Teacher salaries are losing ground fast in North Carolina.
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 she won a prestigious Kenan fellowship to improve education. But she still lives in her parents' basement.
"Can't afford to move out," Spivey says. "I'm glad my momma cooks dinner every night, 'cause [I] wouldn't be able to afford to live if I didn't."
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.
'They Did It All At Once'
In an effort to give more control to local school districts, the state Legislature passed sweeping changes to public education, many of which 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.
No state has seen a more dramatic decrease in teacher salary rankings in the past 10 years, and some of the other changes in public education are unprecedented. The state is being watched closely by education policymakers across the country, and teachers are suing the state.
Terry Stoops directs education studies at the conservative John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh, N.C.-based think tank.
"They did it all at once," Stoops says. "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."
That's a standard salary increase for teachers across the country who earn an advanced degree. Last year, North Carolina became the first state ever to eliminate it.
Elementary school students in North Carolina stand outside their school in November, during an event organized by teachers to protest changes in public education.
Teacher tenure has been replaced by a merit-based system that rewards long-term contracts to the top 25 percent of teachers, and shorter contracts to everyone else.
That's not good, says Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's largest teacher advocacy group.
"Morale is at the bottom of the barrel right now throughout this state," he says. "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."
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 have also put pressure on Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
A Small Raise On The Way?
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?' " says McCrory. "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.
"$17,000 more," she says. "For my levels of experience and then my master pay, it would be $17,000. And then a coaching supplement on top of that 'cause I coach cheerleading. I mean, that's 55 percent of my salary now."
It's unlikely there will be a mass exodus of public-school teachers from North Carolina next year. But bigger problems loom for the future: Freshman enrollment in the state universities' education schools is down between 20 and 40 percent.