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CMS faces time pressure on piloting NC teacher pay and licensing plan

Amanda Thompson Rice, (left), president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators; Nicole Price, (center), a North Carolina Association of Educators staff executive; and NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly listen to CMS officials talk about the Pathways to Excellence plan on Wednesday.
Ann Doss Helms
Amanda Thompson Rice, (left), president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators; Nicole Price, (center), a North Carolina Association of Educators staff executive; and NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly listen to CMS officials talk about the Pathways to Excellence plan on Wednesday, March 15, 2023.

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools official told board members and skeptical teachers Wednesday that the district faces a tight window for shaping the way North Carolina’s teachers are paid and licensed — and warned that to have influence, CMS needs to play ball with Raleigh.

The state is seeking volunteer districts to pilot a controversial plan called Pathways to Excellence. Supporters say it could relieve the state’s teacher shortage by creating new options for licensure, making sure beginning teachers get classroom support and providing higher pay for effective, experienced educators. The goal is to learn from a half-dozen districts, then create a new system for the entire state.

That plan has been through months of debate and review. A panel of academic advisers crafted the plan, and the state Board of Education supports it. In the process, it drew theopposition of the North Carolina Association of Educators, whose leaders met Wednesday with CMS board members.

The dilemma facing CMS boils down to this: Should the district volunteer to pilot a program many teachers oppose, in the hopes of shaping the final plan? Or should the district hold out for more details and modifications, hoping to wield clout by not engaging until the plan is better defined?

Among the teachers’ concerns laid out this week:

  • They say the plan could lower the bar for entering the profession by creating new entry-level licenses that don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
  • They worry that unreliable or incomplete measures of effectiveness, such as student test scores or student surveys, would affect pay and even determine whether teachers could keep their licenses.
  • They say the General Assembly could add requirements, then fail to provide money for pay hikes that are supposed to be part of the plan.

“Instead of creating a new process that makes the licensure and compensation more cumbersome, we know that there are research-based methods that … allow for the recruitment and retention of highly qualified staff in our state. One of them is to increase the base pay for all of our educators across the state,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly.
But Charles Jeter, a former state representative who’s now a staff adviser to the CMS board, said the plans laid out so far mean little — because it’s up to the General Assembly to decide what a pilot will look like and how much money will be attached.

“Until it’s in legislation it’s fantasy,” he said.

Jeter serves as the board’s liaison with the General Assembly. He said he’s been getting pressure from lawmakers and others in Raleigh for CMS to take a stand on the Pathways program. That could be supporting the plan or opposing it, he told the group, and it might or might not include volunteering to be one of the pilot districts. That decision will fall to the school board, but Jeter said CMS will have more influence over the future of pay and licensure if the district gets involved.

“If we want to have leverage in the process, CMS has to be willing to play ball with the process. That’s just the way Raleigh works,” Jeter said.

Time pressure, few details

Jeter, school board members and NCAE members agreed Wednesday that one of the biggest challenges is making decisions on a plan that includes no specifics.

“It is like trying to evaluate a blueprint that does not have any details in it at all,” said Nicole Price, associate executive director of NCAE.

Jeter says the best chance for CMS to shape those plans will come in the next couple of weeks, as legislators draft a bill. As a potential pilot district, he said, CMS could argue for such protections as assurances that no one will take a pay cut. He and CMS board members urged the educators' group to lay out things that would make a new program palatable.

But Price said she disagrees with Jeter’s premise. Districts can influence the outcome by refusing to participate until a better plan is on the table, she said.

“There is a leverage that school districts have regardless of when they weigh in because (the state needs) participants,” she said.

What about money?

The plan that’s been outlined calls for experienced teachers to qualify for advanced licensing with significant pay raises if they demonstrate effectiveness, based on measures to be determined. Those teachers would be expected to coach newer teachers and take on additional responsibilities, such as co-teaching in several classrooms to share expertise.

School board member Jennifer De La Jara said that wouldn’t be new for CMS, which has been piloting an advanced teaching roles model for years, known locally as Opportunity Culture.

“We already provide an opportunity to make an extra stipend or to raise your pay by becoming a mentor or a teacher leader,” she said.

Wednesday’s meeting coincided with Gov. Roy Cooper’s introduction of a two-year budget plan that would raise teacher pay by 18%. NCAE voiced its support on Wednesday, but Senate leader Phil Berger immediately condemned the plan as “an irresponsible, unserious proposal from a lame-duck governor.”

Jeter said given Republican dominance of the General Assembly, it’s unlikely that lawmakers will approve large raises based on the current pay system or restore extra pay for master’s degrees, which NCAE supports. He said it’s more likely that they’ll put money into the Pathways pilot.

“I believe the money … will be directed to the six pilot programs, not the 109 others,” Jeter said. “I do think this is a unique opportunity that we are going to live with for six years, one way or the other.”

The CMS Intergovernmental Relationships Committee, which hosted Wednesday’s meeting, took no action, other than to assure the teachers they’ll stay in touch as CMS moves toward a decision.

Committee Chair Stephanie Sneed said after the meeting that she still has questions about money.

“Are there dollars attached to it? Are we going to be asked to front the bill for a pilot program? That’s a difficult ask for the district,” she said.

And Sneed said she still hopes NCAE will offer suggestions about what might make a pilot program acceptable.

Kelly, the NCAE president, called the meeting “a very good starting conversation about what our concerns were about the pilot proposal.”

She said the ongoing conversations with CMS and state officials are important, because it “does have the potential to impact statewide what educators may experience if this were to pass.”


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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.