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Educators all over the country are paying close attention to what's going on in North Carolina. Teachers' salaries in the state are losing ground fast. No state has seen a more dramatic decrease in teacher salary rankings in the past 10 years. North Carolina is also making unprecedented changes to its pay practices for educators. For example, teachers who earn a master's degree no longer get an automatic salary increase. Teachers are angry about the changes and they're filing suit. Dave Dewitt of North Carolina Public Radio reports.
DAVE DEWITT, BYLINE: Jennifer Spivey has been a teacher for three years at South Columbus High School, on the north side of the border between the Carolinas. She's been recognized as an outstanding teacher. She has a master's degree and, last summer, won a prestigious fellowship. She also still lives in her parents' basement.
JENNIFER SPIVEY: Can't afford to move out. I'm glad my mama cooks dinner every night 'cause wouldn't be able to afford to live if I didn't.
DEWITT: Spivey has never had a raise, and as bad as that sounds, the news for teachers in North Carolina got worse over the past year. In an effort to give more control to local school districts, the state legislature passed sweeping changes to public education. Many affected teachers directly. The Republican-controlled general assembly ended teacher tenure, halted a salary bump for earning a master's degree, and eliminated a cap on class size.
TERRY STOOPS: They did it all at once.
DEWITT: Terry Stoops directs education studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based think tank.
STOOPS: They don't get style points for it but the number of reforms that were passed received some awe from some of my colleagues in other states that said, I can't believe that North Carolina was able to do all that in one year. And in particular, the elimination of the master's degree supplement.
DEWITT: That's a standard salary increase for teachers across the country who earn an advanced degree. In 2013, North Carolina became the first state ever to eliminate it. Teacher tenure is also gone, replaced by a merit-based system that rewards long-term contracts to the top 25 percent of teachers and shorter contracts to everyone else. Rodney Ellis is president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teacher advocacy group.
RODNEY ELLIS: Morale is at the bottom of the barrel right now throughout this state. Teachers are really questioning why they want to teach, why they want to teach here in North Carolina. They have to take care of their own families, and it's difficult to do that when our salaries are as low as they are. We've got educators who right now qualify for government assistance.
DEWITT: Because North Carolina is a right-to-work state, teachers are prohibited from collective bargaining or going on strike. But they have fought back, marching on the state capitol and staging a walk-in before the school day. They've also put pressure on Republican Governor Pat McCrory. McCrory first defended the budget cuts and changes, but has since sounded more conciliatory.
One feedback that I get from teachers is, will you respect us? Will you show us some respect? They just feel like they're walked over. And no one likes to work for a company where they're just taken for granted and a lot of teachers feel like they are taken for granted at this point in time.
McCrory and the Republican leadership in the state's general assembly are now talking about ways to give teachers a small raise next year. That may not be enough. Spivey, the science teacher, would only have to drive a few miles down the road to be in South Carolina. And she's figured out, with her qualifications and experience, what her salary would be if she taught there.
SPIVEY: Seventeen thousand dollars more. For my levels of experience and then my master pay, it would be $17,000. And then with my coaching supplement on top of that because I coach cheerleading, I mean, that's 55 percent of my salary now.
DEWITT: It's unlikely there will be a mass exodus of public school teachers from North Carolina next year, but bigger problems loom. Freshman enrollment in the state university's schools of education is down between 20 and 40 percent. For NPR News, I'm Dave DeWitt in Durham, North Carolina.