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Perspective | Sweat the details on teacher pay

The General Assembly ought to enact big pay increases for educators in North Carolina’s public schools. In the context of soaring prices, strong revenue collections, tight labor markets, and persistent vacancies in key teaching positions, it’s the right thing to do.

The North Carolina House agrees. In its just-passed budget bill, lawmakers authorized more than $1 billion in new spending on teacher pay over the next two fiscal years. But as the Senate crafts its own spending plan in the coming weeks, I hope it approaches the issue more creatively.

Most of the House appropriation is devoted to across-the-board increases amounting to a 4.25% pay hike in 2023-24 and 3.25% in 2024-25. While some adjustment is warranted for all educators, North Carolina has continued to “back load” its pay schedule in ways that hurt school districts’ ability to attract new teachers into the profession.

As the school-reform group BEST NC points out in a new report, North Carolina’s average teacher pay in 2021 was close to the middle among Southeastern states but our average starting pay of $39,625 was next to last on the list. By comparison, Tennessee paid its entry-level teachers an average of $43,106 — even though the two states don’t differ much in overall compensation. Our current system makes teachers wait too long for their pay to reach a competitive level. Indeed, state government already has a more front-loaded pay schedule for such careers as law enforcement, corrections, and court administration.

I hope the Senate opts for a smaller across-the-board adjustment and a far larger bump in starting salaries. I also hope the final agreement does more to differentiate teacher pay according to location, subject matter, and job responsibilities.

The House budget contains $70 million in supplemental funding to help low-wealth districts attract and retain teachers and adds $1 million to the state’s Advanced Teaching Roles program, raising the expenditure to $4.5 million a year. This program allows participating districts to pay educators more for such responsibilities as teaching more students, training and mentoring new teachers, or working in teams.

North Carolina needs to be more ambitious here, pushing harder on Advanced Teaching Roles while also giving teachers big pay bumps for accepting hard-to-staff jobs such as teaching high-level math and science classes or working in schools with high concentrations of poor students.

Public schools in Dallas, Texas, pursued the latter strategy for several years, offering high-performing teachers as much as $10,000 more a year to work in what had been the area’s lowest-performing schools. The results were promising. According to a new study by scholars from the University of Illinois, Stanford University, Ball State University, and University College London, the Dallas program led to “large immediate improvements in academic achievement.”

The same research team also studied a performance-pay model introduced in the Dallas public schools. It used a combination of supervisor evaluations, test-score gains, and surveys of students and parents to evaluate and adjust the pay of teachers and principals. The study found “positive and significant effects of the reforms on math and reading achievement that increase over time.”

Similarly, the National Bureau of Economic Research recently released an assessment of South Carolina’s Teacher Advancement Program, which uses test-score data and other metrics to allocate sizable bonuses to teachers based on student performance both within their respective classrooms and for their school populations as a whole. In this case, the researchers concluded that the program increased the graduation rate of students while reducing their risks of being arrested or becoming dependent on public-assistance programs.

North Carolina’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission has already recommended that a performance-based plan for teacher licensure and compensation be piloted in the state’s public schools as early as this fall. By giving the idea a green light, and by taking bold steps to front-load and differentiate teacher pay in next year’s budget, the General Assembly can move our state closer to the head of the class on teacher compensation.

John Hood

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, “Mountain Folk” and “Forest Folk,” combine epic fantasy with early American history.