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Perspective | Elevating the ‘teacher pay penalty’ on the state and national agenda

In its latest analysis released last week, the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute calculates the “teacher pay penalty” in North Carolina at 25.3%, the eighth highest among the states. EPI’s statistical construct helps illuminate the daunting uphill climb facing North Carolina in attracting high-quality teachers for every public school classroom.

As EPI defines it, the “penalty” is the gap between teachers’ salaries and the wages of comparable college-educated professionals. EPI, which describes itself as a think tank that focuses “on the economic condition of low- and middle-income Americans,” has tracked the wage gap for more than a decade and a half.

In North Carolina, as shown in the current political campaigns, debate over teacher pay centers on the state’s average-salary rankings. Has the state moved up or down? Should North Carolina measure itself against Southern states or the national average?

The EPI’s measurement of teacher salaries in relation to comparable professionals is unlikely to knock the debate off its conventional track. Still, by showing a 25% gap, using 2014-2019 data, the EPI suggests the extent of the state education sector’s challenge in competing for the best and brightest.

“Embedded in the worsening teacher wage penalty is the opportunity cost of choosing a career in teaching,” says the EPI report. “As wages and compensation of teachers fall further behind that of other professionals, it becomes harder to attract students to and retain teachers in the profession. These inequities must be addressed if we are to ensure that the brightest, most highly skilled professionals are at the head of each and every classroom, and to retain experienced teachers in the mix.”

Across the nation, says EPI, the wage gap widened substantially since the mid-1990s. And yet, its analysis says, the gap narrowed somewhat in 2019 as state legislatures and school authorities raised pay in the wake of teachers’ strikes in some places and teachers’ marches as in North Carolina. The national pay penalty fell from 22% in 2018 to 19.2% in 2019.

In addition, the EPI reports that public school teachers as public employees have stronger benefit packages than comparable private-sector professionals. “The teacher total compensation penalty was 10.2% in 2019 (composed of a 19.2% wage penalty offset by a 9.0% benefits advantage),” says the EPI report, which does not provide a state-by-state analysis of benefits.

The EPI finds significant differences along lines of gender as economic dynamics shifted. In the 1960s and ’70s, women earned more as teachers than as college-educated employees in other occupations. Now, women teachers earn 13.2% less than peer professionals. In contrast, the teacher wage penalty for men is 30.2%, explaining, says EPI, “to a large degree why only one in four teachers are men.”

Coincidentally, just days before the EPI released its report, Judge David Lee signed a consent decree in the long-running Leandro school equity case, calling for an initial round of measures to launch an eight-year plan. Of the $427 million projected costs of the first steps, fully $235 million would fund increase in teacher pay. In his January ruling, Judge Lee had defined “competitive pay,” along with professional learning, as key to ensuring well-prepared teachers in every classroom.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak closed schools six months ago, the grit, creativity, and devotion to students of principals, teachers, and counselors have been nothing less than inspiring. Many thousands of educators follow their passion and talent into the schoolhouse despite the pay penalty. Still, worry is widespread than a prolonged pandemic will worsen the teacher shortage, while North Carolina also faces the need for more teachers of color, especially men, and for bolstering low-performing schools with high-quality teachers.

EPI joins in the cry for federal assistance to states and communities to offset pandemic-induced budget shortfalls. For its own sake, North Carolina will have to address its state and local revenue needs as well — to strengthen its teacher corps as essential to erecting an opportunity infrastructure for a post-pandemic future.


Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that North Carolina’s teacher pay penalty ranked seventh among the states. It ranked eighth.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.