Legislators have cited unexpected cost overruns in Medicaid — which will total $248 million by the end of the fiscal year in June — as a major factor in reducing education funds.
But Ellinwood said this budget continues a trend seen in the state for several years.
“You don’t get to 46th (out of 50) in per-teacher spending overnight.”
Public school teachers have received one 1.2-percent pay raise since 2008 — and North Carolina has fallen more than 20 spots nationally in average teacher salary in the five years since.
The state’s average salary last year was $45,933 — a 15.7 percent decrease since 2001-02 and $10,000 less than the national average.
Jeff Nash, spokesman for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said current salary levels are unsustainable and are threatening teacher recruitment and retention.
“We have to get a lot of our teachers here from outside the state,” Nash said. “What’s going to recruit them here when (other states) offer them more money?
“I can’t imagine another profession where people four out of five years … have no pay increase.”
Alexis Schauss, director of the school business division at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, said state public schools will enroll 17,000 more students next year, but fewer teachers are employed than in 2008 — in large part due to low pay.
But Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation, said limited finances are forcing legislators to cut allocations to many different sectors, not just public education.
“The idea that we can simply increase teacher pay with the money we have … reveals ignorance about the different things the state government does and is obligated to fund,” he said.
He added that North Carolina’s high school graduation rate — which hit 80.2 percent in 2012 — is the highest it has ever been.
“We haven’t seen any evidence that freezing teacher pay has had any negative consequences on student performance.”
The Senate budget also includes a provision that would begin to eliminate teacher tenure at the K-12 level and shift to a pay-for-performance model — which rewards teachers based on classroom evaluations and students’ standardized test scores, not years of experience.
A full merit pay system would not be funded next year, but the budget allocates $10.2 million in 2014-15 to start implementing pilot programs for merit pay, which McCrory has said he supports.
Starting in fall 2014, tenured teachers could opt out of their tenure status in exchange for a four-year contract and a $500 bonus.
Stoops said paying for performance would provide a financial incentive for teachers.
The merit pay idea has drawn its fair share of critics, and Stoops said the evidence is mixed on similar systems in other states.
Ellinwood said merit pay would threaten the quality of instruction in at-risk and low-performing schools.
“It perversely encourages teachers to teach students who are already higher-performing, instead of students who are deficient and need help,” he said.
Nash said merit pay could be effective if it rewarded teachers for working toward advanced teaching certifications and furthering their skills as educators.
The N.C. House of Representatives began its budget discussions this week. House budget writers said they hope to have a budget passed by June 13.
Stoops said Republican legislators remain undecided on how to address teacher salaries and how to introduce merit pay.
“I expect we’ll at least see a shift to a different philosophy of paying teachers, rather than one size fits all,” he said.
Nash said he hopes legislators will ask for input from school systems around the state before settling on a merit pay system and on a final education budget.
“We have (ideas) that might have some merit — rather than a lot of non-educators deciding who have never been in a classroom.”
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