Over the past half-decade, North Carolina teachers have enjoyed an average pay raise of about 20%, with some early-career teachers getting a pay bump of 30% or more.

More teachers are staying in the classroom, more students are graduating high school,  and an overwhelming majority of teachers say their school is a “good place to work and learn.”

But the biggest headline in N.C. education over the past year tells a much different story — teachers walking out on their schools in May to protest their treatment at the Republican-led General Assembly.

You could argue that the narrative doesn’t match reality. But education funding is a political process, and for plenty of educators and voters, the narrative is reality.

[Longleaf story: The impact N.C. Republicans have had on K-12 public education, explained]

Will a newly defined vision be enough to change that narrative?

It’s against this backdrop that Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson unveiled his vision for North Carolina education in front of a packed crowd on Tuesday.

Called the #NC2030 plan, the idea is to make the state the “best place to learn and teach” over the next decade.

Photo by Mark Johnson via Facebook

First, Johnson identifies five metrics he says need to increase every year.

  • 4-year-olds enrolled in high-quality pre-K programs.
  • Fourth graders reading at grade level
  • Students prepared for a career or college after graduation
  • New teacher recruits
  • Teachers remaining in the classroom

Then the #NC2030 plan calls for investments in a few key areas. Among them:

Increase teacher salaries by at least another 5%. And potentially 7%. This should easily be exceeded. Johnson points out an interesting metric: These raises would keep North Carolina’s average teacher salary above the median household income for the state. So a single-parent household led by a teacher is better off than most families in the state.

Increase funding for textbooks and supplies. Including giving teachers direct control over some of this money. While North Carolina has increased per-student materials funding from its recession bottom, teachers are still digging into their own pockets for supplies (as they are everywhere in the United States).

Expand the N.C. Teaching Fellows program. After a brief hiatus, this program returned in 2017 to provide forgivable loans to college students committed to the teaching profession.

Expanding access to pre-K programs for 4-year-olds. The General Assembly has already focused on this, increasing funding to help clear the waitlist for public pre-K.

Giving districts flexibility on the state math curriculum. The plan calls for a select group of school districts to get the chance to opt out of the standard course of study to try other methods under the “personalized learning” umbrella.

Expand computer science and coding classes.

Expand grants for school safety and mental health professionals. Again, this has been a legislative priority for the past year.

But numbers won’t be enough to turn the tide.

These are admirable goals, and they address real needs as well as a few flash points that have drawn the most flack from protesting teachers. The classroom supplies, in particular, are an emotional topic.

But just showing numeric progress won’t be enough. Democrat-aligned teachers’ organizations like the North Carolina Association of Educators have done an effective job in painting a bleaker picture of the state’s education system, and they will oppose anything done by a Republican legislature.

You can show charts and graphs as much as you want. But hearing a teacher complain about working conditions is always going to be more sympathetic.

That’s why the last thing Johnson announced might be the most important.

The state superintendent says that this spring, his office will launch a campaign called “Teach NC,” a teacher appreciation campaign that brings in private money to basically improve the education field’s PR in North Carolina. This will be used to paint a new picture of teaching in the state, and to help recruit new teachers moving forward.

It’s unclear how exactly this will be done. But if Johnson can succeed in getting actual, real-life teachers on video talking about why they love teaching in North Carolina, why they chose teaching in the state, why they stay in the classroom, and how pay raises have helped them — it might have a bigger impact than any chart or graph.

The GOP has so far failed to move the needle on the education narrative.

There are a lot of reasons why North Carolina’s education narrative has been dominated by assertions that Republicans have gutted public schools and that teachers have been disrespected.

  1. When Republicans took control of the General Assembly, they moved fast to implement their agenda — and rapid change is always unsettling.
  2. The GOP immediately attacked the most influential education group, the North Carolina Association of Educators, by seeking to remove their ability to automatically deduct their dues from teachers’ paychecks. This effort didn’t stand up in court, but the damage was done. The NCAE has attacked Republicans without regard for facts ever since.
  3. The GOP took over after a catastrophic recession that included dramatic funding cuts. That allows opponents to use fuzzy math to compare current spending to pre-recession spending and make gains look less impressive.
  4. North Carolina’s population is rapidly growing, and so is the public school population. It’s hard for per-pupil spending numbers to keep up. You have to educate the children for a year before you collect tax revenue from their families.
  5. The GOP started by giving big pay raises to early career teachers instead of veteran ones. While this was the right philosophy, early career teachers aren’t politically engaged. Veteran teachers have louder voices.
  6. The GOP prioritized expanding school choice, expanding the number of charter schools and offering vouchers to help low-income students afford private school. These measures are incredibly popular among voters, but anathema to public school systems — which have the largest number of students and the loudest voices in the education arena.
  7. The state House and Senate haven’t always been on the same page, allowing the narrative to get muddled even further. Take the current school construction issue. The Senate has a plan to use savings to fund new buildings, while House Speaker Tim Moore is traveling the state pitching a bond package. This conflict becomes the story, instead of focusing on actually building schools.

Can Mark Johnson finally succeed?

The state superintendent is in an interesting position. It’s a statewide elected office that can essentially serve as the “education czar” in North Carolina. It’s a great platform to tell a positive story about education.

But Johnson is also limited in what he can accomplish on his own. The General Assembly holds the purse strings and passes the policy.

My advice: Simplify the message and find examples. Tell the human story. Find the teacher who bought a house and put down roots in a North Carolina town. Find the family where a child has thrived in a charter school.

It will take considerable political skill, but if Mark Johnson wants to be governor, he needs to pull it off.

Cover image by N.C. Department of Public Instruction

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