The Teaching Profession Teacher pay is only part of the issue

Public Education

Mebane Rash is a member of ZSR’s Community Leadership Council and the Director of Law and Policy with the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.

Teacher pay is getting a lot of attention lately with the issue looming large for the legislative session starting in May 2014. Across the political spectrum, people agree that we need good teachers.

Good teachers need to be well prepared for the classroom. And they need support once they are in the classroom. But the issue is more complicated than raising pay alone, calling for us as a state to wrestle with our regard for the teaching profession and to think about how we can lift up the status of teachers.

As we consider how much to pay teachers, we need to be less concerned about what other states are paying and more concerned about what level of pay it will take to get our best and brightest to teach in our schools. The cost of living in New York, for example, makes raw comparisons of teacher salaries there and in North Carolina less relevant. It is more important to think about the other jobs the bright young people we want in our classrooms are considering instead and what those jobs pay. 

According to a report by the National Educational Association released in December 2012, the average salary for public school teachers in 2011-12 was $45,947, ranking North Carolina 46th in the country. More important is the NEA's finding that North Carolina leads the nation in the decline of average salaries at 15.7 percent between 2002-12. Across the country, the average decline was 2.8 percent. It wasn't too long ago, in 2000-01, that North Carolina ranked 21st in the country.

The annual starting salary for teachers with a bachelor's degree is $30,800. In a family of four with only one parent working as a teacher, the children would qualify for reduced price lunches. Compounding the problem is that $30,800 is the annual salary not only for entry-level teachers but also for teachers with up to five years of experience. Imagine taking a job with the expectation that your starting salary will not increase until you have six years of experience regardless of performance. The salary increase, once you get it, is only $42 a month. Governor Pat McCrory has said the current salary of $30,800 is "not even enough to raise a family or pay off student loans."

In February 2014, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, House Speaker Thom Tillis, and Senate Leader Phil Berger announced a proposal to raise the salaries of teachers with zero to nine years of experience to $33,000 in 2014-15 and to $35,000 in 2015-16. The increase will cost the state about $200 million over two years, and the proposal needs to be approved by the legislature. The proposal also would restore supplemental pay for teachers with master degrees for those who completed their coursework by July 1, 2013.

We need to get teacher pay right, or we may be headed to a place where teaching is less a profession and more a stepping stone to other careers. The Governor's teacher pay proposal does not include pay raises for mid-career or veteran teachers.

Dr. Trip Stallings, a former teacher in Durham and now at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, believes the day of the career teacher may be over. He asks, "Does this state want it to be OK for teachers to teach five or 10 years and then move on?" Almost 50 percent of the teachers who left in 2012-13 had career status.

Teacher turnover over the past 10 years has consistently hovered around 12 percent, between a low of 11.1 percent in 2010 and a high of 13.85 percent in 2008. In 2012-13, according to the Department of Public Instruction's Teacher Turnover Report, of the 95,028 teachers employed by the public school system in North Carolina, 13,616 teachers left their jobs, for a total system turnover rate of 14.33 percent. This increase is cause for concern.

In 2011-12, 19 school districts experienced turnover higher than 15 percent. In 2012-13, that number rose to 45 districts, and two of those had turnover rates higher than 30 percent – Northampton (35.09 percent) and Halifax (31.27 percent). 

Since 2004, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research has recommended that the state require teacher retention improvement plans for all local school districts where turnover exceeds 15 percent. Through the state's Race to the Top grant, 12 districts received support for recruitment and retention plans. Statewide, thirty-three more plans are still needed.

Local supplements paid to teachers also need to be part of the debate on teacher pay. These supplements range from $0 to $6,441, with eight counties not offering supplements. 

But the real problem is not captured in these numbers. Helen McLeod, a teacher at the Durham School of the Arts, has been teaching in public schools in North Carolina for more than 40 years. She says, "I truly loved teaching for a long time, and my life as a teacher, regardless of pay. I am completely discouraged and saddened by the state of my profession, but it is only in part about salary."

"Because of testing, there is no risk taking, there is no curiosity – only timetables and monotony, all day, every day. Teaching as I knew it for so long is gone."

"I work with young teachers who would be great, but they won't last, and not because of pay. Teacher pay has never been good, but teaching was, at one time, fulfilling, and it just simply isn't anymore."

The legislature will need to grapple with more than pay issues if we want teachers to find this profession fulfilling again. Teachers educate our work force. As the guardians of the future of this state, the issues of pay, turnover, performance, and job satisfaction deserve to be addressed collectively and completely, instead of separately and with lingering uncertainty.