RALEIGH – For those predisposed to optimism about the role of research in informing political debate, the case of teacher pay grates on the nerves. Since the early 1990s, politicians have promised to “raise teacher pay to the national average.” And since at least that time, the undeniable fact has been that average North Carolina teacher compensation was already at or above the national average.
Still, the dance continues. For example, this otherwise useful News & Observer analysis on Sunday of the role that education will play in the 2004 election was marred by this passage:
One casualty of the [2001-03] fiscal crisis is the effort to raise teacher pay to the national average. In the 2000-01 year, the state’s average was less than $2,000 off the target; last year, it was nearly $4,000 away. Partly as a result, many Tar Heel classrooms still have teachers who are inexperienced, lack formal training in education, or both.
This is entirely a false conclusion, based on faulty data. You cannot compare teacher pay – or compensation for any job, for that matter – simply by taking the mean salary for certain place and then comparing it with the means of other places. Differences in non-wage benefits, the cost of living (such as housing costs), and the makeup of the workforce have to be accounted for in a valid comparison. If someone offers you a job in San Francisco at 50 percent more pay, but the housing costs will be double, that is not necessarily a real increase in compensation. Nor would a state with lots of older, experienced teachers be rewarding the profession more than a growing state hiring lots of new teachers. The latter’s mean pay will go down with the influx, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the competitiveness of the overall pay.
Long ago, in 1991, the John Locke Foundation released the first in a series of analyses of teacher compensation. We found then, and have generally found since, that adjusting for benefits, living costs, and years of experience pushes North Carolina’s average pay to – and since 1997 significantly above – the national average.
Another measure we introduced was to use proportions to see if teachers were better compensated, on average, than were other professions compared to the national mean. Again, North Carolina’s teachers were closer to the (unadjusted) average than were other professionals in the state, such as journalists.
The American Legislative Exchange Council took our lead recently with a new study, which got at the issue by dividing average teacher pay by the average pay for all workers with at least a bachelor’s degree. Using 2001-02 data, this approach ranked North Carolina 14th in the nation in teacher pay, with teaching jobs paying 103 percent of the average wage earned by university grads. This essentially tracks the cost-of-living rankings, with states such as Connecticut appearing to pay high salaries ($54,300 in 2001-02) but actually ranking low when relevant factors are taken into account (44th in the ALEC study, at only 87 percent of the average university-grad wage).
Suffice it to say that a proper analysis of North Carolina teacher compensation has never in recent memory found the state lagging the national standard. Yet plenty of politicians keep promising to “raise” our pay to the average, and the news media dutifully and uncritically report such nonsense.
Hey, I’m still trying to be optimistic about truth prevailing in the political debate, but sometimes it’s hard.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.