RALEIGH, N.C. — The start of the new school year has reinforced the question many North Carolina voters have pondered for decades when choosing the state’s chief executive: who is truly an “Education Governor?”
Both Republican incumbent Pat McCrory and the man seeking to unseat him, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, have tried so far during their closely fought gubernatorial race to prove they’re worthy of that mantle — worn previously by prominent Govs. Jim Hunt, Terry Sanford, Jim Holshouser and Charles Aycock.
So it’s little wonder the campaigns are feverishly trying to press the issue as school began in most districts last week. Both sides have been fixated with $50,000 — a figure McCrory uses to paint a narrative of educational progress and his detractors argue is misleading.
The amount is what McCrory and GOP legislators say average teacher pay in the state will be this fall — legislative documents calculate it as $50,150 — when local government funds are combined with the average 4.7 percent teacher pay increase in the state budget approved by the General Assembly and signed by McCrory.
McCrory has trumpeted the $50,000 figure around the state, bringing along with him a banner that reads “Teacher Pay to 50K” when he visited a Johnston County school this past week.
“For years teacher pay in North Carolina had been declining and ended up near the bottom,” McCrory says in a campaign ad, but now “average teacher pay next year will be over $50,000 and that’s just the start.”
Democrats and allies question whether $50,000 will be reached based on their own number-crunching. They say the figure is an election-year gimmick that hides from the fact that average teacher pay has languished near the bottom of the states since Republicans took control of state government.
There have been teacher pay raises each of the past three years, but not all teachers received them annually.
“Let me assure you, I am making well under $50,000 a year,” Hannah Bethea, a 11-year school teacher from Franklin County, said at a news conference by the North Carolina Association of Educators, which endorsed Cooper. She said the pay raise she received this fall puts $53 more per month in her pockets.
Cooper’s campaign rolled out an ad last week featuring a Durham County teacher packing up her home to move to Virginia for a new job, lamenting low pay and education spending under McCrory.
“I have a plan to make education a priority … ensuring our classrooms have the resources they need and raising teacher pay to at least the national average,” Cooper said in a video released last week. “We’ve done it before and we can do it again.”
North Carolina’s average teacher salary ranked 41st nationwide during the 2015-16 school year and is expected to move up this year. Republicans have pointed out North Carolina’s rank fell during the past recession under Democratic rule.
“All I do know is teachers are making more money now than they were in the past and at least the past five years and that’s very positive news,” McCrory said at Riverwood Middle School in Clayton, where he talked with teachers about how future pay raises should be distributed.
Education may not be as important an issue in determining this year’s election, said Tom Eamon, an East Carolina University professor and author on North Carolina politics. The influence of the presidential race — particularly Donald Trump — and response to a law McCrory signed limiting nondiscrimination rules for LGBT people could be greater, he said.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he’s concerned fixation over the $50,000 figure will obscure a broader discussion about the direction of K-12 education in the state and chronic problems such as teacher shortages and standardized testing.
“It’s important to the state that education be on the front burner,” Guillory said.