In March, the National Education Association released teacher salary data from its upcoming “Rankings of the States 2018 and Estimates of School Statistics 2019” report. Republican lawmakers welcomed the news that North Carolina’s $53,975 average teacher salary ranks 29th in the nation, an improvement of five spots since last year’s report.

Democrats and the president of the NEA union state affiliate, the N.C. Association of Educators, lamented that the state average falls short of the national average and is “misleading” and thus should not be taken at face value. They are right. That’s because the rankings and estimates data don’t include adjustments for cost of living or health care and retirement benefits.

Adjusting the average salary figures to account for the cost of living makes a big difference because North Carolina has a much lower cost of living than the national average. Using the C2ER cost-of-living index for 2018, I determined North Carolina ranks 20th in COL-adjusted average salary. That’s better than some of our primary competitors for teachers in the Southeast, including Virginia, South Carolina, and Florida. Teachers in Vermont, Oregon, and Hawaii may enjoy a relatively high average salary, but those dollars don’t go very far in these states. When adjusted for cost of living, all three drop well below North Carolina in the ranking.

Reliable, apples-to-apples comparisons of health care and retirement benefits are difficult to come by because states and school districts structure their benefits packages differently from one another. In North Carolina, baseline benefits provided by the legislature include $6,104 per employee for health insurance, a Social Security contribution of $3,701, and a retirement contribution of $9,123. In other words, behind every teacher salary figure is a benefits package hovering around $19,000.

But even ignoring adjustments for cost of living or considerations of benefits, North Carolina’s teacher salaries are in a much different place today than they were just five years ago.

In 2014, North Carolina’s average salary had bottomed out at $44,990 due to many factors, including changes in the teacher work force and massive overruns in required Medicaid spending that diverted funds from teacher salary increases and other uses. Beginning in 2015, the N.C. General Assembly granted teachers average salary increases of 7 percent, 2.1 percent, 4.7 percent, 3.3 percent, and 6.5 percent. A sixth consecutive salary increase is almost certain to reach the Republicans’ stated goal of reaching a $55,000 salary average by 2020.

Republican lawmakers wisely coupled teacher salary increases with performance-based pay opportunities. These include bonuses for elementary and middle school reading and math teachers, high school Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate teachers, and career and technical education teachers. Taken together, these measures and increases to local salary supplements propelled North Carolina’s average teacher salary to nearly $54,000 in 2019, a 20 percent increase over just five years. Only the most cynical and partisan observer would dismiss North Carolina’s progress under Republican leadership. Unfortunately, N.C. politics has cynicism and partisanship to spare.

While the teacher compensation inputs are well documented, outcomes aren’t evident. In the short term, these salary increases may have contributed to recent declines in teacher attrition. According to the annual State of the Teaching Profession in North Carolina report, teacher attrition declined for the third straight year and dropped by nearly a percentage point since 2016.

The overall state attrition rate in 2015-16 was 9.04 percent. It fell to 8.70 percent a year later and decreased again to 8.09 percent in 2017-18. The report isn’t designed to account for the factors underlying these trends, so the precise role of compensation in teachers’ decision-making process is uncertain. Nevertheless, we know that teachers who stay in the profession tend to be more effective than those who leave.

While attrition may lead to improvements in teacher quality, two longstanding teacher pay practices are barriers to improvement. First, our continued use of experience and credential-based teacher salary schedules means, for example, that some superb educators are making less money than mediocre ones, merely 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. Second, for decades both Democratic and Republican legislatures have employed across-the-board salary increases, even though increases focused on top-tier teachers are a much better long-term strategy for elevating teacher quality statewide. While lawmakers have begun to address the latter, our statewide salary schedule remains an impediment to improvement.

In the coming months, Democrats, unions, and public school advocacy organizations will demand that lawmakers spend hundreds of millions more to climb further up the National Education Association’s teacher salary rankings and reach the fabled, but inconsequential, national average. While salary increases may be warranted for their own sake, they should not be used to distract from the core mission of our public schools — meaningful and sustained academic achievement for all students.


This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Carolina Journal.