As North Carolina enters 2014, I have a New Year’s resolution for our state. In the next four years, let’s raise the pay of our public school teachers to the national average. Not talk about it, or vaguely promise it, but do it.
Our hard-working teachers deserve it. Today their pay ranks 46 among the 50 states. They could make as much as $10,000 a year more just by moving to South Carolina, Virginia or Tennessee to teach.
To reach this big, bold goal in four years, four things need to happen.
• North Carolina residents must see it as critical to the success of every child in our state. We the people must want to do it, we must speak up for it and we must pay for it.
• The governor and the General Assembly must believe it is necessary and must pass a law this year to do it.
• The governor and the legislature must appropriate the substantial money required each year to reach the goal.
• Over the four years of this effort, as we close in on the national average, the State Budget Office must calculate how much additional funding is required each year in light of the other states’ raising their own pay levels.
These funding commitments must be very large, so the governor must recommend money each year and the legislature must appropriate it.
This may sound daunting. It is. But North Carolina did it before, and we can do it again.
Here’s how we did it in the 1990s.
In 1996, I ran for a fourth term as governor on a platform of raising teacher pay to the national average. During the campaign, I talked with people all over the state about raising pay and improving teaching for all children. When North Carolinians elected me, they voted for that goal.
In 1997, I proposed the Excellent Schools Act to the General Assembly. The act, which raised standards for teachers and focused on greater learning by students, made a historic commitment to raise teacher pay to the national average in four years. It had powerful bipartisan support. It was co-sponsored by House Speaker Harold Brubaker, a Republican, and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, a Democrat. Democrats and Republicans supported it. The CEOs of 15 top North Carolina businesses went to the Legislative Building and strongly endorsed it. They knew it would boost economic growth and create jobs.
The bill passed overwhelmingly. We made the commitment. Then we put up the money.
Over the next two years, we raised teacher pay by 6.5 percent each year. We created a new teacher-salary schedule. The cost was $170 million each year – including bonuses for teachers who achieved National Board Certification.
And we appropriated $72 million of ABC incentive funds for teachers in schools where annual student learning increased markedly. Every teacher in those schools could earn an extra $750 or $1,500 a year, depending on whether students met or exceeded learning goals.
In the years 1999-2001, we raised teacher pay 7.5 percent each year, at a cost of $240 million per year. We also appropriated an additional $140 million for teacher incentive awards.
And in all four years, we paid teachers more for extra days worked and greater professional development.
By the year 2001, teacher pay in North Carolina had reached the national average. The average teacher’s salary went up more than a third – from $31,000 to $42,000. We rose from 43 in the national rankings to the top 20.
Student learning went up, too. Our average SAT scores rose 40 points, more than any other state. Our students made the highest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress of any state.
We proved we could do it, and we proved it was a wise investment. Now we need to do it again.
I talk to too many school teachers who are discouraged and demoralized. One Forsyth County teacher with 18 years’ experience worked a second job over the holidays, selling shoes in a mall. Some teachers make so little they qualify for Medicaid. Many teachers spend hundreds of dollars out of their own paychecks to buy classroom supplies.
We owe them a fair salary, and we owe it to their students. After all, the purpose of improving teaching is to help students learn more. We want to prepare each student in each school to be successful in a competitive world.
I believe North Carolinians want their teachers to be paid at the national average. They want our state’s elected leaders to commit us to this goal. They want our state to make a bipartisan, iron-clad commitment this year to raise teacher pay to the national average in four years.
Jim Hunt, a Democrat, served as North Carolina’s governor from 1977 to 1985 and from 1993 to 2001.