Why North Carolina's push to revamp teacher pay and licensure stalled
North Carolina’s Pathways to Excellence plan created a buzz of excitement and controversy when it went public in the spring of 2022. The proposal was backed by a roster of business, education and civic leaders and endorsed by state Superintendent Catherine Truitt. They touted it as a way to get more good teachers into the profession, improve pay and working conditions for all educators and reward the most effective teachers.
Critics, including the North Carolina Association of Educators, came out against the plan, which would restructure the way teachers are licensed and paid. They voiced doubts about the effectiveness ratings, questioned the way the plan was developed and worried that lawmakers might add requirements but fail to provide funding.
In December the state Board of Education endorsed piloting the program as early as 2023, hoping to get support from the General Assembly. Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools took the plan seriously enough to hold sessions in February and March with one of the plan’s designers and with NCAE members, trying to figure out if CMS should volunteer as a pilot district.
Charles Jeter, the former state legislator who advises the CMS board on policy and government relations, said the district had a short window of time to “play ball with the process” in hopes of shaping statewide decisions.
The plan stalls
But now both Jeter and Van Dempsey, who chairs the panel that created the Pathways plan, say there’s not going to be a pilot this year. Both say the House and Senate budget plans, which have yet to be merged into a conference budget, contain only small aspects of the complex proposal.
“(T)he major changes needed to implement the program, even in a pilot program, were never even introduced or discussed by the legislature,” Jeter said. “So barring a last-minute drop in the state budget (possible, but not likely) I don’t expect much legislative movement towards allowing the NC Pathways to Excellence to actually exist yet.”
Dempsey is dean of the UNC Wilmington Watson College of Education — more about that in a minute. He told me Monday that in early committee work, legislators and their staff sketched a $1.5 billion five-year plan to take the changes from pilot to statewide use. But that never went further.
Dempsey says it’s clear that legislative leaders had a different focus for a big, costly education initiative: Expanding the state’s voucher program that provides public scholarships for students to attend private school.
“If we had known then what we know now, we may have understood either No. 1, we might have needed to navigate it differently, or that given the amount of oxygen that some of the other legislation was going to take up, there wasn’t going to be a lot of room for the Pathways proposal,” he said. “And if you look at the cost of just the voucher plan alone ($1.7 billion over the next five years), that takes a lot of money that could have gone into piloting and implementation of the Pathways model.”
Dempsey removed as dean
The story gets even more complicated — and illustrates the challenges of navigating a politicized education world. Dempsey spoke to me on a Zoom interview from the dean’s office he’s clearing out. That job ends Friday, on his 63rd birthday, but he’s not retiring.
Dempsey says he was notified last month that he’d leave the dean’s job, without being given a cause. That’s legal, he says, because the dean’s job is employment at will. He has tenure as an education college faculty member and will stay on.
Dempsey says his dismissal came soon after he spoke to The Assembly, a North Carolina digital magazine, about controversy over the education college’s annual Razor Walker Award, which recognizes people who “walk the razor’s edge” to make the lives of children and youth better.
The Rev. William Barber, the left-wing preacher who led Moral Monday marches against the Republican-led General Assembly, was one of the recipients in 2022. This year, Dempsey says he received pressure from his university’s administration and members of the UNC Board of Governors to make sure a conservative was recognized — specifically, state Sen. Michael Lee, a Wilmington Republican who chairs the Senate education committee. Lee was honored, but some faculty walked out of the presentation in protest. Dempsey told Assembly reporter Kevin Maurer about an email from a Board of Governors member demanding that those faculty be disciplined.
“Those people who got up and walked out quietly, without disrupting the speaker, without disrupting the event … it was fundamentally a successful act of free expression and free speech,” Dempsey told me.
Eight days after The Assembly’s article was posted, Dempsey says, he was summoned to talk to the provost about terms of his departure.
What future for Pathways?
Dempsey says his removal from the dean’s job doesn’t end his appointment to the Professional Educator and Preparation Standards Commission, which has spearheaded the Pathways to Excellence push. He was appointed by House Speaker Tim Moore to a term that expires in August 2024.
Dempsey, an unaffiliated voter, says he hopes to keep working toward major changes in teacher pay and licensure, albeit on a slower timeline. He stumbled a bit for words when I asked if his role in a political controversy might impede the work, but settled on this: “I would like to believe that people in positions of power in Raleigh would put a value on someone who’s willing to say hard things to people in power.”
After talking with Dempsey I emailed Lee’s office for comment. I’ll follow up if I hear from him.
Meanwhile, Blair Rhodes, communications director for the Department of Public Instruction and Superintendent Truitt, said it isn’t quite time to declare the plan dead for 2023: “We’re waiting to learn what’s in the conference budget, as I think that will give us some concrete guidance on next steps as it relates to pathways, advanced teacher roles, etc.”