Commentary

Governor Cooper is underselling his teacher pay plan

Amidst the clamor over the General Assembly’s unfunded class-size mandate, Governor Cooper’s teacher pay plan has fallen from the North Carolina education headlines. However, teacher pay will certainly return to the forefront over the coming months as the North Carolina Senate and House release their budget proposals. As a result, it’s important to have a firm understanding of the Governor’s proposal.

The Governor described his proposal as a two-year effort to increase teacher salaries by 10 percent. For year one, FY 2017-18, the Governor proposes investing $271 million in teacher raises to provide what he described as “a more than 5% average increase for teachers in 2017-18.” Additionally, the proposal would eliminate the misguided “tier system” established in 2014-15 that only provided guaranteed raises to teachers every five years.

Teacher salary proposals are among the biggest state budget items each year, and deserve outside, independent analysis. Last year, Governor McCrory and General Assembly leadership were incredibly dishonest in their description of their teacher pay plan. General Assembly leadership absurdly claimed that their plan would bring average teacher salaries above $50,150, a claim repeated by the Lieutenant Governor and on countless campaign commercials. Governor McCrory centered his campaign on the equally-false claim that he met his promise to bring average teacher salaries above $50,000. Of course, these claims were provably false at the time, and average teacher pay remains below $50,000.

Thankfully, Governor Cooper has taken a more honest approach. If anything, he’s under-selling his plan.

According to my calculations (prior to February 2016, I worked at the General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division, where one of my responsibilities was determining the cost of teacher pay proposals), the Governor’s proposed teacher salary schedule would indeed cost $271 million to implement in FY 2017-18. However, the Governor appears to be underestimating the raises that existing teachers will receive.

First, it is important to understand two easily confused metrics:

  • Average raise for existing teachers: Pay plans have historically been described based on the average raise provided to existing teachers if they all were to return in the subsequent school year. See, for example, this chart on historic legislative salary increases.
  • Change in statewide average teacher pay: The statewide average teacher pay is what folks look at when they’re considering state rankings. The statewide average teacher pay doesn’t increase year-over-year as much as the average raise for existing teachers due to turnover. For example, last year, the budget provided a 4.7 percent average raise for existing teachers, but average pay went up 3.95 percent.

According to my calculations, the average raise for existing teachers would be 6.2 percent under Governor Cooper’s plan. Teacher raises would vary based on years of experience. Governor Cooper’s plan offers returning teachers raises that range from 3.9 percent to 9.9 percent. The average raise of 6.2 percent exceeds the headline description of the plan as a 5.0 percent increase.

The Governor’s pay proposal will of course have a somewhat smaller impact on the statewide average teacher pay. Not everyone teaching this year will return to teach in the 2017-18 school year. On average, departing teachers will be more experienced (and therefore more expensive) than their replacement teachers. As a result, the statewide average teacher pay in FY 2017-18 will not be 6.2 percent higher than the 2016-17 statewide average teacher pay. According to data from the Department of Public Instruction, each 1 percent increase in statewide average teacher pay costs $56.3 million. Governor Cooper’s $271 million investment would therefore be sufficient to fund a 4.8 percent increase in statewide average teacher pay.

A 4.8 percent increase in statewide average teacher pay would certainly be a reasonable first step towards the Governor’s goal of reaching the national average within five years. Even greater ambition – and raises of approximately 60 percent – would be required, however, to make North Carolina’s teacher salaries competitive with the salaries offered by other professions in the state.

Unfortunately, any ambitious teacher pay plan will be greatly harmed by further tax cuts benefiting the rich and corporations. North Carolina faces a real need to improve the competitiveness of teacher salaries while returning public school resources to pre-Recession levels.  Policymakers will be unable to meet these vital needs if the General Assembly continues to slash revenue. Senate leadership is bafflingly pushing to cut North Carolina’s revenues by another $1 billion this year, which would almost certainly make it impossible to fully-fund the Governor’s teacher pay plan.

In the meantime, Governor Cooper should stop selling his teacher pay plan short. If implemented, his plan will provide teachers with an average raise of 6.2 percent. Stay tuned to see if Senate or House leadership can match his proposal.

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