The issue behind teacher pay raises

As the revised General Fund budget moves from the House to the Senate, let’s ponder the issue-behind-the-issue of pay raises for North Carolina teachers. That bigger, more complex, issue is the deterioration of our state’s – and nation’s – ability to assure a high-quality corps of teachers for public schools, whatever their location.

North Carolina’s metropolitan school districts scramble to attract teachers to meet surging student enrollments, using salary supplements to entice teachers from rural communities.

Distressed rural schools, meanwhile, tend to hire less-experienced, lower-paid teachers.

University schools of education have experienced a decline in students.

Young teachers often depart the profession in their first five years, and other teachers sustain themselves with second jobs.

In addressing the challenges of teacher quality, supply, and distribution, North Carolina needs a reframing of its objectives. I agree with the point that John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood made in his Carolina Journal column in observing the “limits of ‘average teacher pay’ as a guide for good policy.”

Republican House budget-writers define their teacher pay raise package as an effort to pull North Carolina up in the state rankings, especially in the Southeast, in average teacher pay. Democratic opponents point to the latest rankings that show, despite recent pay raises, North Carolina remains at 41st in the bottom 10. While rankings are not wholly insignificant, this debate smacks of bumper-sticker, sound-bite politics, of more concern to candidates than relevant to the lives of teachers.

Rather than obsessing over rankings, policy makers ought to focus on wider-angle objectives for a teacher compensation system:

1.) Assuring teachers a middle-class standard of living in keeping with their professionalism

2.) Affording teachers with career opportunities that do not impel them to switch from teaching to administration simply to earn more

3.) Answering the state’s need for an adequate distribution of high-quality teachers in urban, suburban, and rural districts, with special attention to schools with many students from lower-income households

The Pew Research Center issued a report a week ago on“America’s Shrinking Middle Class’’ in metropolitan areas. What especially struck me was Pew’s effort to define middle-income Americans. “In 2014, the national middle-income range was about $42,000 to $125,000 annually for a household of three,’’ said the Pew report.

In the short-run, my point here is that setting a target within the middle-income range would be more relevant than the ranking of average teacher pay.

For the longer-run, North Carolina remains without a strategy or even a commitment to building a sufficient teacher corps of quality second to none.

Ferrel Guillory is the director of the Program on Public Life, professor of the Practice at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, and the vice chairman of EducationNC.
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