Whether anecdotal or empirical, the evidence is clear: North Carolina has done a poor job of furnishing its public school teachers with adequate salaries.
By “adequate,” we should mean pay that’s good enough to attract competent, motivated people into the teaching profession, to convince them to work in our school districts – even districts in less well-off, rural counties – and to stick with their career choice through the inevitable rough patches. Sadly, the trends these days point in the wrong direction.
A shortage of qualified, committed teachers threatens the entire enterprise of public education. And that is a disaster waiting to happen – not only for the well-being of our communities, which need young people who have been readied to live productive lives, but also for many individual young people themselves.
Those of us concerned with social justice see effective schools as crucial to the hopes of kids struggling to overcome the challenges of poverty and isolation. So the issue of adequate pay for teachers is central to a social justice agenda.
Gov. Pat McCrory called attention to the problem with his Feb. 10 unveiling of a proposal to raise beginning teachers’ salaries. Granted that every little bit helps, and paying new teachers $35,000 a year instead of $30,800, as McCrory wants to do by the 2015-16 school year, would be an improvement.
Still, teachers with as many as nine years’ experience would make that same $35,000. The governor suggests he’d like to do something more for teaching veterans, but as it stands his plan isn’t likely to lift North Carolina’s average teacher pay very far above its current dismal rank of 46th in the country. It isn’t likely to spare many more teachers from having to work a second job to make ends meet. And teachers who dig into their own pockets to outfit their classrooms, as many must do, likely would find at least some of their extra money already spoken for.
Allocating the $200 million needed for the pay raises will be the task of the General Assembly. House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger joined their fellow Republican McCrory as the pay raise plan was announced – a signal that even in the conservative-controlled legislature, complaints about low teacher salaries are starting to have an impact.
Yet this also is a legislature that has put top priority on tax-cutting and spending restraint. Will teachers get modest raises, but with money that comes out of the hide of other worthy state programs? Will there be any money left to reward teachers who have stuck it out over the years, gaining expertise and helping countless students realize their potential?
What’s more, the House and Senate under Tillis and Berger have changed the ground rules for teacher employment in ways that understandably have left many teachers frustrated and demoralized.
Teachers who have successfully completed their first four years no longer will be eligible for career status, entitling them to due process before they can be fired. That may be a perquisite not found in the private sector, but teachers regard it as an important shield against arbitrary personnel decisions and also as a reasonable means of taking some of the sting out of low pay.
Under the new system, teachers rated as among a school’s top-performing 25 percent will be offered four-year contracts and an extra $500 a year. As to how to make fair, credible performance ratings, that’s a puzzle yet to be solved. And as to the damage that competition for the extra money – not much money, to be sure – would do to the climate of collegiality encouraged in good schools, the plan’s poor reception among many teachers tells the tale.
North Carolina’s meager pay rate for its classroom teachers, coupled with steps that grind away at their job security and sense of professionalism, has left the state vulnerable to serious attrition in the teaching ranks. A recent main article in The News & Observer of Raleigh summarized the situation: “Teacher turnover in 2012-13 reached the second-highest rate in a decade. Early retirements are up. And in the UNC system – the largest producer of new teachers – enrollment in teacher training programs declined by nearly 7 percent in 2013.”
Many accounts have been heard from teachers who quit to take better paying jobs in other fields, or who decided to look for work in states that pay more. There’s simply no good answer for why North Carolina has allowed its teacher salaries to lag as badly as they have – at an average of $45,947, well below the national average of $55,418, using 2011-12 figures, and also behind our neighbors and competitors Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina. Really – South Carolina!
That same News & Observer article told of a 30-year-old elementary school teacher in Raleigh who left to take a teaching job in Louisville, Ky. Her pay went from $37,900 to $52,100. “Kentucky is known as a poor state, yet they pay more than North Carolina,” she observed. “And North Carolina is known as a cheap state.” To which we have to say, “Ouch!”
Tilt toward lower taxes
This wasn’t the only state that had to navigate the post-2008 recession, which caused tax revenues to crater and forced many difficult budget decisions. Our teachers were granted only one raise during that period – 1.2 percent in 2012. But last year, instead of looking to shore up programs and services as the economy improved, legislators teamed with newly installed Gov. McCrory for an unprecedented round of tax cuts.
With the aim of spurring the economy by letting businesses and individuals keep more of their money, the cuts will leave the state with some $2 billion less to work with over the next five years. How serious can state decision-makers be about paying our teachers more when they’re willing to forgo that kind of revenue? And they also gloss over the fact that investment in education at all levels is the state’s best long-term way to help keep its economy healthy.
Jim Hunt, the moderate Democrat who served four terms as governor, had the economic wind at his back when he successfully pushed to raise teacher salaries to the national average in the 1990s. Now Hunt is a leading voice to recover the lost ground. He has significant support in the business community.
North Carolina, as much as Kentucky and other Southern states, has had to deal with a legacy of poverty and lack of opportunity for many of its people. It was via the farsighted policies of leaders who understood the vital importance of education that this state owes its measure of success in getting ahead of the poverty curve.
Yet too many of our fellow North Carolinians still find themselves behind that curve. Ensuring the soundness of our system of public schools – gateways of opportunity that should be wide open for everyone — is a key duty shared by us all. Paying our teachers competitively and treating them like the professionals they are have to be at the heart of fulfilling that duty.