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Both GOP, Dems losing tug-of-war over our teachers

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On the first day of school, bus drivers had their routes, students had their class schedules and coaches had their fall sports rosters — but teachers still didn’t know how much they’ll be paid.

A full 56 days after the 2019-20 fiscal year began, North Carolina didn’t have a current state budget on the books. A battle of wills between the Republican-majority General Assembly and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper remains mired in a stalemate, with base pay for roughly 100,000 public school teachers one of many budget line items hanging in the balance.

In competing efforts to claim the moral high ground and swing the pendulum of public opinion their way, party leaders have turned the budget battle into a tug-of-war over teachers.

“Teachers across North Carolina are going back to school without a state pay raise because Republican legislators are unwilling to negotiate with Governor Cooper to reach a budget consensus,” Cooper spokesman Ford Porter wrote in a news release.

State Senate leader Phil Berger wouldn’t let that claim stand unchallenged.

“Instead of being honest with teachers by saying he’s holding up their pay raises over his Medicaid expansion ultimatum, he’s telling them that it’s really the mean Republicans who are blocking their raises, even though Republicans passed the budget that includes teacher raises,” Berger fired back.

Lawmakers adopted the state spending plan on June 27. Cooper applied his veto stamp the following day. With legislative Democrats backing the governor, Republicans can’t marshal the two-thirds majority in both chambers needed to override the veto. In the absence of a new appropriations act, spending continues at the levels authorized in last year’s budget.

The legislature’s plan includes an average 3.9% raise for teachers phased in over the next two years. Cooper’s budget proposal offers a more generous 8.5% pay hike over the same two-year period.

If politicians want to make this a multiple-choice test for our state’s educators, we’ll call it a trick question. You don’t have to be a calculus teacher to know that 8.5% is greater than 3.9%, but you also don’t have to teach philosophy to understand that 3.9% of something beats 8.5% of nothing.

The North Carolina Association of Educators typically supports Cooper and Democratic lawmakers, but that doesn’t mean all its members are pulling for Team Blue. Like any diverse constituency, teachers line up at every point along the political spectrum. They aren’t a monolithic voting bloc.

Attempts to curry favor by dangling the carrot of a pay increase and blaming the other side for stalling isn’t serious education policy. It’s just baldfaced bribery.

Make no mistake, North Carolina’s teachers are underpaid, and they’ve earned every dollar our divided government manages to cough up. But making teacher pay the focal point of a bitter budget fight masks the issues our educators care about at least as much as their direct deposit.

Crumbling schools, increasing class sizes, a lack of basic classroom supplies, overtesting, rigid federal and state curriculum mandates, student discipline, unsupportive parents and the threat of mass violence at school all occupy a prominent place on teachers’ lists of concerns.

Politicians haven’t done enough to address these systemic issues. Instead, they think they can buy teachers off, add a shiny red apple to their campaign poster and coast to re-election.

There are some lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, making good-faith efforts to improve public education. Those voices are too often drowned out. The prevailing rancor and rhetoric shows that, as a whole, neither side values teachers — or any of the other stakeholders awaiting a new state budget — as much as it prizes scoring political points.

We wouldn’t presume to speak for every North Carolina teacher, but from where we sit, educators simply want to be treated like the professionals they are, not patronized as charity cases or idealized as saintly do-gooders. Sure, they’d like to earn more money. They also want a seat at the table and a sustained focus on fixing our schools.

It’s time Governor Cooper, Senator Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore hammered out a budget compromise. If they can’t muster the will to lock themselves in a room until the state has a new spending plan, the least they could do is stop using teachers as a political prop.

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