by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Last week, the National Education Association (NEA) released “Rankings of the States 2015 and Estimates of School Statistics 2016.” Rankings and Estimates is an annual report that details education revenue and expenditures for the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
According to the new report, North Carolina is ranked 41st in teacher pay this year, an improvement of one spot since last year and six spots since 2014. In other words, our state’s average teacher pay is moving in the right direction.
Rankings and Estimates does not account for cost of living or factor in benefits and NEA researchers acknowledged that fact. They explain, “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.” This is particularly true in North Carolina, which has a lower cost of living than the national average.
In fact, adjusting the average salary figures to account for cost of living makes a big difference. Using the Council for Community and Economic Research cost of living (COL) index for 2015, I determined that North Carolina ranks 33rd in COL-adjusted average salary. That is better than some of our primary competitors for teachers in the Southeast, including Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida. (See table below.)
|States and D.C.||Unadjusted Teacher Salary||Unadjusted Salary Rank||COL Index||Adjusted Salary||Adjusted Salary Rank|
Other states are not so lucky. Teachers in Vermont, Oregon, New Hampshire, and Hawaii may enjoy a relatively high average salary, but those dollars do not go very far in these states. When adjusted for cost of living, all four drop well below North Carolina in the ranking.
On the other hand, comparative data on employee benefits are very difficult to find. There are notable differences in the types of retirement plans, insurance, and non-pecuniary benefits provided by states and school districts.
During the current school year, benefits provided by the legislature included $5,471 per employee for health insurance, a $3,389 Social Security contribution, and $6,787 toward retirement. In other words, behind every teacher salary figure is a benefits package of approximately $15,650. The trajectory of those figures will depend on the forthcoming adjustments to the state budget, but if the past is any indication, health insurance and retirement contributions will increase.
Obviously, none of these figures speak to issues of teacher quality. Our continued use of an experience- and credential-based teacher salary schedule means, for example, that some superb educators are making less money than mediocre ones, simply because they have fewer years of experience or lack an advanced certification. That system does little to encourage our best public school teachers to stay in the classroom. Across-the-board salary and benefits increases may attract qualified candidates to North Carolina, but targeted increases are a much better long-term strategy for improving quality.
That said, the state’s capacity to recruit and retain teachers depends on more than just compensation. Educators choose to teach in (or leave) North Carolina for any number of personal and professional reasons. It is equally important for lawmakers to ensure that the state maintains a low cost of living, strong economy, and superior quality of life.
In the coming weeks, lawmakers will approve another pay increase for teachers, but the size of that salary boost will depend on negotiations between the NC House and Senate. While Governor McCrory recommended a 5 percent salary increase and bonuses for teachers, the House budget released this week incorporated a 4.1 percent average increase and experience-based bonuses. I suspect that the Senate will split the difference. If they do, Republicans would have increased the base salary of teachers by nearly 15 percent since 2013, a fact often ignored or trivialized by public school advocacy groups.