On Teachers' Pay, From Glad to Sad
O ver the years, North Carolina and other states, troubled or embarrassed by their standing in various statistical rankings, have grown fond of saying, often with a wry smile, "Thank God for Alabama."
Now, sadly, on the important measure of pay going to public school teachers, Alabama can say, "Thank goodness for North Carolina." And so can South Carolina. And Arkansas, for gosh sakes.
Teacher pay may not be the most important factor in the quality of education, but it ranks right up there near the top. All other things being equal, it's not hard to imagine the decisions conscientious teachers or ambitious college graduates will make when they look at the figures and see that they can make nearly $8,000 more per year by going to Louisiana instead of North Carolina.
Many counties, including Moore, sweeten the pot by adding local pay supplements. But there's only so much lipstick you can put on a pig.
Reversal of a Trend
It didn't need to be this way. Starting back in 1997, when Gov. Jim Hunt got the General Assembly to pass the Excellent Schools Act, things really perked up for a while. From a national ranking of 43rd, North Carolina increased steadily for the next four years until it had pulled into 21st place. Average teacher salary had climbed to $41,496, which was a mere $2,000 away from the national average.
For the next decade, though, things sagged dismally. Other states began overtaking North Carolina, which pretty much marked time. Soon we had been overtaken by Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky - not to mention Arkansas and Alabama. Now we rank 10th in the 12-state Southeastern region, and all we can say is, "Thank God for West Virginia and Mississippi."
Some teachers are even sliding backward on the pay scale, as the State Board of Education was told in a report last week. A North Carolina teacher with five years of experience averaged $35,380 in 2009. Now that same teacher gets $31,220.
The Wrong Direction
But it gets worse. In the important matter of salary rate increases over the past 10 years, North Carolina comes out dead last among all the states of the Southeast. The pace of hikes in every other state in the region was two to three times as great as that in North Carolina.
Put it another way: From 2002 through 2012, adjusted for inflation, teacher compensation actually fell by 15.7 percent.
Granted, economic realities make it hard to think in terms of giving teachers generous raises right now. Per-capita income in North Carolina grew only 24 percent from 2000 to 2010 - 45th-lowest in the country, according to the census.
Nor are the political winds blowing in an auspicious direction now. The Republicans in charge of the legislature sometimes seem more enamored of charter schools and private schools than they are of the public kind. They are also looking at ways to reform teacher pay to put more emphasis on performance, and some such changes are overdue.
But we do our children and ourselves a disservice any time we appear to lose sight of the overall importance of quality public education in advancing the kinds of economic and social progress that all North Carolinians want and deserve. And quality education costs money.
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