- NC principal pay ranks 50th out of 50 states and D.C.
- Money is part of the problem, but salary schedule is the larger issue
- Some superintendents oppose proposal to allow LEAs to pay principals as they wish
- The fear of negotiating principals’ contracts is misplaced
North Carolina has a pay problem with how much school principals are paid. That’s the conclusion of the draft final report of the Joint Legislative Study Committee Report on School-Based Administrator Pay.
Unfortunately, some school administrators oppose the best way of addressing the problem: getting rid of salary schedules that rigidly tie principals’ salaries to experience, and instead link pay to performance.
Numbers and actions tell the story. Analysts say principal pay in North Carolina ranks 50th in the country (including Washington, D.C.), even when local supplements are included. Under the current salary schedule, some principals have to wait years for a raise. [i]
Complicating matters is the sheer complexity of the salary structure. According to the draft report, “There are currently over 1,500 possible steps on the salary schedule for 2,400 principal positions.”
Moreover, the new teacher pay plan has created a situation where it’s possible for some teachers to earn more than principals – even when they have the same levels of experience. Couple that with low retention and the growing trend among principals hopping between districts for better pay, and you can see how the issue can hurt academic achievement.
The fallout from these problems has been significant. Morale among principals is falling, and North Carolina is having difficulty finding and retaining the principals it needs to lead schools successfully.
This isn’t just an issue of finances. Principals have a significant impact on forming school culture, developing quality faculty and academic achievement. A recent study by Branch, Hanashek and Rivken found that highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year; ineffective principals lower achievement by the same amount.[ii] Since principals can significantly impact the quality of education provided, the availability of high-quality principals is an important issue.
The final report of the Study Committee contains four recommendations to remedy these problems. They are:
- replacing the current principal pay schedule with a dollar amount equal to a 3 percent increase, or linking principal pay to the teacher salary schedule at the master’s level plus a specified percentage increase. In both cases LEAs would have the flexibility to pay principals as they saw fit.
- distributing bonuses to principals in low-performing and low-wealth schools who meet certain benchmarks;
- moving all assistant principals to the teacher salary schedule at a base level of those receiving a master’s supplement, plus a certain percentage; or
- adopting a multi-year plan that contains elements of all of the three plans mentioned above.[iii]
Most of the news coverage on this issue focused on the need to boost pay and the impact of not having teacher and principal pay schedules synched with each other. While more pay and the impacts of teacher raises are issues that clearly need to be addressed, isn’t how we pay principals an issue that needs to be on the table as well?
The real solution
Like teachers, pay for principals and school administrators is tied to a salary schedule that rewards years of experience with some flexibility for bonuses. Most proposals sought to address the administrator pay problem primarily through additional funding and tweaking shortcomings in the existing salary schedule. In my view, that’s a mistake.
Salaries for teachers, administrators and other school personnel have been tied to salary schedules for a long time. Salary schedules are an idea whose origins date to the industrial era. The schedules were made to protect the interests of union or employee associations, and to ensure that uniform work received uniform pay. Most proposals include continuing principal salary schedules with adjustments. That said, there are compelling reasons why principal pay should be divorced from salary schedules.
A lock-step salary schedule for principals and other administrators produces several difficulties. First, the limited early-year salaries for beginning principals will deter a host of talented people from even considering the profession. The fact is, principal and administrator salaries are simply too low relative to those of other professions.
Second, lock-step pay for administrators and teachers limits pay for great principals. Lockstep plans create incentives for good principals to leave while giving less successful principals incentives to stay.
A third problem with current principal salary schedules is that they fail to include proper incentives for working in the schools that need them most. If you have the same levels of experience and same credentials, you will receive the same pay whether you work in a school in a leafy suburb, or one in a troubled urban area. What other profession totally ignores the reality of one’s environment when considering pay, not to mention the disincentives such policies create.
Fourth and most importantly, salary schedules tie compensation to years of experience – not job performance. Principal pay must be tied to job performance, not simply years on the job. Tying pay solely to experience sends too many wrong messages. These shortcomings hamper recruitment and retention, create disincentives to excellence, and limit schools’ ability to improve the quality of leadership and teaching in its schools.
Early on in the discussion over principal pay, state Sen. Jerry Tillman (R-Randolph) proposed a solution that provided additional money for raises, would get rid of the salary schedule altogether, and would give school districts the opportunity to pay principals as superintendents and school boards saw fit.[iv]
Administrators balk at solution
The reaction from school administrators was surprising. You would have thought that LEAs would have welcomed the flexibility. They didn’t.
In fact, school administrators pushed back hard against the proposal. One of the most vocal critics of eliminating the salary schedule for school administrators is Frank Till Jr., superintendent of Cumberland County Schools. In an interview with the left-leaning NC PolicyWatch, Till said: “Without a salary schedule, it means we’d have to negotiate every single principal’s salary. It would lead to inequities. You would open yourself up to a variety of things.”
