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TeachersHeadline-hunting legislative leaders got what they wanted and needed (for now) with yesterday’s latest budget announcement. They wanted the story to be first and foremost about big teacher raises and it appears pretty clear that they got that. Media outlets around the state are reporting that central component of the proposed budget agreement this morning and millions of North Carolinians are waking up to the news — even if it’s frequently tinged with skepticism.

The problem with this story, of course is that, by all indications, the pay raise is being purchased at an enormous price — i.e. big cuts everywhere else –including education — along with tiny and inadequate pay raises for other public employees (including education personnel).

In short, though many details remain to be seen, the central and disastrous driving force behind this year’s budget — last year’s regressive and backward-looking tax cuts remain in full force. As budget analyst Tazra Mitchell wrote here yesterday:

There are better choices available that will put North Carolina on a stronger path to recovery for children, families, and communities across the Tarheel state. For starters, lawmakers need to face the reality that we can’t afford further tax cuts and stop the income tax cuts that are scheduled to go into effect next January. Doing so will save approximately $100 million in the current fiscal year and $300 million in the 2015 calendar year. These revenues would go a long way towards reversing the most damaging cuts that were enacted in the aftermath of the Great Recession. That’s a short-term fix.  A longer term fix requires restoring the progressive personal income tax structure so that revenues are stable and more adequate.

The only saving grace of the budget is this: the message it sends to progressives. As dreadful as the budget is — both for the near and long term — it does serve to remind progressives of the power of advocacy. Read More

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On the heels of its Raleigh job fair in May, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) is once again looking to poach North Carolina’s school teachers to come work in Texas for much higher pay. The Texas school district will be holding job fairs this week in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte.Houston

The available jobs in Houston, according to Greensboro’s News & Record, are in “critical shortage” areas including bilingual education, secondary math and science, special education and career and technical education.

HISD, which is headed by former Guilford County Schools superintendent Terry Grier, advertises a starting salary for teachers of $49,100. In North Carolina, the starting salary for teachers is currently $30,800. The advertisement says the Houston school district is “prepared to make job offers on the spot.”

North Carolina currently ranks 46th in the nation in teacher pay, and there has been no shortage of attention to the fact that teachers, who haven’t seen a significant pay increase in six years, are leaving the state in large numbers.

Lawmakers are currently embroiled in a budget battle over how much more to pay teachers, proposing anywhere from a 6 to 11 percent pay raise and bringing the starting salary for teachers up to $35,000.

But those salary increases may come at the expense of teacher assistants, who could be laid off in large numbers this fall to pay for the pay bumps.

See HISD’s job fair advertisements here, here and here.

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With another day of negotiations on tap, the Wilmington Star News says it’s time for state representatives and senators to end their posturing and find some common ground. The editorial board writes that the current budget logjam has only served to create more uncertainty for educators and North Carolina’s public schools. Here an excerpt from Thursday’s editorial:

Budget cutsIt was encouraging news when, on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, announced that the House and Senate had agreed not to tie a teacher pay increase to tenure. The stipulation had been inserted by the Senate, which until Tuesday stood firm by its decision. While the two sides still had much to discuss – not the least of which was the Senate’s insistence on cutting funding for teacher assistants – they had cleared one roadblock.

That kumbaya moment didn’t last long.

Senate leaders walked out on the budget talks Wednesday morning, an indication that this will be a very long “short session.” House members of the conference committee wanted to hear from superintendents about the education budget; Senate leaders countered that it would be against the rules and walked out in a huff.

They returned, but news media covering the talks reported that the mood was much less harmonious.

By law, the General Assembly is supposed to have a budget in place by July 1, the start of the 2014-15 fiscal year. It is not unusual for negotiations to drag the process out a few weeks, but typically by this point there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Based on the current stalemate, things don’t look promising for a spending plan anytime soon.

Gov. Pat McCrory and the state House have stood together on one side, while the Senate’s budget contained significant differences in how to handle education and Medicaid, among other things. The conference committee reached an agreement on Medicaid last week, though it still falls short. Nevertheless, it was progress.

Likewise, it seemed Tuesday that the Honorables were moving toward a budget agreement. Then it was back to square one.

The House is right to object to severe cuts in funding for teacher assistants. Regardless of a study senators tout that said teacher assistants have no measurable improvement on student achievement, teachers know they are an invaluable resource, particularly in classrooms where a large percentage of children need help catching up academically. As more pressure is put on teachers and students to Pass That Test, teacher assistants give their education partners the one thing no pay raise can: time – time to spend working in small groups or individually with students.

Yet, if the House and Senate can’t sit down long enough to discuss the issue, school systems won’t even be sure what money they will and won’t have to spend next year. Let us hope that calmer heads and a spirit of compromise for the good of the people prevail. Uncertainty is no way to run state government.

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This morning’s edition of Setting the record straight over on the main Policy Watch website has some rare praise for the surprisingly progressive rhetoric emanating from state budget negotiations this week. But it also takes lawmakers to task for their failure to seize upon the most obvious solution to their inability to find a way to fund the essential services (i.e. teachers and health care) that they have prioritized. The best answer to the General Assembly’s budget dilemma, of course, is to halt next January’s scheduled tax cut that will primarily benefit the rich:

“According to the best and most recent estimates, the 2013 tax cuts – which overwhelmingly favor the state’s most wealthy taxpayers – are costing the state more than $500 million in foregone revenue in the fiscal year that began last week. Add to this the fact that the cuts have caused a downward revision of revenue projections by another $190 million and the gap may well balloon to more than $700 million.

Even if lawmakers left these cuts in place, however, and merely stopped the implementation of a yet another round of tax cuts scheduled to take effect next January, the state would still realize $300 million in additional revenue in calendar year 2015 – more than enough to make a significant dent in the education shortfall and solve innumerable problems in the current negotiations.”

Meanwhile, this morning’s lead editorial in the Charlotte Observer has another quick fix proposal — at least on teacher pay: Read More

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Senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County

Senator Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County

As Clayton Henkel and Lindsay Wagner report in the posts below, negotiations over teacher pay have taken what appears to be a positive turn this week at the General Assembly with the announcement that the state Senate is willing to back down on its demand that teachers choose between a pay raise and their right to a measure of due process when it comes losing their jobs.

It’s welcome news, but news that is tempered by the fact that Senators apparently kept their fingers crossed behind their backs while they made the offer. Senate Education Committee chairman Jerry Tillman also told reporters Lynn Bonner and Jim Morrill that the matter of teacher due process (i.e. “tenure”) would be back:

“’We’ll get rid of tenure in 2018,’ he said. ‘That issue will be settled.’”

Perhaps even more frustrating than Tillman’s statement in the aftermath of yesterday’s negotiations, however, were the comments of his Senate colleague and fellow conservative fire-breather, Bob Rucho.

When asked about the Senate’s consistent refusal to budge on its plan to pay for teacher raises by firing thousands of teacher assistants (a plan that even Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger hinted might finally be on the way out) Rucho was his usual  aggressive self. As Morrill and Bonner reported: Read More