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Education a Central Theme In First North Carolina Senate Debate

In Wednesday's North Carolina Senate debate between incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Thom Tillis, the state House Speaker, the two locked horns over education spending and teacher pay.

The debate, held in Durham, N.C., began with Hagan largely on the defensive as Tillis painted her as nothing more than a proxy for President Barack Obama. But Hagan took control of the discussion when the two candidates were asked what is the best way to retain good teachers.

That question was lobbed to Tillis first, who began by plugging a 7 percent teacher pay hike included in the most recent budget he ushered through the state legislature.

"We passed this year one of the largest pay increases for teachers in the last generation," he said, adding that the biggest obstacle teachers face is the federal government.

"They're forcing tests, they're forcing reports, they're taking freedom out of the classroom and preventing teachers from being able to innovate," Tillis said. "We need to pay out teacher top salaries, and we're working on that, but we also need to get the federal government out of the way."

Hagan, who is a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, was ready with a response.

"We have seen an exodus of teachers in North Carolina under Speaker Tillis' tenure," Hagan said. "He cut education by $500 million. That means fewer teachers in the classroom, larger class sizes, and outdated textbooks."

The race in the Tar Heel State is currently the tightest and most expensive in the nation, and it's one of a handful that will decide which party controls the Senate next year. Education has been the biggest issue in the North Carolina campaign so far, and Democratic political action committees have spent more than $10 million on TV ad buys attacking Tillis' education agenda.

The midterm election also comes amid tense political battles in North Carolina over per-pupil funding and teacher tenure. The state was once viewed as a leader for supporting programs like National Board certification, but enrollments in its teacher-preparation programs have fallen, and some out-of-state districts have even been poaching its teachers.

"All the cuts that have been made to our education system are harming the system," Hagan said. "I think you ought to respond on why teachers are leaving in droves. We've got the former superintendent in Houston coming to North Carolina and being very successful in recruiting our teachers."

Teachers' salaries in North Carolina, which have been essentially frozen since 2008, have fallen to 46th in the nation as of 2012-13, according to National Education Association tables, prompting worries about attrition.

Hagan went on to debunk the teacher pay raise that Tillis initially touted.

Under the new pay system, the state's 37-step schedule for paying teachers will be condensed to just six steps, with pay boosts for teachers coming every five years, rather than annually.

The actual amount of their raises will vary considerably depending on how much they were previously earning. While no teacher would make less than he or she did the prior year, actual raises would vary from less than 1 percent, for a 30-year veteran, to more than 18 percent for teachers entering their fifth and sixth years in the classroom.

Hagan was sure to hammer home that point: "For teachers who have been in the system for many, many years, his 7 percent raise is a 0.3 percent raise."

Tillis, for his part, said Hagan had her math wrong, alluding to the fact that he hadn't actually presided over a cut to education spending—lawmakers just didn't fund education to the extent budget experts said it needed to be funded in order to prevent any decrease in services.

For the most part, though, Tills kept emphasizing that Hagan has been nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Obama administration. 

"Kay Hagan's consent and support for the Department of Education's overreach has taken money out of the classrooms and given it to bureaucrats that make over $100,000 per year," he said.

As if Hagan hadn't already made it apparent that the she owned the education debate, she rebutted Tillis' assertion in her closing remarks by telling a story about how she worked across the aisle with Sen. Jim Inhoffe, R-Okla., to ensure service members maintained a tuition assistance benefit that would have been eliminated due to the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

With two more debates before the Nov. 4 election, we're sure to see these two candidates butt heads on education policy again soon. 

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