North Carolina’s low teacher salaries leave educators behind with future in doubt

Decline in North Carolina leads the nation

By Matt Mallian

Rena Sutton used to be proud to be from North Carolina.

When she was young, her family moved to Pennsylvania from the mountains of Asheville, and she remembers asking her father, “Oh, Daddy, when are we going back to the mountains? I want to go back to North Carolina.” And she did return.

She’s now a counselor at South Macon Elementary School in western North Carolina. A teacher for many decades, she also serves on the North Carolina Association of Educators Board of Directors. She is saddened that what was once a strong state for teachers has evolved into one of the weakest.

“I’m silly about my state. I love it,” she said from her motel room in the mountains of North Carolina. “I look down this river and think how blessed we are. But, you know, I’m not near as proud now.”


Experiencing the largest annual salary decline in the nation in the early 2000's

In 1999, the average annual salary of North Carolina’s public school teachers was $53,849. In 2012, that number was down to $45,947, a decline of 14.7 percent. North Carolina’s decline was the largest of any of the nation’s 50 states over that time period.

Sure, most states have struggled — the U.S. average percent change was a 1.3 percent decline — but it seems as if few states have struggled more than North Carolina when it comes to keeping teacher salaries competitive. South Carolina and Virginia, North Carolina’s neighbors to the south and north, respectively, experienced a combined decrease of 8.6 percent. States like Louisiana, North Dakota and Wyoming experienced double-digit increases.

“I don’t know of a direct cause of it except for a lack of respect and appreciation,” said Marna Winter, lecturer in education and director of education outreach at Elon University. “We spend more money per prisoner than we do per student and that’s kind of scary when you think about that. That’s what’s really sad. There’s no respect for the profession and what they do.”

This graphic shows the percent change in teacher salaries from the year 1999–2000 to 2012–13. North Carolina’s 14.7 percent decrease during that period is the largest in the nation. — Graphic by Matt Mallian

Percentage of change in teacher salaries from 1999–2000 to 2012–2013 in North Carolina as compared to the U.S. average decline in salaries. Source: Institute of Education Sciences.

“People do not respect the profession. We are held accountable to specific curriculum and achievement. It’s a vigilance that we take seriously. Like any professional career, we need to have a professionally based income. We don’t have that.” — Rena Sutton

In 2014–2015 first-year teachers in North Carolina earn $33,000 per year. Police officers in the state make almost $50,000 a year, and nurses nearly $70,000. If North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed 2016–17 budget goes into effect as planned, starting teachers will earn a yearly salary of $35,000, an increase of $2,000. But this proposal is no sure thing to pass through the state legislature. North Carolina, which already lags behind the rest of the country, could be caught in the same pattern of minimal progress that it has seen in recent years.

Sutton said North Carolina’s inability to provide its teachers with a salary that is competitive with the rest of nation boils down to a lack of respect. Though the economic tailspin of 2008 hurt all states — not just the ones in the South — North Carolina has failed to recover as well as others have.

“People do not respect the profession,” Sutton said. “We are held accountable to specific curriculum and achievement. It’s a vigilance that we take seriously. Like any professional career, we need to have a professionally based income. We don’t have that.”


NC needs 10,000 new teachers per year, but salary issues make it difficult to recruit and retain good them

Since North Carolina has struggled to stay competitive when it comes to teacher salaries it has experienced a teacher shortage in recent years.

William Harrison, superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington School System.

William Harrison, superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington School System and former superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, estimates that North Carolina needs about 10,000 new teachers every year. But North Carolina’s colleges and universities graduate only 6,000 teachers per year on average, leaving the state short thousands of teachers. And it’s not as if all 6,000 college graduates stay in North Carolina to teach after graduation.

“They don’t even have to move far and the salaries are better. It’s not difficult for a person to turn left and go to South Carolina as opposed to turn right and stay at a school close to them.” — William Harrison

“Teachers come from out of state for a couple years and then go back home. That’s certainly a fear that we have,” Harrison said. “What we began seeing was a lot of those teachers that would come down from the North would stay for a couple of years and leave.”

Harrison noted that teachers don’t need to move to far away states to earn a higher wage, as they can do so in the states that border North Carolina.

“They don’t even have to move far and the salaries are better,” he said, adding that teachers near the border of North Carolina are left with a decision to make. “It’s not difficult for a person to turn left and go to South Carolina as opposed to turn right and stay at a school close to them.”

“This is not a job if you want to be in there to make a million dollars. You have to choose this job because you want to build relationships with children from diverse backgrounds and you want to impact their lives. They cannot go into this for the money whatsoever.” — Marna Winter
Marna Winter, lecturer in education and director of education outreach at Elon University.

