Chapel Hill, N.C. — Days after a crowd of angry educators marched on the State Capitol to protest changes to public school spending in the state budget, Gov. Pat McCrory on Thursday proposed a fund to reward "master teachers" and cutting the number of standardized tests required in North Carolina classrooms.
Speaking at the North Carolina Chamber's annual education conference in Chapel Hill, McCrory said business owners repeatedly tell him that they cannot find qualified employees for their job openings. The state needs to do more to prepare students for the workforce, he said.
"When employers are begging for qualified applicants in a state with the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the nation ... that tells me we have a disconnect between commerce and education," he said. "All of us need to come together and eliminate this gap."
McCrory said he wants to create a $30 million Education Innovation Fund with federal Race to the Top grant money to pay for digital classroom initiatives and trailblazing schools and to reward teachers. Under the program, at least 1,000 teachers selected by their peers statewide would receive $10,000 stipends to implement career- and college-ready standards.
"These master teachers will be working and taking input from their colleagues and will serve as a direct conduit to North Carolina's educational leaders as to what's working in our classrooms and what isn't working and what should be tossed aside," he said. "(These) teachers will not only be teaching students, they will be schooling us in the most important subject in education – what works actually in the classroom."
Calling the state's pay scale for teachers "archaic," he said the stipends would begin the shift toward rewarding classroom expertise and provide recognition for North Carolina's top teachers.
The governor also called for cutting "ineffective and burdensome testing" in North Carolina classrooms. The number of mandatory exams in Mecklenburg County, for example, is approaching 200 per year in grades 4-12, he said.
"Sometimes the state and government bureaucracy just needs to get out of their way and let them teach," he said. "When do teachers teach if all they're doing is giving tests?"
McCrory said testing should measure the "real-world skills" of students, contribute to instruction and not be repetitive.
"We do need some tests," he said, "but you will see me fighting for only effective testing that measures a student's knowledge, not just their memory skills."
Outside the Sheraton of Chapel Hill hotel, dozens of teachers and education advocates chanted and waved signs in protest.
Danial Nijhout-Rowe, a teacher at Durham High School, was among them. She said teachers have heard plenty of promises and proposals over the years.
“I think it becomes this background noise at some point,” she said.
Teri Stern says it was better for her to become a substitute instead of teaching full time.
“The paperwork, the amount of money they pay out of their own pocket to fund their classroom – I can’t do that,” she said.
McCrory's appearance comes less than a week after he signed a $20.6 billion budget that includes $10 million in 2014-15 to allow children from some low-income families to attend private schools and that eliminates the tenure rights of veteran teachers.
McCrory didn't address those issues in his speech but said his commitment to education funding has been mischaracterized.
The $7.8 billion in the budget is the largest appropriation for K-12 schools in North Carolina history and is $23 million more than in 2012-13, he said. The Department of Public Instruction has said, however, that the funding doesn't factor in enrollment growth, so the appropriation is actually 1.8 percent.
The budget also added 2,500 openings to the state's public pre-kindergarten program, McCrory said.
He blamed cost overruns in the Medicaid program for eating up funds that he hoped would provide at least a 1 percent raise for teachers and state employees – no raises were included in the budget – but he said the tax reform package he recently signed into law will increase the take-home pay of many teachers by 1 percent.