Teachers have fared poorly under Republican leadership in the General Assembly. That is an oft-repeated phrase of Progressives and members of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest professional association for teachers. Both groups criticize Republican lawmakers for spending reductions and letting North Carolina slide in the national rankings of average teacher pay. Republicans say they don’t get the credit for boosting teacher salaries and for providing bonuses. Who’s right? Are teachers better off than they were almost a decade ago?
Annual teacher pay data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction is readily available and can be used to help answer these questions.
If we want to examine Republican impact on teacher pay, we will use data beginning in 2011, the first year Republican lawmakers presided over the legislative and budget sessions, to the present.
Table I includes teacher pay data for 2011 to the present
Source: Highlights of North Carolina Public School Budget for specific years. Available online at: https://www.dpi.nc.gov/districts-schools/district-operations/financial-and-business-services/demographics-and-finances/student-enrollment-school-personnel-and-reports#highlights-of-the-nc-public-school-budget NEA Rankings and Estimates for specific years. National Education Association. Available online at: http://www.nea.org/home/44479.htm. Calculations made by author. NEA Rankings & Estimates for specific years
To properly analyze the question of how pay has changed we will observe changes in not only average pay, but also national and regional rankings and the change in employee benefits over time.
Table I charts the change in average teacher pay in North Carolina in nominal dollars. In 2011, the average teacher salary in the state was $46,514. Almost a decade later in 2020, average teacher salary for North Carolina teachers had increased to $54,612, an increase of 17.4 percent in nominal dollars.
If we convert nominal dollars to 2011 constant dollars to account for inflation, we find that teacher salaries increased 2.8 percent over the time period.[i] Much less than the 17.4 percent increase of nominal dollars, but still a real gain nonetheless and without which teachers would have been losing ground to inflation.
Looking broadly at the 10 years between 2011 and 2020, teachers received seven pay increases. Combining the annual percentage increases totaled 26 percent. The average annual teacher pay increase during the period was 2.6 percent.
We also looked at how average teacher pay in North Carolina ranked relative to other states as well as regionally. Ranking data is provided by the annual NEA Rankings and Estimates. From 2011 through 2019, North Carolina average teacher pay experienced a significant improvement in ranking. Starting off with a ranking of 46 in 2011 and finishing in 2019 with a ranking of 30. It is important to note that it wasn’t until 2015 that North Carolina (40th) had started to improve rankings, having fallen to 47th in the previous year. However, since 2015, the state has experienced five consecutive years of improved ranking and finishing at 30th in both 2019 and 2020. Which makes sense, since Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the state budget last year which by law makes current budget levels the same as ones approved in the previous year.
Data on rankings in the 12 state Southeast region is also available via NEA. In 2011, North Carolina average teacher pay ranked 7th in the Southeast region. By 2020, North Carolina had climbed to 2nd in the southeast. Again, however, it wasn’t quite a straight line of improvements. In 2013, 2014 and 2015, North Carolina fell to 10th and then 11th for two years in a row. However, since 2015, the state has improved its ranking every year since.
Lastly, our analysis also reviewed the change in employee benefits over time. We define employee benefits as health insurance, retirement and social security benefits. Sadly, employee benefits are frequently left out of discussion on teacher salary which can lead to a distorted view on teacher pay.
Again, we tracked the value of employee benefits from 2011 through 2020. What did we find?
The cost of employee benefits has increased significantly. In 2011, the value of heath insurance, retirement benefits and social security for the average teacher was $13,376. In 2020, the value of those same benefits are $21,242.
What accounts for the rise in costs? A quick review of Table I finds a steady rise in the percentage the state pays for each employee’s retirement to be the biggest contributor to increased costs. In 2011, the percentage the state paid for retirement insurance was 10.51 percent of teacher salary. By 2020, the percentage nearly doubled climbing to 19.7 percent. And things are not getting any better. For Fiscal Year 2020-21, the retirement rate will increase even more, to 21.68% of teacher pay.
This is the not-so-little secret of teacher pay in North Carolina: teachers have received modest pay increases (adjusted for inflation), however the value of teacher benefits has ballooned during the same time period.
How much has the value of benefits increased? In 2011, the state spent $2.25 billion on employee benefits. By 2019 (the latest year data is available), the cost of employee benefits had increased to $3.13 billion. What does that mean on a per student basis? In 2011, average per pupil expenditure was $8,414. According to the Statistical Profile of North Carolina Public Schools, of that amount $1,578 (18.8 percent) was spent on employee benefits. Fast forward to 2019, North Carolina average per pupil expenditure is $9,865. Approximately $2,225 of that amount (22.6 percent) is for employee benefits. No other expenditure category has increased as much as employee benefits.
What should also not be lost is during the same time period is that the value of employee benefits as a percentage of average teacher pay has also increased dramatically. In 2011 the benefits comprised 28.7 percent of average teacher pay. By 2020 the number had climbed to 38.8 percent.
So how have teachers fared under almost a decade of Republican leadership at the General Assembly?
Not as bad as Progressives, NCAE and Left-leaning media outlets assert. Raises in seven of the past ten years, improved pay, and improvements in national and regional rankings. Larger teacher pay and employee benefit packages certainly contradict the dominant narrative on teacher pay.
Over the past decade, with inflation factored in, teacher pay increased by 2.4 percent, slightly ahead of inflation. Expect teacher salaries to continue to increase. Teacher salaries would have been even higher if Gov. Cooper hadn’t vetoed two budgets that contained pay raises for teachers as well as four bills that would have improved teacher pay. In vetoing the budget measures, Cooper said he wanted larger raises than what legislators were providing. Still, lingering frustration over teacher pay must also include Gov. Cooper.
Paying teachers a competitive wage is important for staffing North Carolina public schools with talented and caring teachers. Like all states, North Carolina spent the early part of the last decade climbing out of a recession that was deepened by reckless spending and an uncompetitive tax climate. Tax reform and more disciplined spending from state government reversed those trends and have afforded North Carolina the resources to improve teacher pay and benefits.
Those accomplishments are worth commending. However, the costs of employee benefits are not sustainable and must be tamed. The rising costs of employee benefits—and specifically retirement costs — are using up resources which previously would have been allotted for pay raises. Fortunately there are options (see here and here), but it will take more than money. It will take political will. If North Carolina succeeds, it will be well-positioned to ensure North Carolina teachers are rewarded for excellence and receive pay that is both fair and competitive.