The traditional school year is over once again without teachers knowing what their salaries will be next year.

It’s not uncommon that the state budget bill, which sets spending priorities for the next two years, isn’t completed before the end of the school year, but until recently it used to be uncommon that public school employees wouldn’t at least have a sense of what their pay increase would look like for the upcoming school year.

The Great Recession, which started in 2008, forced lawmakers from both parties to agree to adopt austerity budgets to address the sharp reduction in sales and income tax revenue. It was acceptable that everyone tighten their belts for the good of the cause. Public school employees accepted flat pay and even forced days off without pay known as furloughs. They did this because they knew the economy would turn around and they would be back to a proper salary schedule again.

That never happened, and North Carolina’s rank for teacher salary fell into the bottom 10 states.

State lawmakers continued to pass budgets with small raises while simultaneously increasing health insurance premiums which resulted in a net loss of salary. Lawmakers added five days of additional work without an increase in pay, but for two years offered five extra vacation days which expired at the end of the school year if they weren’t used. The budget writers also included modest one-time bonuses for all teachers, but those didn’t apply to earnings used to calculate retirement benefits. The biggest changes were the end to increased pay for earning a Master’s degree after 2013 and the end of tenure.

As the years wore on, and it’s been almost 10 years now, the House and Senate have continued to fiddle with the teacher salary scale in ways that don’t seem to follow any known logic – not in the public or private sectors. The only hint is all the talk about getting the “average” teacher salary to the “national average”.

This year is no different. In fact, national average teacher salary has become the mediocre benchmark our lawmakers, the governor, and many public education advocacy groups have embraced as a shared goal.

This is wrong.

The national average is an important bellwether. It’s a guide point, not a goal. It’s time to properly value the teaching profession with a compensation schedule that is based on expertise and experience and not value-add or some arbitrary comparison.

An Unknown Outcome

Let’s take a look at what national average has wrought for North Carolina teachers this year. First of all, just as the budget season was getting underway, the National Education Association released its annual rankings document which placed North Carolina at 35 out of 51 states and Washington D.C. This was a big increase over the previous rank of 42. It shows improvement, but there’s more work to do.

As such, moving up the scale has once again become the focus. It’s not a bad thing to want to move closer to the national average. It just shouldn’t be the only reason for increasing pay. After all, what happens when North Carolina reaches that goal?

Does the state just tread water by increasing salaries enough to stay at or near the national average?

Will it be enough for teachers to support a household?

Will it be enough to attract people to the profession?

Will it be enough to retain the high-quality teachers who are producing results?

Those questions remain unanswered because they are not even being considered. Instead the House and Senate budget writers agreed to a $22.9 billion spending plan for 2017-18 and have been fiddling with numbers within that cap to figure out how much to spend in the various categories. They are not considering the true value of the teaching profession.

The Senate budget has proposed a series of raises for teachers in the middle of their careers. First-year and 25-plus-year veteran teachers remain flat at $35,000 and $51,000, respectively. In the middle are pay increases which vary depending on a teacher’s years of experience.

The House version of the teacher salary scale is different. First, it gives raises to teachers everywhere on the scale, but the House budget raises seem to follow a bizarre pattern where, for example, a teacher with four years of experience would receive a $550 raise while a teacher with five years of experience would earn $1,050, and a teacher with six years of experience would receive $300. The highest raise would be for teachers at 19 years of experience on the scale who would get a $3,050 raise.

There’s no way to know what affect either of these plans will have on the state’s teacher pay rank on the national scale next year because other states will also raise their teacher salaries. Legislators have been aiming to get the “average” teaching salary in North Carolina to $50,000, which includes supplemental pay from local funding sources. So there’s a good chance the rank could drop. What then?

That’s why aligning North Carolina’s pay schedule with the national average doesn’t work. It’s a great bellwether to make sure we are competitive, but it’s a terrible benchmark. A benchmark should be something standard that doesn’t vary from year to year as the national average does.

When it comes to national average, the question should be: “Are we competitive?” If that answer is “No”, then then the next question should be: “Are we properly valuing the expertise and experience of teachers?”

A Valuable Comparison

The way North Carolina decides teacher salaries is very simple. The current salary schedule is used as a floor and pay increases are added on top of that at different percentages. This assumes that the scale is already a proper valuation of the teaching profession and that it has kept pace with market indicators and increasing responsibility.

