Commentary

House leadership should seize opportunity for ambitious teacher pay proposal

With the delayed release of the House budget proposal, legislative leaders have had ample opportunity to address the many shortfalls of the Senate budget proposal. Ideally, House leadership will take a more responsible approach towards funding future class-size requirements, resisting expansion of unaccountable voucher programs, and the dismantling of the Department of Public Instruction. However, the best opportunity for House leadership to improve upon the Senate budget proposal may involve a more enlightened and ambitious approach towards teacher pay.

According to recently released estimates from the National Education Association, North Carolina’s average teacher pay ranking improved from 41st to 35th. North Carolina’s improved ranking is good news, but the average pay ranking is not very useful for determining what type of pay is needed to attract and retain the best and the brightest into the profession. Instead, policymakers need to look at how North Carolina teacher salaries compare with the salaries of other professionals in North Carolina whose jobs have similar college-level education requirements. Countries with high-performing education systems such as South Korea, Finland, and Singapore offer teacher salaries that are competitive with other professions. By contrast, North Carolina’s teacher salaries are only about 57 to 65 percent of other college graduates in the state. According to this more useful measure of teacher salary competitiveness, North Carolina ranks 49th.

Given the woeful state of teacher salary competitiveness, the primary goal of any House teacher pay proposal should be focusing on increasing teacher salaries across the board. The Senate’s plan would provide teachers average raises just under 3.8 percent. By contrast, Governor Cooper’s budget proposal would provide teachers average raises of 6.2 percent. With additional creativity, House leadership could certainly afford an even more ambitious teacher pay plan.

House leadership should also follow the Governor’s example when it comes to the shape of the salary proposal. The Governor’s proposal increases starting pay, while also providing raises to the state’s most experienced teachers. Increasing starting pay is important for recruiting high-quality candidates into teaching, while raises for more experienced teachers should improve retention of high-quality teachers. Currently, the state loses too many high-quality, experienced teachers to administrative positions. The state would be better served by retaining these teachers, as evidence indicates that teacher performance improves well into a teacher’s career. Of course, the Senate plan would keep starting pay unchanged and freeze salaries for teachers with 25 years or more of experience.

In addition, the Governor’s teacher pay proposal would eliminate salary “tiers” for teachers with more than 15 years of experience. Under the tier system, these teachers have to wait up to five years before receiving a significant pay increase. The Governor’s teacher salary schedule would instead provide teachers with a number of smaller annual raises.

Finally, the House should reject the Senate budget provision eliminating retiree medical benefits for new hires. As long as teacher salaries remain so far below other professions, the state must continue offering a strong package of employee benefits.

Of course, salaries and benefits aren’t the only factor impacting teacher recruitment and retention. Other investments such as improved mentoring, induction, working conditions, and professional development have been shown to improve retention of high-quality teachers. The House should consider restoring state funding for professional development and beginning-teacher mentoring programs, both of which were eliminated following the recession. Fully-funding school supplies and textbooks would simultaneously improve teacher working conditions and provide relief to teachers’ bank accounts. The Senate budget proposal would leave funding for textbooks 38 percent below pre-recession levels, and funding for supplies 54 percent below pre-recession levels.

House leadership should take these suggestions to heart. Not only does teacher pay remain a critical weakness of North Carolina’s education system, but House leadership also needs to consider how best to position themselves for upcoming budget negotiations with the Senate. An ambitious teacher pay plan would clearly differentiate the House budget from the Senate budget, creating a strong negotiating position for the final round of budget negotiations. Certainly, public support (and evidence-based policymaking) would align more closely with a House proposal favoring investment in competitive teacher salaries versus a Senate vision focused on privatizing schools and decimating state support for low-performing schools. An aggressive teacher pay proposal coupled with additional classroom investment would serve a dual purpose: improving teacher recruitment and retention, while also serving as a means to discard some of the harmful measures from the Senate budget proposal.

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