- Associated Press - Monday, January 26, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The minimum salary for a North Carolina public school teacher almost assuredly will rise next fall. And more opportunities for higher pay for teachers of high-demand subjects or within hard-to-staff schools will receive much debate.

Beyond that, the K-12 education agenda for the General Assembly session is largely up in the air heading into Wednesday, when lawmakers reconvene after two weeks away from Raleigh for this year’s work.

The agenda ultimately created by Republicans in charge of the legislature also could be altered due to court rulings, public reaction to previous policy decisions and on tax collections - particularly as it relates to paying for broader teacher pay raises and new programs. Revenues currently are running about $200 million behind.

“Budget realities are going to largely drive whether or not that happens,” said Keith Poston with the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a business-funded education think tank.

Entering the new two-year session, House and Senate Republican leaders and Gov. Pat McCrory sound committed to fulfilling a prior promise to increase the minimum teacher salary to $35,000. A year ago, the minimum pay was $30,800.

“We need to follow through on our second-year teacher-pay commitment,” McCrory said in a video recording earlier this month to Republican lawmakers meeting privately to discuss public education issues. The audio was provided by McCrory’s office.

The floor rose to $33,000 last summer as part of an overhaul of the teacher pay scale. While all teachers got raises this year, increases largely were skewed toward those with 11 years of experience or less as a retention tool. Many longer-serving teachers saw smaller raises, some less than 1 percent.

Many lawmakers and interest groups, including the North Carolina Association of Educators, said it’s time for the most experienced teachers to get sizeable raises. “We understand we have to keep those core professionals to move our schools forward and we’ll be making proposals to ensure they’re treated fair,” said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham.

New House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, told reporters he’d like to help the veteran teachers. “Believe me, I’ve got a lot of relatives who are teachers and I hear about it all the time,” he quipped.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said he believed this year’s teacher pay debate would be focused on merit pay. Lawmakers need to find “ways we can reward our best teachers for providing real value in terms of improvement of student performance in the classroom,” Berger said.

The legislature set aside $1 million last summer to help pay for local school districts that create their own differentiated pay programs.

McCrory still supports his proposal last year for what he called “career pathways” for teachers to receive higher pay for increased responsibilities and leadership roles or who staff low-performing schools or high-demand subjects. McCrory also told lawmakers he wants more technology for public school students and fewer student standardized tests. Details are still being worked out, said Josh Ellis, a McCrory spokesman.

Some GOP lawmakers want to expand taxpayer-funded grants for children in low-income families to attend private schools. A decision may be delayed until after the state Supreme Court rules whether the grants initiated in 2013 are unconstitutional. A trial court found them unlawful. The justices will hear arguments in a lawsuit in March.

The GOP-led legislature could feel pressure from local school leaders and parents to revisit details of its decision to scores individual schools on an A-to-F scale, especially if too many schools get failing grades.

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