It hasn’t.

The teacher pay scale is based on a time gone by. The teaching profession, like many others, has modernized. It has evolved into a multi-faceted profession which still requires content knowledge and skill, but now includes the ability to read and interpret data, identify specific strengths and weaknesses of every student, individualize special lessons for small groups of struggling or advanced students, utilize technological devices which themselves require a completely independent knowledge set, and collaborate with colleagues across disciplines to link curriculum content.

Teaching has always been an art and a science, but it is surely leaning heavily on science these days.

In many ways, teaching is a lot like nursing. Nurses at the BSN level and teachers complete a four-year college degree which includes a pre-service practicum. Both must pass a certification test to obtain a license. Both must earn continuing education credits to qualify for periodic license renewal. Both professions have evolved in the past 40 years to require more expertise and added responsibility.

There was a time when nurses were trained to administer the orders of a doctor, care for a patient’s basic needs, and report important information to the physician who made patient care decisions. Nowadays, nurses have responsibilities just short of a physician’s. They are required to know a great deal about specific medicines, medical treatments, post-event care, triage, and too many others to list. Nurses are important decision-makers in the medical profession.

As nursing evolved, so did the salary schedule. The lowest salary listed on Glassdoor.com for a WakeMed Hospital Registered Nurse is $28.12 per hour. That works out to about $58,500 per year. Of course, that’s for 12 months of work. At that rate, a 10-month employee like a teacher would make almost $49,000 per year. Since $28.12 is the lowest salary on Glassdoor, it can be considered entry level.

A first-year teacher in Wake County Public School System is paid $35,000 per year from the state and $6,037.50 per year from Wake County government for a total entry level salary of a little more than $41,000. That’s about $8,000 per year less than a nurse at WakeMed.

It’s important to note that salaries on Glassdoor are reported by employees. This means they could have increased since their most recent report. They, too, are merely a bellwether.

For comparison’s sake, a Radiologic Technologist at WakeMed earns $25.76 per hour according to Glassdoor. That equals about $53,500 per year, and when adjusted for a 10-month salary, it equals about $44,500. That’s still more than a first-year teacher in Wake County with the local teacher salary supplement. A Radiologic Tech must complete an Associate’s Degree with a pre-service practicum and pass a certification test to qualify for a license.

Comparisons like these are valuable to understanding what positions with similar minimum requirements for pay at entry level and for years of experience. First-year teachers are increasingly required to be conversant in complex technologies and data analysis that wasn’t previously part of the profession, yet their salaries don’t value that expertise.

Properly Valuing the Teaching Profession

One thing all sides of teacher compensation debate agree on is that North Carolina teachers are underpaid. Their salaries, like other public employees, stagnated during the Great Recession. Teacher salaries have only just started to recover, but to levels that were too low to begin with. Again, that’s because salaries have been decided by the previous pay scale and not by a true valuation of the teaching profession.

The way forward is to conduct a study of the demands, responsibilities, and experience required of today’s classroom teacher. Take this information and benchmark it against other professions with similar characteristics. Draw comparisons with multiple professions as well. Use the current teacher evaluation tool and quantify how those goals and objectives factor into salary. Do this instead of benchmarking against an arbitrary chosen national average that is a composite of many other factors which have no bearing on the qualities of a high-performing teacher.

Next, build a pay scale using the standards discovered in the study mentioned above. If that scale is too high to reach in one year, develop a plan to reach that pay scale in a specified number of years, as tax revenue permits.

Once that new scale is reached, future salary increases should be based on revenue availability as well as market valuations of specific characteristics of the teaching profession, and not just a percentage of the previous scale.

This is a big idea. It’s unlikely that any US school district or state public education agency has done this kind of evaluation before. North Carolina would be leading the way on teacher pay without having to be on top of some annual ranking sheet. Teachers would know their expertise is valued, even if they still don’t earn as much as they might in the private sector. Taxpayers will probably have a higher tax bill, but the best teachers would be more likely to stay longer. Plus local taxing authorities probably won’t have to pay as much in supplemental salaries as they do today which would leave more money for other local initiatives.

Properly valuing the teaching profession is a necessary next step for the North Carolina General Assembly. It’s the only way to move North Carolina into a new era of education funding – an era that honors the complexities of a job that has evolved into more of a science than an art.

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