KEITH POSTON: Debunking the ‘average teacher pay’ myth

May 24, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Keith Poston is president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on public education.

Each year, policymakers, educators, and the general public all engage in debates around average teacher pay in North Carolina.

These discussions are about whether teachers in North Carolina are adequately compensated as compared with teachers in other states—and as compared with workers in other sectors.

In recent years there have been disputes on whether average teacher pay is valid because it’s not adjusted for cost of living differences. Others have argued that benefits should be factored in. And more recently we’ve even gotten into a debate only a math teacher could love—what is more accurate, average pay or median pay?

The reported average teacher pay figure has bothered me for some time. We talk to teachers all across the state every week and they are constantly scratching their heads, looking at their own paychecks and wondering who is actually taking home this “average” salary.

The truth is, most teachers aren’t. Our analysis -- “North Carolina’s Average Teacher Pay Myth” -- finds that average teacher salaries in more than 80 percent of North Carolina’s school districts fall below the reported statewide average teacher salary of $53,975.  And worse, the lowest paid teachers tend to be in our more rural and poorer counties.

Why is this the case? We find that the state’s reported “average” teacher salary figure calculated by the state Department of Public Instruction is clearly inflated by including funding streams that most teachers don’t get and excluding lower-paid teachers that are not state funded.

And the figure also includes an average of the supplemental pay provided to teachers by local governments and districts that have the wealth to do so.

In Wake County, for example, teachers are paid a local salary supplement of approximately $8,700. The reported average salary for Wake County teachers, including this local supplement, is about $58,400.

Travel just 40 miles north to Vance County, a lower-wealth, rural district. The local salary supplement offered there is only $1,748. Combine that with the reported average for North Carolina teachers paid through state position allotments and the “average” teacher in Vance County earns closer to $50,500—about $8,000 less than teachers working in Wake County and far less than the state average.

The story is similar in other parts of the state where lower wealth counties simply do not have the property values even when taxing at a much higher rate than a Wake County.

What that means is average teacher pay by district is heavily dependent on the wealth of the district that teachers work in—and, as a result, teachers are incentivized to work in districts that are wealthier and better resourced overall. Meanwhile, districts that are poorer and have the greatest need, are even further disadvantaged by having higher rates of teacher turnover and fewer experienced teachers. The state needs to help address it.

Our report’s other key findings include:

The discussions that policymakers have around the important issue of teacher pay and whether or not we are competitive with both other states and other professions is just one component of a broader conversation that is not taking place as it should with regard to investments in the teaching profession.

Our educators are increasingly doing their best to educate their students while experiencing a steady deprofessionalization of teaching. This includes losing longevity pay and master’s pay, career status, retiree health benefits for teachers hired in 2021 and beyond, 8,000 fewer teacher assistants, inadequate classroom supplies, far too few school counselors, nurses and psychologists and ballooning class sizes in upper grades due to the K-3 class size mandate.

Teaching is one of the most difficult, and undoubtedly most important professions there is— for the future of our state and all public schools,

North Carolina teachers deserve better. It is critical that we as a state have an honest and accurate conversation about teacher pay and what increases in state spending for teacher salaries are necessary to begin to address the massive teacher shortages and inequities in salaries across districts. Then, we must all work together to do more to lift up the teaching profession as a whole and restore North Carolina as a teaching destination.

The Public School Forum’s report, “North Carolina’s Average Teacher Pay Myth,” can be found online, here.


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