Winter said Elon University students who graduate with an education degree often return to their home states in the North, where they know they can begin their careers with a much higher salary. However, she said her students are aware that of the fact that they won’t be getting rich as teachers, no matter the state they teach in.

“This is not a job if you want to be in there to make a million dollars,” Winter said. “You have to choose this job because you want to build relationships with children from diverse backgrounds and you want to impact their lives. They cannot go into this for the money whatsoever.”

Alamance County schools have been left behind over the years for strategic reasons at times. Until recently, it wasn’t allowed to offer teachers contracts until July. Larger North Carolina counties such as Wake and Orange have been offering contracts in May. Now Alamance is as well.

North Carolina Teaching Fellow Erika Martin, now an Elon University student, is required to teach in the state for four years following her graduation in May. But after those four years, she will have to decide whether to stay in a state that is seen as less supportive of its teachers than others.

“Part of being a teacher is being so selfless that you care more about the futures of children than you do your own — that is the only reason I would consider staying in North Carolina,” said Martin, a native of Raleigh. “I want to help the students here who might not get the best teachers because of low salaries.

“It is unfortunate but salary considerations do also have an impact on where I teach. It’s hard to take pride in teaching in a state that values teachers so poorly.”


Making a ‘living wage’ as a teacher isn’t easy at any stage of one’s career

McCrory’s proposed budget would bump pay for starting teachers up $2,000 in the 2015–16 school year. He has said he plans to eventually seek salary increases for veteran and high-performing teachers but they are not immediately affected in his proposed budget.

In North Carolina experienced teachers eventually reach a salary plateau. Public school teachers with a bachelor’s degree currently start at $33,000 per year. After five years, their salary is increased to $36,500, while teachers with 10 years of experience earn $40,000 per year. The maximum salary that a teacher with a bachelor’s degree can earn is $50,000, which they begin to earn once they have 25 years of experience.

“For years, we’ve been trying to get the younger ones a better cut,” Sutton said. “You start out and you owe money from your college education and you’re a professional and you have to buy a car, you need to dress professionally, and you can’t hardly buy a little box to call an apartment and gas up and pay the minimum bills.”

Teachers in North Carolina reach a salary plateau after 25 years of experience. — Graphic by Matt Mallian

With the right certifications and college degrees, teachers can earn upward of $60,000, though there is still no opportunity for a salary increase after reaching 25 years of experience.

“Can you imagine being a 20-year veteran and your kids are getting ready to go to college, and you know you’re not going to make a cent more?” Sutton said. “I am pleased with helping out teachers that are starting out but I am not pleased with acting like the others don’t exist, that you’re not respecting the experience.”


Pay supplements help metropolitan-area counties attract the best teachers

Because North Carolina’s base salary base salary for teachers — set by the state — is so low, the local school districts that wish to attract the best educators make their jobs more attractive by offering a “supplement” to the state pay, a bonus paid by the local district.

The school districts offering the largest supplements are those in the largest metropolitan areas in the state. The leaders in their local communities generally work with larger budgets — thanks to a larger population and tax base — that allow them to pay a higher supplement.

The five top districts in 2013–14 were Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools ($6,441 average), Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools ($6,376), Wake County Schools ($6,318), Durham County Schools ($5,227) and Orange County Schools ($4,964).

At the bottom of the list are many sparsely-populated, rural western counties. The lowest supplement — a mere $300 — was offered by Ashe County Schools. Alamance-Burlington Schools checked in at 18th out of 100 districts. Teachers in Alamance County are earning an average annual supplement of $3,237, or $313 below the state average, in 2013–14.

“We need our teachers’ salaries to be more than just adequate. We need to be competitive so we can support having the best teachers in and around this community. They are underpaid for the job they do.” — Gerald Francis

“We need to work with what we can control and influence what we don’t control,” said Gerald Francis, executive vice president at Elon University. “The part we control is our supplement, and we as a community need to be looking into ourselves on this. Is our supplement competitive? The answer to that question is no. We need to be taking action on what we can impact.”

Francis, a longtime Alamance County resident, ran for school board last year and is an activist for enhancing education in the county.

“Community citizens need to be influencing our legislature in Raleigh with regard to the overall base teacher salaries and encouraging them to make sure we’re paying our teachers salaries that make them a truly good, livable wage,” he said.

“We need our teachers’ salaries to be more than just adequate. We need to be competitive so we can support having the best teachers in and around this community. They are underpaid for the job they do.”

About this multimedia journalism project:

Matt Mallian is a multimedia journalist at Elon University in Elon, N.C. He is an Athletics Communications Assistant with the Elon athletic department and a former Assistant Sports Editor and Senior Sports Reporter of The Pendulum, Elon’s student-run newspaper. Matt is also a contributor to the Burlington Times-News based in Burlington, N.C., and works with the Carolina Hurricanes as a Media Relations Intern.