by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
After much delay, the NC Department of Public Instruction released their annual “Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget” document. One of the more notable statistics included in “Highlights” is the average teacher salary figure, which was estimated to be $54,392 for the current school year. According to the report, North Carolina still has the second-highest average salary in the Southeast. Only Georgia’s average is higher.
North Carolina’s average teacher salary has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to generous annual increases approved by state lawmakers and, to a lesser extent, county commissions. Between 2014 and 2019, the statewide average increased from $44,990 to $53,940, a remarkable 20% increase. Those increases propelled North Carolina from 47th in the nation in the 2013 National Education Association’s (NEA) ranking of average teacher pay to 30th just seven years later. The NEA has not released its much-anticipated 2021 report.
Despite these recent gains, North Carolina’s average teacher salary has been stagnant over the last two years. The 2020-21 average salary is only $252 higher than the previous year. In fact, since 2019, North Carolina’s average teacher salary has increased by only $452, or 0.8 percent. What accounts for the slow growth in salaries? The primary culprits are Democratic obstructionism and uncertain economic conditions at the height of the pandemic.
Consider the case of the 2019 budget debate.
In 2018 Republicans lost their veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly. Suddenly, a gubernatorial veto had consequences. Gov. Roy Cooper sought to leverage his newfound power to try to strong-arm Republicans into expanding Medicaid and raising public school employee pay significantly.
In 2019, Gov. Cooper proposed a budget that included Medicaid expansion and an imprudent 9.1 percent increase in teacher salaries through 2021. The General Assembly approved House Bill 966: 2019 Appropriations Act, a biennial budget that did not include Medicaid expansion and would have granted teachers a 3.9 percent raise. Cooper vetoed their proposed budget and demanded that lawmakers pass a budget that included a minimum 8.5 percent teacher pay raise.
Later that year, Republicans passed Senate Bill 354: Strengthening Educators’ Pay Act, which included a 3.9 percent teacher pay raise. The bill also included a provision that would have granted teachers a 4.4 percent increase if both SB 354 and HB 966 became law. Predictably, Cooper vetoed the Strengthening Educators’ Pay Act.
After the House successfully overrode Cooper’s veto of the 2019 Appropriations Act, Senate Republicans offered to boost the teacher pay raise to 4.9 percent plus a $1,000 bonus if Senate Democrats agreed to a veto override. Cooper and legislative Democrats refused. A last-ditch veto override of Senate Bill 354 failed, and the General Assembly deferred consideration of teacher pay legislation to the subsequent legislative session.
Despite Democratic impediments to approving a teacher salary increase in 2019, teachers received experience-based or “step” increases over the last two years. Step advancements awarded by the General Assembly represented an average increase of 1.2 percent each year. Lawmakers added a $350 bonus for teachers employed at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Locally financed supplemental pay also contributed to slight increases in the statewide average, as local governments approved cautious budgets amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Once Republicans began pouring taxpayer dollars into teacher salary raises, teacher union radicals and public-school activists began to question the calculation of the average salary figure. Analysts at the NC Department of Public Instruction pointed out that they have used the same methodology to calculate the statewide average since 2002. The complainers raised no objections to that methodology during the first decade of its use, when the low average pay ranking was convenient to their narrative.
On the other hand, they are correct that statewide averages are misleading because they obscure variations in pay within and across school districts. Inter- and intra-district salary variations are the product of the way we pay teachers in North Carolina: statewide experience- and credential-based salary schedules included in each enacted budget and local supplements. Districts and schools with more experienced educators in urban and suburban counties typically have higher averages than rural communities with a less experienced workforce.
Of course, average salary figures reveal nothing about the relative quality or productivity of the educators in our public schools. Many assume that the more experienced or credentialed teachers are better and therefore deserve higher salaries. In some cases, it’s true, but in other cases, it is not. A wiser path would be to award pay incentives to ensure that our best and brightest educators remain in the classroom rather than seek higher pay in administrative and consulting roles.