Teaching Profession

North Carolina Teacher Salaries Rise and Fall and (Sorta) Rise Again

By Ross Brenneman — November 04, 2015 4 min read
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In August 2014, North Carolina passed a budget deal that overhauled the salary schedule for teachers. The salary schedule provided most of its benefits to new teachers, and state leaders were transparent that this move was about retention.

If policymakers thought that their plan would lead to greater retention, they overlooked one issue: For established teachers, the new pay scale was below the levels from a few years prior.

Earlier this month, I wrote about a new report showing that teacher retention in North Carolina has not improved over the past year. While another year of data would be helpful to suss out long-term trends, available data show that the number of teachers who leave for personal reasons (those which might be attributed to dissatisfaction in some form) continues to increase.

While the salary increases might have made new teachers happy, they represented what was, in effect, a cut for teachers who’d been around a few years. Over the past decade, veteran teachers have had two kinds of salary schedules. The old one gave increases for every year of teaching; the new one has a step system every five years. Here’s how the salary schedule developed, per the Department of Public Instruction, based on the start of each school year:

  • 2006-2008: Steady across-the-board growth in teacher salaries
  • 2009-2013: Consecutive cuts for established teachers
  • 2014: (New system) Major increases for new teachers, and increases generally across the board
  • 2015: Increase for new teachers

In 2009, the state began to group teachers with less than five years of experience together, effectively removing one step from the salary schedule each year—hence the cuts. The 2014 overhaul, then, mitigates that issue by bumping up new teacher pay—but while retaining the new pay scale on which veteran teachers made less than in 2008.

Although the new schedule is an increase over what teachers were making earlier this decade, lifetime salaries are still down, overall, from the halcyon days of 2008, especially if you consider inflation:

To put it another way: Starting salaries for North Carolina teachers are now the highest they’ve ever been, but after the first three years, the current pay scale pays teachers less than they would have earned in the 2008-09 school year, whether or not there’s adjustment for inflation.

Unadjusted, teachers now make about $3,000 less over 36 years of teaching than they would have seven years ago. Adjusted, the number is more than a $186,000 lifetime cumulative difference, based off of the consumer price index.

While someone could point out that teachers receive numerous other benefits, that doesn’t mean the new schedule isn’t a cut for veteran teachers.

Now for a whole bunch of caveats on teacher pay:

First: Expecting state salaries to keep pace with inflation every year is asking a lot, because that money comes from cuts elsewhere, or from raising taxes. Neither of those things is super popular.

Second: The chart above just reflects base pay set by the state; local governments can pay their teachers more. And, indeed, many do. According to the state education department, all but seven North Carolina districts offer teachers a local salary supplement. Some of them are more generous than others; teachers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have an average supplement of over $6,600, while teachers in Richmond have an average $1,000 supplement. (Charlotte-Mecklenburg also has almost 20 times as many teachers.) There’s not a great correlation between number of teachers and average supplement, but the vast majority of districts give teachers at least $1,000 supplements.

Third: This chart also doesn’t compare teacher pay to salaries and benefits of people in other state occupations, such as police officers and firefighters.

Fourth: North Carolina is actually a net importer of teachers, as critics of the turnover report like to point out. But here’s the problem with that line of argument: The number of teachers in North Carolina has been falling for the past three years. So saying, “Look how many teachers are coming to our state” could be a reflection more of vacancies than of growth.

Fifth: Teacher pay is just one of many, many factors that affect retention. And nowhere is there better proof of that, probably, then in little Graham County. That’s one of the seven counties that don’t offer teachers any local salary supplement. But guess what county also has the lowest rate of teacher attrition in the state? Once again: Graham County.

Trends take a while to bear out, but if North Carolina is paying teachers more and they still end up leaving in greater numbers every year, maybe something else is at work.

More on North Carolina:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.