You may have heard that the average annual teacher salary in North Carolina fell $163 short of $50,000. Never mind that the average is $1,896 higher than last year. Republican legislators and former governor Pat McCrory promised $50,000 and even one-dollar short of that mark would have inspired their political opponents to accuse them of serial dishonesty.
Average teacher pay calculations, and teacher salary rates generally, depend on three factors – experience, credentials, and school district. Statewide salary schedules, which are included the biennial state budget, mandates that all school districts pay teachers a salary based on the number of years they have taught and the attainment of supplementary credentials, such as National Board for Professional Teacher Standards certification. Most school boards supplement the state-mandated salary using local funds. The average local supplement for teachers was $3,870 last year.
In general, local salary and credential supplements remain relatively predictable from year to year. The experience level of the teacher workforce is somewhat less so. According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction data, we do know that teachers who have between 0 and 3 years of experience have become a greater share of the workforce over the last five years. In 2012, around 15 percent of teachers were in their first three years in the profession. Last year, 23 percent of teachers were in that category. During the same period, the share of classroom teachers with 4 to 10 years of experience has dropped by 7 percentage points.
These trends, as well as turnover and retirement rates, have practical implications for the state average salary. Because of the structure of the state salary schedules, inexperienced teachers receive lower pay than more experienced ones, and this has a diluting effect on the overall average. Simply put, as inexperienced teachers become a larger share of the workforce, it becomes more difficult to use conventional increases in pay, such as the 4.7 percent average increase approved by the state legislature last year, to raise the overall average.
The difficulty of predicting the trajectory of the statewide average teacher salary does not absolve Republicans of what I believe to be a risky political calculation – the choice to make the $50,000 (and now $55,000) threshold a core issue in their campaigns and legislative work. I argue that teacher pay is not, and will never be, a winning issue for Republicans, even if their intentions are sincere and efforts are objectively praiseworthy.
Unions and public school interest groups, which are traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party, will “move the goalposts” whenever Republicans make meaningful advancements in teacher pay. If Republican legislative leadership spearheads an effort to reach an average pay level, their political opponents simply label them failures for not attaining a higher one.
And their opponents always aspire to reach a higher salary level, regardless of how arbitrary and detached from indicators of performance it is, and they trust that the mainstream media will disseminate corresponding stories, opinion pieces, “fact checks,” polling, and documentaries to rally a largely sympathetic public to their cause.
So, the $50,000 question is why Republicans insist on pouring hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to raise the average when the figure largely reflects the experience of the workforce and their efforts are widely dismissed and, thus, the political and electoral returns from doing so are questionable, at best.
Yes, voters care about teacher pay and welcome efforts to raise it. That is why Republicans should instead focus on making strategic, performance-based investments in our teacher workforce with the goal of retaining our very best teachers and improving the overall quality of teaching in North Carolina.