Johnston lawmakers defend spending in Cleveland

kjahner@newsobserver.comMarch 7, 2014 

— It’s not a new battle, but one that remains unresolved.

The week before Wake County joined 12 other school boards by passing a resolution to end teacher tenure, a smaller-scale but also vigorous debate about treatment of teachers took place in front of three lawmakers in Cleveland.

The three Republicans – Sens. Brent Jackson and Buck Newton as well as Rep. James Langdon – defended legislative policies from questions and criticism from different angles at a Feb. 27 town hall style meeting. One former teacher in particular blasted the group for “making the teachers feel like a doormat and wiping your feet on them,” an argument the trio acknowledged they had heard many times before.

The lawmakers expressed sympathy and argued that they passed the first raise for teachers since the recession – 1.2 percent in 2012 – as well as complaining that their hands were tied by budget constraints and troubles left by the prior administration. North Carolina has the slowest increase in teacher pay over the course of the last decade of any state, a time that includes sessions where both parties held control of all three legislative and executive bodies.

All of the lawmakers noted that state workers haven’t even had as many raises as teachers in recent years, and that revenues – which feature some tax cuts from the last legislative session and also suffer from a slow economic recovery – simply don’t allow big raises for anyone.

The exchange between representatives and Carole Edwards was civil but the words were harsh. And the lawmakers’ rationale shifted between a number of arguments against the former educator and mother of a teacher.

“You do not understand how much your teachers are so upset,” Edwards said. “Your teachers every day put their money and their heart into what they do. And they deserve better than what you’re doing.”

Jackson said the lawmakers understand the concerns, and agree about the dedication of teachers. But he said that there simply wasn’t enough money in the state budget, 56 percent of which already goes to education, and another 30 percent to health care.

Not enough

“When you’ve got a dollar to spend, and you’ve already spent 85 cent on it on two items, and you’ve got 15 percent to operate the state on things that affect people’s lives every day,” Jackson said, “We’ve done something. We gave a 1.2 percent raise when the previous two administrations hadn’t done anything.”

But that wasn’t enough for Edwards, who balked at Jackson’s claim that the initial raises proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory for teachers in their first five years would just be the first step to correcting the problem.

“Your teachers don’t see it that way, that’s just all I‘ve got to say right now,” said Edwards, who said her daughter would be paid less than new teachers under the current proposal, and had contemplated leaving the profession.

Part of the disconnect, Newton said, stems from the fact that the Republican legislature has at times not made its case as clear or compelling as it would like.

Asked about other states finding the money to catch and pass his during the economic downturn, Jackson argued that the state’s economy had been harder hit by recession and manufacturing flight than other states. Asked how other states with even poorer economic outlooks provided more education funding than North Carolina, he said opposition relied on data that didn’t tell the whole story.

“It depends on which numbers we look at to see where we do actually rank in teacher pay,” Jackson said before letting Langdon elaborate: “They use average teacher salaries. They don’t say nothing about insurance, they don’t say nothing about retirement. You put that in there and it changes the whole picture,” Landon said of oft-cited National Education Association data. That report notes that it does not include benefits.

Performance issues

Meanwhile, one of the lawmakers broached student performance as Edwards prodded them on pay. Newton said two-thirds of students were not reading at grade level. After Edwards disagreed with the evaluation system, Newton said the General Assembly didn’t set those standards he had just used to criticize performance.

Afterward, Newton clarified, restating the idea that student learning needed to improve.

“The data we have available to us is more than two-thirds of our students are not reading at grade level. That's not blaming anybody, that's a reality we have to face. We've been spending X, and this is the result,” said Newton, who represents northern Johnston County. “What I'm saying and I think what others are trying to say is that status quo is not acceptable. We have to work harder to find ways to address these problems. Pay is not necessarily the solution to these problems, nor is it the cause of these problems.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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