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Colin Campbell: Teacher pay shorts veteran educators, rural schools

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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BY COLIN CAMPBELL

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Is a $35,000 annual salary "good money?"

That's what N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson recently said about the state's starting salary for teachers. The comment ignited a firestorm of criticism from education advocates who say the number is far too low.

Johnson later admitted his "less-than-stellar phrasing" in an attempt to explain how salary figures can be viewed differently in rural communities with high poverty and a low cost of living. But he clearly touched a nerve in a state that's ranked 35th in the country for teacher pay.

While lawmakers in both parties recognize that teacher pay needs to be higher, $35,000 really isn't a terrible salary for someone who just graduated college and doesn't yet have a family to support. My first job out of college paid far less, and I still managed to pay my bills and have plenty left over for beer.

It's also worth noting that the $35,000 salary figure refers to mostly rural districts where there's no locally funded salary supplement. Urban Wake County offers a starting salary of $41,037 this year.

The bigger problem with North Carolina's teacher pay is how little your paycheck increases as you log years of experience in the classroom. The base salary for teachers with 10 years of experience is only $40,550, and teachers have to work 25 years before they reach the top of the pay scale: $51,300.

It's no wonder that many of the best teachers take higher paying jobs in school administration or leave the education profession entirely. Private sector salaries often increase far faster for high-performing workers.

Legislators recognize the problem, and Senate Republican leaders have tried in recent years to move toward a teacher salary scale where 15 years in the classroom gets you to the maximum salary.

So far, that effort hasn't succeeded because it's very difficult to make that change without shortchanging veteran teachers — who understandably expect to earn more than their less seasoned colleagues.

The other teacher pay problem in North Carolina is the wide variance in salaries between school districts and between states. While the average North Carolina teacher salary last year was $49,837, the state of New York (ranked first in the country) pays an average of $79,637.

Our neighbors in Virginia also rank ahead of us, with the 32nd highest average teacher pay in the country. That poses teacher retention problems for counties along the border.

Imagine you're an elementary school teacher living in the Halifax County town of Littleton. You could drive 15 minutes to the nearest elementary in your county and make a starting salary of $35,000. Or you could commute 30 minutes to an elementary school in Brunswick County, Va., and earn a starting salary of $39,011.

Which would you choose?

To stay in Halifax — one of the state's historically troubled school districts — you'd have to be super loyal to your home county, or someone who the Virginia school didn't want to hire.

But there's also competition between urban and rural North Carolina school districts for the best teachers. I asked Douglas Miller, assistant superintendent for Northampton County Schools, if teacher retention is a problem in the rural county along the Virginia border. "Yes, we have teachers that leave for other states but majority leave for Wake County or Durham," he said.

Northampton has a small local salary supplement, but six counties don't have one at all. A 20-year veteran teacher in those counties makes $48,300, while Wake County would pay the same teacher $57,356.

It's no wonder low-income, rural counties struggle to keep good teachers and provide a quality education. And if we want to keep the gap between urban and rural North Carolina from getting wider, our leaders must find a way to offer competitive pay in disadvantaged communities.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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