The education budget remains the center of an ongoing battle between Democratic Gov. Perdue and the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Discussions are framed by how best to adequately fund the public schools and also address North Carolina’s $2.4 billion budget deficit. While these discussions are important, viewing these efforts as an exercise in developing the most favorable budget reduction scenario is to miss the larger point: education budgets are a function of how to fund public education and how we staff our schools.
Public schools are about educating children. Obviously effective teachers are an important part of this work. Last year North Carolina spent $2.9 billion on classroom teacher salaries – the single largest educational expense. Projected budget reductions and concern over student achievement are good reasons to review how North Carolina pays its teachers.
North Carolina’s system of public schools is highly centralized. This derives in part from how the state funds schools. Approximately 65 percent of local school funds come from the state, one of the highest percentages among the 50 states. Of the remaining funds, 25 percent is from local sources and 10 percent from the federal government. State money comes to local districts in the form of allotments. Each allotment has a formula to determine how it is distributed. Briefly stated, there are allotments to pay for personnel (e.g., teacher’s staff and administrators), programs and services.
In North Carolina, teacher costs are linked to the number of teachers hired and the salaries they are paid. The number of teacher and teacher assistants employed by school districts is set by grade-specific student teacher ratios. For example, the teacher:student ratio for students in kindergarten through grade three is 1:18. Ratios increase with grade levels. The teacher student ratio for grades 10 through 12 is 1:29. Schools must abide by these ratios unless they receive a waiver to do otherwise. In recent years, strict policies regarding teacher student ratios have forced Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to construct additional schools.
Teacher Salary Schedule
Teacher salaries are determined by the North Carolina Public School Salary Schedule. The salary schedule lists salaries for teachers, instructional support staff and administrators. As you can see salary differentials are based on longevity and credentials. For example, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 0-2 years experience earns $30,430 over 10 months. Similarly, teachers with a bachelor’s degree and 30 years experience would earn $49,840 over 10 months. Each year of employment adds another step and a larger pay increment – in this case, an additional 1 percent – to teacher salaries.
Teacher salaries are also differentiated by credential. Teachers who hold masters, advanced status, doctoral degrees or have been awarded National Teacher Certification from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) also receive additional salary supplements. In many cases, these supplements are substantial. Masters degree recipients usually receive a 10 percent increase in pay. Last year, North Carolina teachers received nearly $181 million in masters pay supplements. Teachers with NBPTS certification receive an immediate 12 percent increase for the duration of the certification. NBPTS certification is awarded for 10 years. Last year over 2,200 teachers received NBPTS certification. North Carolina now has 17,957 NBPTS certified teachers, by far the largest number of any state. In 2010-11, teachers with NBPTS certification were paid an additional $82.8 million in salary supplements. The lack of across the board pay raises has contributed to higher numbers of applicants seeking NBPTS certification the past two years. No doubt teachers view certification as another option to increase their salary.
Interestingly, it is also possible for teachers to combine both supplements (masters and NBPTS certification). Those who do receive an additional 22 percent salary supplement.
Teacher Salary Schedule: Criticisms
The current teacher salary schedule is based on two premises: 1) level of inputs determines educational outcome; and 2) more experienced teachers and more credentialed teachers are better teachers.
The past 15 years have cast considerable doubt about the credibility of those assertions.
More Inputs = Better Outputs? Because the state picks up the cost of teacher salary and benefits, LEAs have no incentive to hold down costs. In fact, the current system has a built-in bias to hire teachers with higher levels of education and credentialing, while virtually ignoring actual performance or results.
The number and compensation of North Carolina teachers has grown significantly in the last 15 years. In 1996-97 starting teachers were making about $21,300 annually. The bias toward more qualified and higher paid teachers are reflected in the steady rise of teacher salary and compensation figures. According to a February 2009 report by Dr. Terry Stoops, Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation:
Adjusted for pension contributions, teacher experience, and cost of living, North Carolina’s adjusted annual teacher compensation is $59,252, high enough for North Carolina to rank No. 14 in the United States. That’s $4,086 higher than the U.S. adjusted average and $674 higher than the average of states ranked by the Southern Regional Education Board. These numbers refute the cliché that North Carolina has underpaid schoolteachers who are victims of miserly, unappreciative, and ignorant taxpayers.”
