina or to stay in the field.
Critics contend under the current salary schedule it takes a new teacher approximately 15 years to earn $40,000. However, they fail to mention some important facts. Teachers on average receive about $3,700 annually in the form of local supplemental pay. Critics also fail to mention that if a teacher receives National Board of Professional Teacher Standards (NBPTS) certification, he or she will receive an immediate pay raise of 12 percent for the next 10 years. North Carolina has the highest number (19,799) of NBPTS certified teachers of any state in the nation. Obviously, these supplements could boost
pay significantly and increase the income potential for new teachers.
Figures rank North Carolina average teacher salaries as 46th nationally. National Education Association state teacher surveys are usually the source of such rankings and the results have their own bias. For example, they usually don’t include the dollar value of Social Security payments, retirement benefits or hospitalization insurance. In North Carolina these benefits add about $12,000 in value to an average compensation package.
In addition, inherent in teacher salary rankings is also a perceived relationship between pay and quality. Although this relationship is not unimportant, the research clearly shows salary is not the only component of quality teaching. If it was, the best public schools would be in New York and New Jersey, where teacher salaries are highest. Pay is often higher in these areas simply because the cost of living is higher in large urban areas. It costs more to live in Manhattan than it does in Winston-Salem. Salary rankings, however, fail to account for that fact.
Another significant shortcoming of the current teacher salary rankings is that they are frequently made when legislatures are still in session and often fail to account for the changes other states make or will make during the same time period. In other words, the data is incomplete.
This is not to say low teacher salaries are not a problem in North Carolina. However, anyone who studies this problem for any length of time soon realizes that salary increases do little to address the real heart of the problem: shortcomings with the current salary schedule.
The salary schedule sets starting wages for teachers and pay increases. Under the current structure, salary increases are determined by years of service and academic degrees or additional certification. In addition, the legislature must authorize step increases. Up until last year, starting teachers with a master’s degree would make approximately $300 more than those without. Teachers with doctoral degrees would also earn an additional supplement. Teachers who possess National Board of Professional Teacher Standards Certification receive an immediate 12 percent pay increase.
Under the current system, salary increases are linked to teacher credentials, not student performance. Regrettably, the research finds no strong link between teacher credentials and improved student performance. These conditions are not without practical impact. Because credentials and years of service — not academic performance — largely determine salary it is not uncommon for excellent teachers and average teachers to be paid the same salary. Such realities serve as a significant disincentive to attracting and retaining quality teachers.
Lastly, the current salary schedule is problematic because the low salary “slope” on the front end guarantees that young teachers will have difficulty earning meaningful salary increases during the years when they are apt to have the most energy and be most productive. 
Today teacher pay in North Carolina is determined largely by factors unrelated to student performance. If we want to attract high-quality teachers this must change. Legislation that offers teachers one- to four-year contracts gives principals and superintendents more flexibility to hire and retain high quality teachers. For these reasons a new commission on teacher compensation has also been formed to ensure that a new salary system is competitive with those of other states.
The 2013-14 legislative session approved two bills to expand school choice in North Carolina. Opportunity Scholarship grants will provide up to $4,200 per year to eligible students to attend the school of their choice. Children with Disabilities Scholarships will provide up to $3,000 per semester to reimburse tuition costs or special education and related services for an eligible child who is educated in a home school or non public school.
Critics of these proposals have been vocal in their opposition. The criticism focuses on two assertions: 1) vouchers weaken an already under-funded public school system, and 2) vouchers have been foisted on the public outside the mainstream of public opinion. Let’s explore these claims.
Do voucher programs take needed funds from the public schools? A recent fiscal memo from the nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division analyzing the Opportunity Scholarship program is instructive. In 2014-15 the net state fiscal impact for the Opportunity Scholarship Grant program is estimated at $1.6 million. The net state local impact for the same year is estimated at zero. The net state impact for 2015-16 ranges from $2.8 to $7.1 million. The net local impact for the same year is estimated at $4.5 million. With the state public education budget hovering around $8 billion annually, these estimates hardly constitute the dismantling of public education. It should also be noted that because the cost of educating students at many private schools is less than the costs of attending the public schools, in the long run voucher programs will actually save the state money.
Are voucher programs merely the wild ideas of fringe conservative groups hoping to escape a failing system of public education? The charge does not withstand close scrutiny. Many conservative politicians came to office in 2010 because they believed parents should have greater control over where their children went to school and because they wanted expanded access to quality education opportunities. In short, conservatives wanted expanded educational freedom for children and parents.
Polling data in North Carolina suggests strong support for school choice. An analysis of eight years of Civitas Polling along with results from the Friedman-Civitas Poll last year substantiates growing and strong statewide support for school choice. Last year a Friedman-Civitas poll found nearly 6 in 10 North Carolinians said they support school vouchers. Earlier this year when asked if they favor or oppose a proposal to provide up to $4,200 to eligible students for a scholarship grant, 68 percent responded favorably.  The polls also show that support for school choice is strong across categories of political affiliation, race and geographic regions. Expanded school choice for parents and students is an idea that transcends politics and is supported by positive results.  Actions taken by the legislature this past session were in response to those realities.
Criticism of conservative and Republican education priorities has been steady. Budget makers have done a good job of navigating difficult budgets while implementing historic education reform legislation. Unfortunately they haven’t done a good job of communicating the why of budget and policy choices. Improving teacher quality and expanding parental freedom are proven methods for improving student achievement. Policymakers need discipline to stay the course and not be detracted by the ever-present noise from critics whose main purpose is to make sure the plans do not succeed.
“The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers,” Harvard University, December 2011: http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/value_added.html. For additional research on this topic see “Valuing Teachers” in Education Next, Summer 2011 available at: http://educationnext.org/valuing-teachers/
For a meaningful discussion of the shortcomings of the NC salary schedule see: Scrap the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule, Prof. Jacob Vigdor, Education Next, Summer 2008 available at: http://educationnext.org/scrap-the-sacrosanct-salary-schedule/.
See Civitas-DecisionMaker Polls 2005-2013 and Friedman Civitas September 2012 poll. All results available at www.nccivitas.org
Civitas Poll, March 2013.
For an extended review of the research on the positive benefits of school choice, see: A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice, Greg Forster, Ph.D. published by Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. Available at: http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Reports/A-Win-Win-Solution–The-Empirical-Evidence-on-School-Choice.aspx