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In recent weeks, a handful of the state’s largest newspapers have parroted claims that low average salaries will produce teacher shortages.  In today’s CommenTerry, I provide a broad overview of the issue.  The bottom line is that the complexities of the public school job market cannot be reduced to a single variable, such as average salary, or policy.

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According to an editorial in the Fayetteville Observer, North Carolina is "facing a teacher shortage. And the source of it is clear: North Carolina teacher pay stinks."  Their assessment of the teacher labor supply had been prompted by an interview between the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson.  In the interview with editors and reporters from the Citizen-Times, Atkinson speculated that state education policy could produce a teacher shortage "down the road."

To paraphrase Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, "Careful you must be when sensing the future, June. The fear of loss of teaching positions is a path to the dark side."

According to the Observer’s theory, teaching vacancies should increase during periods of salary stagnation.  In that case, prospective teachers would seek alternative, presumably higher paying, opportunities elsewhere in the job market.  Over time, the cumulative effect of these choices would precipitate a teacher shortage, particularly for math, science, special education, and vocational teachers who have skills that are easily transferable to other sectors of the job market.  Similarly, vacancies should decrease during periods of salary growth as more people are drawn to the attractive pay offered by the profession. 

For the purposes of evaluating the Observer’s hypothesis, I examined data from the state’s Teacher Vacancy Report, rather than the annual Teacher Turnover Report (also known as the Annual Report on the Reasons Teachers Leave).  The turnover report reflects the number and percentage of teachers who leave the profession in any given school year.  The vacancy report represents the difference between the number of teachers who leave and the number of teachers who are hired to fill those vacant positions.  The remaining vacancies signal the relative ability of public school districts’ to accommodate the annual demand for teachers.

NC Department of Public Instruction data indicates that there were nearly 1,000 teaching vacancies at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, which was a slight increase from a year earlier.  While a thousand vacancies may appear to be an extraordinary number, the state employed 95,146 teachers in 2012.  Thus, the vacancy total represents a small percentage, just over one percent, of the total number of teachers in the state.  In addition, it means that each of North Carolina’s 115 school districts had, on average, 8.7 vacancies.

An admittedly simplistic comparison of average salary and teaching vacancy data suggests that there is no consistent relationship between the two.  Vacancies increased significantly during two periods of sizable salary growth.  There was a $2,500 average salary increase between 1999 and 2000 and a $4,000 increase in teacher pay between 2003 and 2007.  As mentioned earlier, we would expect vacancies to decrease when salaries rise, but teaching vacancies rose during both periods.  Between 2001 and 2003, average teacher salaries and vacancies stagnated (see Facts and Stats below). 

Note that vacancies are not evenly distributed across the state.  School districts in western North Carolina have had relatively few teaching position vacancies. Over the last five years, western districts averaged just over 18 vacancies per year among the 17 districts included in the region.  In 2012, the highest vacancy total belonged to the 14 districts in the region that includes the Triangle and northeast. The region averaged 188 vacancies over the last five years.  School districts in Durham, Wake, and Johnston counties accounted for much of the total.  This is a predictable finding.  Not only are these districts larger than most, teachers in urban and suburban counties typically have access to greater employment opportunities than those in rural areas.

Of course, I would welcome those making claims of an impending teacher shortage to present a more comprehensive analysis of the effects of salary on teacher supply and demand based on historic trends in North Carolina.  Also, I invite members of the media to ask Atkinson and others to furnish evidence to validate, or at least support, their gloom and doom theories.   Leap of faith journalism is a disreputable practice.

Does compensation have a role in determining the supply of teachers in North Carolina?  Absolutely.  Nevertheless, prospective and employed public school teachers base their employment decisions on any number of factors, including salary, benefits, working conditions, job performance, family circumstances, and the health of the local job market, to name a few.  Those who reduce the complexities of the education job market to one factor — average salary — demonstrate either an unwillingness or inability to transcend their own ideological biases and think critically.

Facts and Stats

Average Teacher Salary and Teaching Vacancies, 1999-2012










































Source: NC Department of Public Instruction, Teacher Vacancy Reports, 2005 and 2012 and Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget, February 2013

Education Acronym of the Week

SP1: Standard Professional 1 Professional Educator’s License

Quote of the Week

"We are losing ground, and unfortunately there has been a national movement to disparage teachers, to say that our public schools are broken and our teachers are sorry.  That tears at the mindsets of our teachers who are working really hard every day."

– Julie Ball, "NC schools chief warns of teacher losses," Asheville Citizen-Times, June 24, 2013

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