North Carolina, a state once seen at the forefront of progressive education policy, has become a battleground where reformers and teachers’ advocates are clashing over a wide-ranging new voucher program and the elimination of tenure-based pay.
Test scores improved and teacher salaries hovered at the national average under former Gov. Jim Hunt’s second term, from 1993-2001. Now, teacher pay in North Carolina is 46th in the nation and the number of schools meeting federal performance measures is consistently low, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Gov. Pat McCrory signed a budget bill in July that immediately abolished teacher tenure and automatic, degree-based pay increases. It also introduced a $10 million voucher program.
According to the law, the top 25 percent of teachers, based on performance, will be offered four-year contracts. All others will be offered one- or two-year contracts. How performance will be measured has not been determined, according to Gov. McCrory’s press office.
Janice Poda, education workforce director for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) explains that the new law implies “it is possible for brand new teachers to make the same salary as those teaching for many years.”
Critics of the law include CCSSO and North Carolina State Superintendent June Atkinson, who is worried teacher morale could dip. One common factor among low-achieving schools is a high teacher turnover rate, she says. “I fear our teachers will feel they do not have the support of our General Assembly,” says Atkinson, who has held the job since 2004. “Many will leave to teach in neighboring states.”
The voucher program also concerns Atkinson. The state’s public schools are rated on an A-F grading system, but private schools are exempt. Therefore, Atkinson says, parents cannot measure if a private school is better than the public option.
The National Council on Teacher Quality and the Center for Education Reform support the law. Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute, adds that the law is comprehensive and impressive. “Studies have shown that teacher effectiveness does not increase with master’s degrees or years of experience,” he says. And vouchers will result in greater competition between public, charter, and private schools, he adds.
What may unite the two sides is Gov. McCrory’s promise to cut “ineffective and burdensome testing,” which could please reformers and teachers, according to the Governor’s press office.