Patrick Gannon is a columnist for the Capitol Press Association.

Patrick Gannon is a columnist for the Capitol Press Association.

Patrick Gannon: Answers to teacher pay challenge aren’t so simple

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‘Teacher pay” undoubtedly will be one of the most frequently uttered phrases around the N.C. General Assembly complex during this year’s legislative session, which begins in late April.

The teacher compensation debate, already raging for years, was the main focus of two days of committee meetings recently at the General Assembly.

This is an election year, when politicians want to make as many voters as happy as possible. So the question isn’t whether some teachers will get raises this year. It’s which teachers will get them, how much they will get and how the raises or bonuses will be structured.

Over the next two columns, I’ll examine where the state is in terms of teacher pay and where some legislators and experts believe the state should be headed, questions sure to take up a lot of time and energy on Jones Street this summer.

Here’s where we are.

According to rankings from the National Education Association, North Carolina stood at 47th in the nation for average teacher salaries in 2013-14, the latest data available. In that year, teachers earned just under $45,000 a year on average, a 5 percent decline since 2007-08. That data, importantly, doesn’t include pay raises and bonuses approved by lawmakers during the past two years.

In 2014-15, the state created a new step system for teachers that increased pay at all levels above 2008-09 levels. It also increased starting pay from $30,800 to $33,000.

During last year’s legislative session, the General Assembly increased starting pay to $35,000 and provided a $750 bonus to educators.

According to the State Department of Public Instruction, the average salary in 2014-15 was nearly $47,800, a 6.2 percent increase over 2013-14. According to a legislative staffer, if no other states changed teacher salaries in the past two years, which she acknowledged wasn’t a good assumption, North Carolina would now rank 39th in the country. (In other words, the rank likely won’t be that good when the next rankings come out).

Each 1 percent, across-the-board teacher raise costs the state nearly $54 million, according to 2014 estimates which should be updated soon. If North Carolina wanted to get to Georgia’s average salary from two years ago, it would cost $567 million a year and still only put the state in the middle of the pack nationally on average salaries. And while the state is looking like it might have some surplus revenue to work with later this year, that’s a lot of money.

N.C. Rep. Hugh Blackwell, a Burke County Republican and leader on education issues in the House, prefaced a discussion last week by stating that there was “almost unanimous agreement that all concerned” would like to see North Carolina’s teachers paid more.

The ultimate goals, of course, are to help students succeed and keep the best teachers in classrooms for as long as possible.

But as you’ll find out in my next column, this is a very complex topic, and many ideas are floating around for how best to deal with the teacher pay problem. Should all teachers get raises, even those who aren’t very good? Or should only the best teachers be rewarded? And how do school districts or the state separate the good teachers from the not so good?

And how can good teachers be enticed to teach the high-demand subjects and in hard-to-staff, rural or poorer schools?

As with many problems in need of a solution, the devil’s in the details.