by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Let’s make one thing clear. I am no fan of WalletHub or their inane rankings. Perhaps the worst of the lot is Best Places to Go for Thanksgiving, which includes measures of turkey trots and pumpkin patches per capita, pedestrian fatalities, and prevalence of affordable restaurants with ratings of 4.5+ stars.
So, the fact that North Carolina went from dead last to 16th in the nation in its Best & Worst States for Teachers ranking should be taken with a grain of salt.
The author of the most recent ranking, WalletHub financial writer Adam McCann, does not describe how his chosen variables are indicative of teacher-friendliness, nor does he provide empirical research that justifies his decisions to weigh variables (down to the hundredth of a percentage point!) in the manner described. For years I have argued that WalletHub churns out hundreds of rankings every year mainly to attract as many visitors to its personal finance website that peddles credit cards, personal loans, and various financial services.
Yet the many methodological shortcomings of the teacher rankings are beside the point. It is how the rankings are used that really matters. Between 2014 and 2018, WalletHub rankings reinforced a popular progressive narrative that the Republican-led General Assembly disliked public school teachers and sought to destroy the profession.
In 2014, the Asheville Citizen-Times splashed “N.C. ranks as worst state for teachers” on its front page and quoted then-Buncombe County Association of Educators president Robyn Pass. “I think we have some of the best teachers in the nation in our state,” she declared. “I think what we don’t have is the support from Raleigh, and I think that has an effect on our schools and our classrooms.”
In the opinion section of The News & Observer, high school English teacher Chris Gilbert took it one step further. “Recent state history reveals serious intent, and multiple attempts, to dismantle public education in order to justify privatization and create profit opportunities in the public sector,” he opined.
Three years later, the state had moved up six spots in the WalletHub ranking, placing North Carolina 45th overall. The Left remained on message and on the offensive. Then-president of the NC. Association of Educators Mark Jewell told the N&O, “The General Assembly is making a clear decision to invest in corporate tax breaks rather than in public education, which is having an impact on our ability to recruit high-quality teachers in our profession.” Jewell concluded, “We have to go to the General Assembly and look at their lack of commitment to the public schools.”
True to form, I responded, “This isn’t truly about finding out best and worst places for teachers. This is about driving people to WalletHub’s website.”
By 2019, North Carolina surged to 28th in the ranking, and the state’s public school advocacy confederation predictably went dark. As my colleague John Hood pointed out in his syndicated column, “About this time last year, progressive activists and Democratic politics were trumpeting the news that North Carolina was 49th in the country in friendliness to teachers, according to a study by the website WalletHub.” Hood continued, “Are those same Democrats and progressives touting this year’s results? Of course not. The results are politically inconvenient.”
If the 2019 results were politically inconvenient, the 2020 results are politically catastrophic.
North Carolinians do not need WalletHub to tell us that North Carolina teachers have fared well since 2014. Several state-level reports and studies reflect the efforts of the NC General Assembly to prioritize investments in public school teachers.
According to data published by the NC Department of Public Instruction, average teacher salaries surged from $44,990 in 2014 to $54,682 in 2020, a 21.5% increase. Currently, the state contributes an average of $10,659 to the pension system for every district teacher, a nearly 77% increase from the $6,035 pension contribution in 2014. Health insurance contributions rose from $5,285 to $6,326 per teacher or just under 20 percent during this period. Around 40% of teachers nationwide are not covered under Social Security by their employer, but North Carolina is one of 35 states where they are. Social Security contributions increased from $3,143 to $3,761 between 2014 and 2020.
Teacher satisfaction rates are as high now as they were six years ago. According to the 2014 NC Teacher Working Conditions Survey, 85% of teachers agreed that their school is a “good place to work and learn,” a nearly identical percentage in the 2020 survey. This year, 77% of teachers report having sufficient access to appropriate instructional materials, whereas 74% affirmed that statement in 2014. In fact, relatively few teachers said they are dissatisfied with their working conditions, although responses vary by school and question.
The Annual Report on the State of the Teaching Profession report shows that teacher turnover rates in North Carolina continue to drop, presumably reflecting improved compensation and working conditions. The overall state attrition rate in 2019 was 7.5%. Because of changes made to the report in 2015, NC Department of Public Instruction researchers warned that pre-2016 rates should not be compared with those reported after. The first year under the new reporting requirements was 2016. The attrition rate during that year was 9%.
I welcome seeing and hearing public school advocacy organizations backtrack on their support for the WalletHub ranking now that North Carolina is in the top tier of states. But I won’t hold my breath. Much will depend on whether the mainstream media chooses to report on the 2020 ranking in the first place. Even if they do, I doubt that the reports will have the same prominence as those stories reporting that North Carolina was the “worst state for teachers” in 2014.