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Lesson from a lunch: ‘pay them $75,000’

On a visit to my hometown Baton Rouge years ago, I had lunch with my dad and a life-long friend who had served as principal of the high school I attended in the 1960s. Over two decades, a moment of that lunch conversation has remained embedded in my memory.

What would it take to assure high-quality teachers in American classrooms? I asked. “Pay them $75,000,’’ Brother Donnan Berry responded immediately.

Brother Donnan, as he was known to students and his friends, died in 2012 after a life spent in a religious order, based in France, that staffed high schools along the Gulf Coast. As the principal of Catholic High School in Baton Rouge when I was a student, he took the lead in desegregating the formerly all-white school for boys. While he primarily focused on raising the quality and sustaining the fiscal viability of schools run by his Brothers of the Sacred Heart, he also was plugged into national education policy conversations, which is why I put the question to him.

In saying “pay them $75,000,’’ Brother Donnan picked a deliberately provocative monetary figure to make a point that is still relevant to legislative debates over teacher salaries in North Carolina and elsewhere. Higher than prevailing salaries would draw more young people with the right skill sets and a sense of calling to the classroom to follow their aspirations to teach.

I don’t recall the date of that lunch conversation; my father died in 2003 so it must have taken place at least two years before then. Taking inflation into account, a $75,000 salary in the early 2000s would come to more than $100,000 in 2019.

Today in only four states and the District of Columbia does average teacher pay exceed $75,000. The national average is just below $62,000. The North Carolina average is $54,000. (Look here for a state-by-state teacher pay comparison from the National Education Association.)

The teacher pay raises likely to emerge this month from budget negotiations in the General Assembly are welcomed. But neither House nor Senate versions are sufficient to alter North Carolina’s capacity for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers. Instead of the standard squabbling over average pay and state rankings, the state needs to set in motion a dynamic leading to aligning teacher pay with compensation for similar middle-class professionals.

In a state with nearly 100,000 public school teachers, differences in quality are inevitable. And modest pay raises are not likely to close quality gaps in the short run. But a recent essay in the Phi Delta Kappan journal points to a long-run educational rationale for addressing teacher-quality gaps. 

Including research findings from North Carolina, the Kappan essay reports that “empirical evidence has shown that the public education system has continually failed to level the playing field between advantaged and disadvantaged students, in part because disadvantaged students tend to have less-qualified and less-effective teachers than their more-advantaged peers.”

The Kappan points to improving school-level working conditions as well as system-level recruitment and hiring practices as gap-closing tactics. Still, the essay says, “One obvious policy lever is to provide teachers with greater financial inducements to serve in disadvantaged schools.”

Back then in Baton Rouge, Brother Donnan knew his provocative declaration to “pay them $75,000’’ went beyond existing political and budgetary realities — nor is $100,000 in sight today. But, the essential point I drew from a savvy educator is that professional-level pay isn’t simply a gift or reward, but rather a means to the end of developing a corps of high-quality teachers to deliver life-enhancing education to America’s young people.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.