Opinion: Daily Journal

Money Can’t Buy Teachers’ Love

If you watch the evening news broadcasts or read the local paper, you have been told that more educators than ever are leaving North Carolina to teach elsewhere because the N.C. General Assembly “slashed” public school funding. Most of these stories, however, omit key facts and research findings that would otherwise undermine their ideologically motivated tales of woe.

The state legislature recently approved an $8.5 billion K-12 education budget. Compared to the amount of state funds spent by public North Carolina schools last year, the current budget represents an increase of nearly $470 million. Public schools will use those additional dollars to add personnel, invest in instructional materials and programs, and increase salaries, particularly for classroom teachers.

For example, it has been reported widely that the budget provides a $750 compensation bonus to state agency personnel, employees of the University of North Carolina and community college systems, public school staff, and approximately 94,000 state-paid educators.

Fewer have acknowledged that tens of thousands of teachers will receive the bonus and a permanent pay increase this year. The legislature’s Fiscal Research Division estimates that 29,000 educators, nearly a third of the state’s teacher work force, are in this group.

All early-career educators will enjoy a $2,000 annual salary boost. Experienced educators who move from one salary tier to another will receive a permanent salary increase of between $3,000 and $3,500 annually. None of these figures account for higher pay supplements provided by school districts, such as the imprudent one granted to Wake County educators this year.

State funds for employee benefits also are rising. Over the last five years, the state’s average Social Security contribution increased by 4 percent per teacher, while health insurance received an 11 percent boost. Teachers’ retirement contributions surged by over 50 percent.

Overall, teachers received a 24 percent increase in their compensation package during this period. The average teacher will receive over $15,600 in benefits during the current school year.

All told, the average salary and compensation package for a teacher on a 10-month contract will near $60,000 this year, nearly $5,000 higher than the year before.

Despite the facts about educator salary and benefits in North Carolina, news outlets continue to claim that the state’s supposedly meager compensation has triggered a mass “teacher exodus.” Unfortunately, the typical consumer of mainstream news and opinion often hears only those unbalanced, uninformed, and largely anecdotal claims.

While lawmakers should not disregard concerns about compensation, research suggests that retaining high-quality educators and curbing turnover demands school leaders to implement policies and practices that improve teacher working conditions.

In her 2009 UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral dissertation, “A Study of the Impact of Salary Supplements on Teacher Turnover in North Carolina School Districts,” Lillie Cox found a statistically significant relationship between teacher turnover and salary changes for schools in western Carolina but nowhere else in the state.

When she surveyed teachers who left one North Carolina school district, only around 20 percent of them cited salary and benefits as their motivation. The remaining 80 percent identified other reasons, including the need for advancement, poor relationships with their supervisors and colleagues, the school’s distance from home, and various other factors.

A 2015 Pardee RAND Graduate School dissertation, “Hello, Goodbye: Three Perspectives on Public School District Staff Turnover,” agreed. Susan Burkhauser concluded that North Carolina teachers are more likely to remain in school if the principal has “a proven track record of improvements in teacher working conditions.”

Lawmakers would be wise to stick to the facts, ignore the noise, develop budgets that make incremental improvements to compensation, and advance policies that ensure North Carolina classrooms are great places for public school teachers.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.