According to Till and other critics, the lack of a salary schedule would create pay gaps between rich and poor counties. Till also said the lack of a floor for principal pay might lead to lawsuits. He continued, “Board members could suddenly start negotiating salaries with their friends. It would be about who you know and what you know. It’s just a slippery slope that you don’t want to go down.” [v]
But Till’s comments reflect a variety of reasons why the salary schedule for principals should be scrapped. Where to start? First, Till seems more concerned with equity than with ensuring principals get properly compensated. The linkage of pay and job performance is an idea infused in all professions but education.
Till talks about inequities. There are inequities because people and situations are different; pay levels reflects those realities. Pay schedules mask those realities and treat everyone the same. When great principals and not-so-good principles make the same salary, what does that do for incentives?
It’s clear Till doesn’t want school districts to negotiate salaries. He asks: Who would do it? Where would schools get the manpower?
Seriously, is this a legitimate objection? LEAs would simply have to develop salary ranges and job performance metrics for principals. It’s done every day in many other organizations. When districts implement new principal salaries, they will learn pretty quickly whether the salary levels are working.
Another thing that eliminating salary schedules for principals does is push down compensation decisions to the level where individuals have the best information to make those decisions. Companies and organizations of all sizes award salaries based on the value of the positions to the company – i.e. job performance – as judged by the appropriate supervisors. It’s done every day based on valid metrics.
But Till says such policies will produce inequities between rich and poor counties. But inequities have always existed. The state does what it can to reduce inequities, but they still exist. Salary supplements exist because the salary schedule was inadequate to address regional economic differences. Pay levels shouldn’t be the same because labor markets and local economies are different.
Till opposes removing principal pay from a salary schedule because he fears the negotiation of contracts would be sullied by cronyism. While that may be a concern, it should be noted that school boards already have mechanisms in place to prevent that from happening: the law and the ballot box. School boards and districts already negotiate many contracts, and the legal system and elections work to prevent favoritism in bidding and awarding contracts. Is there any reason to believe LEAs wouldn’t also be able to work out the kinks and establish a proper framework for paying principals? Millions of companies do the same.
Till and other superintendents fought and defeated a proposal to abolish the salary schedule. They didn’t want the responsibility of determining pay for principals. But who better than superintendents knows the challenges facing teachers and administrators? Who better than local superintendents knows how principals are performing?
As an employee, wouldn’t you want your boss to be in a position where he could assess performance and compensate accordingly? Most would. Till talks about favoritism. I’m not going to say problems wouldn’t occur. They always do. But there are already administrative and legal mechanisms in place to handle such disputes.
The opposition of Till and others to eliminating the salary schedule should not mask the salary schedule’s many shortcomings, which in large part have contributed mightily to the current problem.
Raising principal pay is an important issue that must be remedied if North Carolina is to improve academic performance in public schools. Additional funding – however distributed – would be a good first step in resolving the issue of principal pay.
Any long-term solution however, must include abolishing the principal pay schedule. Such schedules may provide benefits to some employees. However, the schedules’ many shortcomings more than outweigh the perceived benefits.
Eliminating the salary schedule for principals would strengthen the link between pay and job performance, and would be a much-needed correction that can resolve a host of difficulties. The opposition of superintendents to this proposal is disappointing. Saying school districts won’t be able to negotiate contracts, when they do so all the time, and playing on the fear of inequities offer no compelling justification to keep salary schedules.
Such scenarios mean superintendents want Raleigh – and not themselves — to take care of their own employees. That’s a mindset that must change if we truly want to improve educator and administrator pay.
North Carolina’s principal pay structure is a serious problem, made all the worse by superintendents and administrators clinging to a salary schedule that lacks justification. School administrators should be hesitant to criticize the current pay situation when so many of them are doing so much to prevent a proper remedy.
[i] For an overview of the scope and impact of the principal and administrator pay problem in North Carolina see: North Carolina’s Public Schools School Building Administrators’ Salary Structure, presentation by Alexis Schauss, North Caolina Department of Public Instruction. Available online at: http://www.ncleg.net/documentsites/committees/BCCI-6680/October%2024/3.%20DPI_SBASalary_Presentation_2016_10_24.pdf
[iii] For additional details on plan see “Findings and Recommendations” section of Joint Legislative Study Committee on School Based Administrator Pay (2016), Draft Final Report to the 2017 Session of North Carolina General Assembly, December 2016. Available online at: http://www.ncleg.net/documentsites/committees/BCCI-6680/December%2029/2.%20Draft%20Report–Joint%20Legislative%20Study%20Committee%20on%20School-Based%20Administrator%20Pay.pdf
[iv] Principal Pay slated for possible overhaul, Alex Granados, October 26, 2016 EducationNC. Available online at: https://www.ednc.org/2016/10/26/principal-pay-slated-possible-overhaul/
[v] Ranked 49th in principal pay, lawmakers who haven’t funded raises consider tossing out salary schedule, Billy Ball NC PolicyWatch, October 26, 2016. Available online at: http://www.ncpolicywatch.com/2016/10/26/ranked-49th-principal-pay-lawmakers-havent-funded-raises-consider-tossing-salary-schedule/