There has been much discussion over the past decade over how the growth in the number of teachers, salary levels and educational expenditures has not produced commensurate increases in the quality of educational outcomes. Both national and state polling data reflects continued unease among citizens and voters regarding the quality of public education. Growing enrollments in private schools and the growing momentum to expand public charter schools also cast doubt on the perceived link between the level of resources and education quality.
The Missing Link. North Carolina pays teachers to educate young people and improve overall student achievement. We’ve put a premium on experience and credentials and offer teachers generous incentives to those who have additional educational experiences and credentials. However we seem to ignore some disturbing facts. There is considerable research showing teachers with masters degrees perform no better than teachers without. 
Moreover, numerous articles detail growing reservations about the value of NBPTS certification. Several recent articles I have written on the subject can be accessed here. Such benefits are often described as minimal. In addition, other studies have noted that NBPTS certification is frequently awarded to teachers that are already highly regarded. Thus it is difficult to determine if national certification is really adding to teachers skills.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that the NC teacher salary schedule rewards longevity and credentialing while the research suggests the link between the two and student achievement is – at best – weak.
Disruptions on the Local Labor Market. In addition to creating salary supplements with weak links to student achievement, the current teacher salary schedule also disrupts labor markets. Paraphrasing Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor, the North Carolina teacher salary schedule undervalues teacher compensation at a time when a young teacher can have maximum impact on students and overvalues teacher compensation at a time when teacher influence and impact on students is waning. In addition, the relatively slow climb of teacher salaries in comparison to other professions — such as doctors or lawyers –works to keep qualified people away from the field and contributes to teacher turnover.
Loss of Local Control. The teacher salary schedule is state government’s attempt to provide a one-size fits all solution to a problem that is best resolved by giving Local Education Agencies (LEA) more flexibility to address their local needs. The failure to consider the strong differences in individual labor markets and cost pressures are a serious limitation. These shortcomings have contributed to all but a handful of LEAs offering teacher salary supplements that boost annual teacher salary on average about $3,400 per year.
The salary schedule by its centralized nature and the formulas that drive school funding have elevated the importance of political relationships and in so doing mobilized teachers to exert political influence and to strengthen alliances between teacher unions and legislators.
Finally teacher salary schedules weaken local control by weakening principals. While principals have the responsibility to ensure effective teaching and learning is taking place, restrictive salary schedules strip them of the ability to encourage and discourage teacher performance.
Should we continue to pay teachers using a salary schedule that rewards longevity over teacher effectiveness and student performance? Under the current salary schedule excellent teachers are essentially paid the same as ineffective teachers. Is such a policy fair to our teachers or our students?
Lawmakers can help address the current crisis by limiting salary supplements (i.e., masters, NBPTS etc.) to current recipients only. Long-term solutions must focus on variants of a merit pay plan for teachers. A full discussion of such is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, the North Carolina Association of Educators’ (NCAE), an organization which functions as the state teachers union, will vigorously oppose any such proposal.
Detractors will inevitably point to the imperfections of merit pay. There are difficulties in developing a valid, teacher evaluation system. However, a plan needn’t be perfect to be helpful. Rewarding good teaching will do much to address the current problems and –most importantly– improve student achievement.
|North Carolina Classroom Teachers and Budgeted Funds for Classroom Teachers by Year|
|Year||Budgeted Classroom Teachers||State Budgeted Funds
Source: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
2See: The Effects of NBPTS Certified Teachers on Student Achievement, Douglas Harris and Tim Sass. Available at: http://www.caldercenter.org/PDF/1001060_NBPTS_Certified.pdf; National Research Council Study: Assessing Accomplished Teaching: Advanced Level Certification Programs, 2008; For expanded version of research on NBPTS see: http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/1/4/2/7/7/pages142776/p142776-2.php
3Scrap the Sacrosanct Salary Schedule by Jacob Vigdor in Education Next, Fall 2008. Available at: http://educationnext.org/scrap-the-sacrosanct-salary-schedule/