RALEIGH – Gov. Beverly Perdue is expected to propose her first state budget in mid-March. Shortly thereafter, the General Assembly will begin to debate the state’s fiscal crunch in earnest. That’s why the major spending lobbies in Raleigh are already making their opening pitches to lawmakers and the general public.
The North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) will be one of the loudest voices against fiscal restraint. The NCAE will argue that North Carolinians are keeping too much of their own money to spend, money that should be confiscated by the state and expended on, among other things, the salaries of teachers and other NCAE members.
It’s very likely, in fact, that public schools will fare relatively well in the coming budget reductions. That would be true regardless of the efforts of the NCAE, because most North Carolinians see public education as a high priority when distributing scarce state tax dollars. But the education establishment won’t be satisfied with lower-than-average spending cuts.
Among other arguments, the NCAE will again repeat the allegation that North Carolina’s teachers are poorly paid when in compared to their peers in other states. Former Gov. Jim Hunt initiated a much-heralded program in the 1990s to increase the state’s teacher salaries to the national average. Hunt’s claim was based on faulty information then. It still is.
As JLF’s Terry Stoops points out in a new research paper, national rankings of teacher compensation that don’t adjust for average years of experience, non-wage benefits, and state variations in cost of living are worthless to policymakers. These are precisely the rankings that North Carolina politicians have cited for years in their campaign for broad teacher-pay hikes.
In reality, North Carolina teachers have been better paid in real terms than the average public-school teacher in the nation. Stoops’ latest figures rank North Carolina 14th in the nation in teacher compensation, paying its public school teachers about $4,000 more than the national average. Fast-growing states such as North Carolina tend to hire a lot of relatively young teachers, which pulls average compensation down unless accounted for. And while our cost of living has grown closer to the national average in the past couple of decades, particularly in urban regions such as the Triangle and Charlotte, North Carolina as a whole is still a less-expensive place to live than the average state. Failing to adjust for this cost difference in national rankings is analogous to failing to adjust for inflation when computing annual compensation trends.
Thanks to its misleading claims, the NCAE has been noticeably more successful at wrangling money out of the General Assembly than the State Employees Association of NC (SEANC). The latter has a better case on the merits. Stoops found that teachers have fared far better than other government employees in recent decades. “North Carolina's average teacher pay nearly doubled between 1988 and 2008 – climbing by 93 percent,” he says. “On the other hand, state employees had pay increases totaling nearly 56 percent.”
None of which is to suggest that some North Carolina teachers don’t deserve substantial pay increases. Stoops cites the promising early evidence from Guilford County’s Mission Possible program and similar teacher-pay reforms across the country to demonstrate that merit-based pay raises are the way to go.
If the NCAE itself gave out pay raises for employees based on the merits of its arguments, it would have saved a lot of money in recent years.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation