This week, the National Education Association (NEA) released data from its annual Rankings and Estimates report.  The bottom line is that North Carolina’s $53,975 average teacher salary ranks 29th, a significant improvement over last year’s ranking of 34th in the nation.  The N.C Department of Public Instruction produces the salary figure using an established formula, and it does not include thousands of dollars paid for health care and retirement benefits.  Most importantly, the average salary figures used in the NEA report are not adjusted for cost of living.

Before I address the shortcomings of the Rankings and Estimates data, I should remind readers that the NEA uses teacher salary research as a means to advance their political and legislative goals. Last year, Allysia Finley of the Wall Street Journal noted that teacher unions disseminate and distort education finance statistics for political gain.  She writes,

The NEA encourages its affiliate unions to use its annual state rankings “to advocate for higher pay for teachers and more state funding for public schools by showing how my state compares to others.” The union notes that its North Carolina affiliate uses survey data “on average teacher salary rankings and per pupil expenditure rankings as a vital and main negotiating chip to lobby for teacher raises and increased K-12 education funding.” In other words, by playing states against one another, unions hope to drive up education spending across the country.

In response to the data release, the president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), the NEA affiliate in our state, demanded that the N.C. General Assembly continues to raise teacher salaries to reach the national average as calculated by researchers working for his parent organization.  Certainly, his counterparts in other states will make similar demands.

The teacher salary averages that are collected and published by union researchers have never been satisfactory for making sound comparisons across states.  They are (and always have been) flawed rankings of average salaries for very different states with very different teacher workforces teaching in very different types of public school systems.  The dilemma is that Rankings and Estimates uses a metric – the statewide average – that most people grasp easily.  That is one reason why the NEA report is covered widely by print and broadcast media and is popular with politicians and public school advocacy organizations.  Yet, simplicity comes at the expense of accuracy.

To make the best of a bad situation, every year I use cost of living indices produced by the Council for Community & Economic Research (C2ER) to adjust salary averages for cost of living differences.  (AP Graphics followed suit in 2017 using a regional price parity index.) These adjustments are not perfect.  The NEA’s Rankings and Estimates report includes statewide data only, so it is not possible to account for local and regional variations in the cost of living.  As long as the report dominates popular debates over teacher salaries, state averages will be a natural starting point.

Adjusting the average salary figures to account for cost of living makes a big difference.  Because North Carolina’s cost of living is much lower than the national average, teacher salaries go further here than in many other states.  The low cost of living combined with significant raises for teachers over the last five years propelled North Carolina to 20th in the nation in cost-of-living adjusted teacher salary.

State averages, however, should not be considered the final word on the subject.  Researchers should conduct analyses that utilize alternative data sources that take localized economic conditions into account.  An even better alternative is to encourage NEA researchers to build on their immensely popular study by publishing local and regional salary averages, incorporating cost of living adjustments, and making methodological improvements that provide alternative comparisons of teacher wages.

For years, NEA researchers warned that “variations in the cost of living may go a long way toward explaining (and, in practice, offsetting) differences in salary levels from one area of the country to another.”  Perhaps it is time for them to come clean and do something to address the shortcoming that they have identified and I address here, albeit in an incomplete way.