CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Wednesday’s news that Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is considering a special session for the purpose of passing a teacher-pay raise reminded me — not for the first time — of just how much she and the governor of my new home state have in common, especially when it comes to funding public education and teacher-pay issues.
Fallin and Gov. Pat McCrory (R-N.C.) are both hapless governors whose most superb political instincts appear to be sticking to their guns until they finally realize their actions have been interpreted as tone deafness or, worse, complete ignorance of reality.
To compensate, they spend an inordinate amount of time frantically backpedaling in an effort to save their political skins. When people haven’t been paying attention (and these governors definitely hope they haven’t), Fallin and McCrory try to pretend like they’ve always been champions of the people’s will. At least, that’s been my takeaway from watching these two political masterminds as of late.
Oklahoma’s education woes
When she became governor in 2010, Gov. Mary Fallin was known for many things, but being a champion of public education certainly wasn’t one of them. She was, however, brazen in her call to cut income taxes, a move that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthier Oklahomans and deprive the state of revenue necessary for delivering quality services to the public. A study released in January showed how income tax cuts over a 10-year period had indeed deprived Oklahoma of more than $1 billion in revenue. State officials, including Fallin, of course, quickly blamed falling oil prices as the culprit.
In May, Reuters published a scathing report that laid bare the state’s continued coddling of oil and gas companies at the expense of high-quality public education. It’s a fascinating read that seamlessly explains Oklahoma’s failure to invest in public education when gas and oil prices soared.
Shortsightedness reigned supreme, and Oklahoma lawmakers and their governor forgot the lesson their predecessors learned the hard way in the 1980s: Oil bubbles will eventually burst. Unlike other oil-rich states such as North Dakota, Oklahoma did not prepare for that eventuality. Now, Oklahoma school districts are forced to cut teacher positions and days of school instruction.
North Carolina’s ‘substantial cuts’
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory is running for reelection this year in what is predicted to be one of the most competitive (and expensive) gubernatorial races in the country.
One issue, teacher pay, will play a major role in the campaign.
McCrory and legislative leaders have been lambasted for their treatment of public school teachers and public education since 2012, when McCrory wrested the governor’s mansion from Democratic control.
McCrory was the first Republican to win the governor’s mansion in 20 years, which meant the GOP now controlled the legislative and executive branches of government for the first time in a century. McCrory and legislative leaders wasted no time in promoting an agenda that, among other things, included substantial cuts to public education and teacher tenure.
It is important to understand North Carolina’s historical veneration of public education because it makes what’s happening today so much more scandalous to North Carolina residents. For decades, the state of North Carolina has worked to build a stellar reputation as a leader in public education. Republicans and Democrats alike championed public education and took great pride in the state’s continued investment in high-quality K-12 schools and public universities.
‘Official state philosophy’
As author and political science professor Tom Eamon explains in The Making of a Southern Democracy: North Carolina Politics from Kerr Scott to Pat McCrory, public education became a “sort of official state philosophy, a quasi-religion.” (The state’s official religion, of course, is college basketball. As an aside, if you’re planning to move to North Carolina, you had better decide if you’re with Duke or UNC. You will be questioned when you cross the state line. Prepare your defenses accordingly.)
Two of North Carolina’s most celebrated executives, Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican, and Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, both championed high-quality public education during their time in office. Hunt is often referred to as the nation’s first “education governor,” and he continues to speak out against the draconian cuts to public education here in North Carolina. (I’ve always thought of him as North Carolina’s version of David Boren.)
In 1997, during Hunt’s fourth term in office, he asked the General Assembly to raise the state’s teacher pay to the national average over a four-year period. By the 2001-02 school year, the state ranked 19th in the nation for average teacher pay. It’s worth mentioning that Hunt achieved this goal while working with a divided government: At the time, the N.C. House was controlled by Republicans and the N.C. Senate was controlled by Democrats. In today’s highly partisan atmosphere, it seems almost a quixotic feat.
In 2008, North Carolina ranked 25th in the nation and was ranked as one of the best states for public education in the southern region. Unfortunately, this success did not last. The Great Recession decimated state revenues, and teachers’ pay raises were frozen. Teachers in the Tar Heel State (and state employees) went five years without a pay raise or bonus. In the 2013-14 session, legislative leaders added insult to injury when they voted to cut $500 million from the education coffers. By 2014, North Carolina had dropped to 47th in the nation. After accounting for inflation, North Carolina’s average teacher pay dropped 13 percent in 15 years.
Now that it’s an election year, McCrory is here to save the day. On July 14, he signed the state’s $22 billion budget into law and held a press conference (at an elementary school, of course) to herald the 4.7 percent average pay increase for teachers across the state. The raise will push average teacher pay above $50,000 for the first time in the state’s history.
Of course, not all teachers will receive the same bump in pay: According to the Charlotte Observer, “Teacher … raises [will range] from 2 percent for teachers with 25 or more years of experience to 8.1 percent for teachers with 14 years of experience.” Unsurprisingly, many of North Carolina’s veteran teachers view the move as too little, too late.
As in Oklahoma’s case, it didn’t take long for other states to take advantage of North Carolina’s dismal treatment of teachers. Texas school districts have benefited most, it would seem, as they continue to recruit teachers out of both states easily.
So here we are. American education advocates have seen McCrory proudly pander — standing in an elementary school to tout how much he thinks of public school teachers. And they’ve seen Fallin flail — suddenly convinced three months before an election on State Question 779 that we should pay a modicum of attention to Oklahoma’s downtrodden public school teachers. (Never mind that calling a special session costs the taxpayers extra money. It’s an election year, so that doesn’t matter.)
The truth is that McCrory’s record on public education is being hammered to pieces by his opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, while Fallin, from what I can gather, is trying to cut the legs out from under SQ 779’s broader and more permanent education funding solutions. In reality, they both waited too long to act, and now they’re trying to undo the massive problems they themselves have created or made worse.
While it’s true that most states experienced difficulties recovering from the Great Recession, Gov. McCrory and Gov. Fallin are two unique leaders who blithely plowed ahead with self-aggrandizing agendas destined to benefit few in the long run.
The quality of a state’s public education is inextricably linked with the long-term health, quality of life and economic opportunities of its residents, and it’s my hope that citizens of both Oklahoma and North Carolina will continue to fight for their public schools.