• For 2020-21, North Carolina’s average teacher salary is $54,392, which is ranked 34th in the nation according to the National Education Association
  • The statewide average salary increased by around 21 percent between 2014 and 2021
  • The NC Association of Educators insists that the calculation of the average is flawed

This week, the National Education Association (NEA) released data from its annual Rankings and Estimates report. For years, I have identified the various shortcomings of the report, such as the absence of data related to employee health insurance, pensions, and other expenses that are consuming ever-larger shares of state education budgets.

I have also noted its failure to adjust for cost-of-living differences across states or regional variations within states. As usual, I use the cost of living indices produced by the Council for Community & Economic Research to adjust the 2020-21 salary averages for cost-of-living differences. Those who are interested in both unadjusted and adjusted data may access it below.

Because the NEA study includes one of the only state-by-state rankings of average teacher salaries available, the release of the report usually elicits rousing debates about educator salary adequacy and competitiveness, particularly in the 36 states that fall below the national average of $65,090. But I suspect that this year will be different.

Certainly, the pandemic is one reason why we’ll be spared the usual hullaballoo. It wouldn’t be a good look for educators to complain loudly about their salaries in a year when many private-sector workers took it on the chin courtesy of government-ordered business closures and restrictions. Educator pay may not have changed substantially during the pandemic, but the workforce is largely intact thanks to hold-harmless provisions and other measures.

According to the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI), the number of full-time district and charter school teachers in the state dropped by only 0.05% this year. A handful of states had notable gains and losses in the number of employed public school teachers. Nevertheless, the size of the public school teacher workforce did not change much between the last school year and the current one.

More importantly, public school advocacy groups that for years have relied on the NEA ranking to complain about North Carolina’s position in the ranking have begun questioning its findings in recent years. It is not difficult to understand why.

Republican majorities in the General Assembly significantly improved North Carolina’s average (and national ranking) over the past several years by pouring taxpayer dollars into teacher salaries. The state had dropped as low as 47th in the nation in 2013 before surging to 31st two years ago. The statewide average salary increased by around 21 percent between 2014 and 2021. Rather than crediting Republican lawmakers for their efforts, however, public school advocacy groups declared that the average salary figure is a ruse, despite spending years touting the data as gospel when it fit their narrative.

In response to the most recent NEA report, North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) president Tamika Walker Kelly recently told Keung Hui of the News & Observer that the average teacher salary figure is “incredibly misleading.” Why is it misleading? Perhaps John Wilson, NCAE interim executive director, can explain. Wilson told WNCT reporter Emily Cervarich,

When you look at North Carolina base salary funds, it was $48,501 last year. This year it’s $48,516, a 15 dollar change, or a 0% increase. But what they do it [sic] ask every little dime they give to teachers. The best we could be is third [in the region] but not even that, because most other states don’t count all this other stuff. They are counting the actual salary.

That makes sense, right?

Perhaps Wilson did a poor job of articulating the argument conveyed by his boss. On Monday, NCAE president Tamika Walker Kelly told NC Policy Watch, “It is telling that if the local supplements were removed from the calculation, teacher pay in our state would be near the bottom of the national ranking.”

Actually — it’s not “telling” at all. The inclusion of local salary supplements has been a part of the average salary calculation for nearly two decades. A state education official pointed out that DPI has used the same methodology to calculate the statewide average since at least 2002.

It is not clear why Kelly rejects the inclusion of local supplements, given that public education funding in North Carolina — and every other state in the nation — is a cooperative enterprise between federal, state, and local governments. The use of local funds to supplement teacher salaries is one way that school districts offset cost-of-living differences. It is no coincidence that the three districts with the largest supplements (Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Chapel-Hill/Carrboro) are in areas where it is more expensive to live.

But if we removed local supplements from North Carolina’s average, we should do the same for all other states. According to the NEA report, one-third of North Carolina public school revenue comes from local sources. On the other hand, 28 states and the District of Columbia receive at least 40 percent of their education funding from local sources. Presumably, if “local supplements were removed” from the average salary calculation for all states, North Carolina would rocket to the top tier of the ranking. In fact, Kelly should lobby her overseers at the NEA to make a state funding salary ranking a reality.

Even more vexing is that she stands by Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of teacher salary increases proposed by Republican lawmakers in 2019. She told the News & Observer that rejection of the Governor’s decision was a “matter of principle.” Kelly should drop the pretense and admit that arguments about averages, supplements, and principles are a cover for her irrational antipathy toward Republican lawmakers.

State/Jurisdiction2019-20 Rank2019-20 Average Salary2020-21 Rank2020-21 Average SalaryCOL IndexCOL-Adjusted SalaryCOL-Adjusted Salary Rank
District of Columbia479,350480,6591.5950,72947
New Hampshire2159,6221761,7891.08457,00134
New Jersey776,376777,4891.16866,3438
New Mexico3254,2563254,9230.89361,50417
New York187,069187,7381.46659,84922
North Carolina3354,1503454,3920.96156,59936
North Dakota3753,5253354,8370.96556,82635
Rhode Island875,336875,9661.19663,51712
South Carolina3853,3293953,3610.95955,64238
South Dakota5048,9844949,9930.99850,09348
West Virginia4850,2384850,2610.92754,21941