North Carolina continues to tread water when it comes to ensuring our teachers can make ends meet, merely inching up the national rankings for average teacher pay this year compared to last year, from 42nd to 41st, according to a recently released report by the National Education Association.
North Carolina may have moved up a spot, but the problem is that rankings rarely help us to understand the actual state of things. For example, Missouri (42nd from 43rd), New Mexico (43rd from 44th), and Idaho (48th from 49th) could also similarly celebrate their respective inch forward. The reality, however, is that all these states, including North Carolina, remain among the worst states for average teacher pay.
The more important take away from this ranking is that much work remains to be done in public education in North Carolina.
All of our neighboring states – Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee – rank higher for average teacher pay. Among states in the Southeast, all but three – West Virginia, Oklahoma and Mississippi – rank higher for average teacher pay than North Carolina.
In a broader context, ranking 41st for average teacher pay is not a competitive position. Moving up one spot among the bottom is not impressive. Ranking near the very bottom in the Southeast is disappointing. North Carolina has chosen to inch along when we could be making greater strides.
The Governor and state lawmakers constantly proclaim the need for North Carolina to become more competitive in order to attract jobs to the state and boost economic growth. Yet state leaders have favored tax cuts over reinvestment in our public schools and other services that drive our state forward. The cost of these tax cuts is at least $2 billion a year, once all tax cuts passed since 2013 are fully in place. These are dollars that otherwise would be available to get average teacher pay closer to the national average faster and boost investments in other areas of public education – textbooks and digital learning resources, school nurses and classroom instructional supplies, among other areas.
In lauding the state’s inch forward, Gov. McCrory says that North Carolina has made the single-biggest improvement of any state in the rankings for average teacher pay since 2013-14 – up from 47th. Average teacher pay for North Carolina teachers increased by $2,995 since 2013-14 according to the NEA report. With a reported 94,566 classrooms teachers in the state, that means it took more than $283 million to get North Carolina to 41st in the ranking.
Getting average teacher pay to the average for states in the Southeast, around $50,427 for 2015-16, would require an additional $230 million in state support. Getting closer to the national average for teacher pay, around $58,064 for 2015-16, would take an even larger commitment by state leaders.
And this is where the collision between rhetoric and reality collide. Costly tax cuts passed in recent years hinder North Carolina’s ability to make a meaningful effort to boost pay for all teachers while also boosting investments in other areas of the state budget. Thus we find ourselves confronted with false choices where funding one priority means we can’t fund other priorities – something has to give.
News that North Carolina inched up one spot nationally for average teacher pay is more a call for us to do better than to pat ourselves on the back. If the goal is to become a more competitive state, we are losing on this front.