Last updated: March 19. 2014 1:37PM - 1072 Views
Steve Ford NC Council of Churches



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The gory details are right there, laid out in columns of cold hard data compiled by the National Education Association.


Each year, the national teachers’ group provides a comprehensive, state-by-state look at the financing of public education, with a focus on funding for public schools. Not that it comes as much of a surprise, but North Carolina’s performance as shown in the latest report can fairly be described as mediocre.


Here’s the overall picture, drawn from census and budget statistics: North Carolina shapes up as a state with below-average wealth, below-average overall levels of taxation and below-average revenues committed to the schools.


Of particular concern to teachers, and of particular importance as a factor in school quality, is the state’s teacher salary structure. The NEA’s survey confirmed that during the 2012-13 school year, the latest comparison available, North Carolina continued to rank toward the back of the pack. Its average teacher pay was $45,737, or 46th in the country and $10,366 below the national average.


The spotlight here in recent weeks has been on the salary of beginning teachers – at $30,778, a pitiful 48th in the national rankings. Gov. Pat McCrory has proposed a boost to $35,000 for all teachers with less than 10 years experience, taking effect in 2015. That’s still likely to leave many teaching veterans wondering why their years of dedication to one of our society’s critical jobs have gone without proper recognition on their pay stubs.


The NEA points out that salary averages don’t tell the whole story in terms of how well teachers are compensated. Other benefits can moderate the sting of meager pay, as can relatively low costs of living. It may be that some North Carolina teachers, depending on where they live and on the policies of their own school systems, are better off than the pay figures suggest.


Sagging salaries


Yet as the NEA report confirms, the trend here makes any such bright spots harder to find. Over the span from 2002-03 to 2012-13, North Carolina teachers’ average pay dwindled by 15 percent, adjusted for inflation – the largest drop anywhere in the country. It’s true that folks in many sectors of the economy were hard hit during that decade, with many losing their jobs during the recession. But why were our teachers treated more roughly than their counterparts in any other state?


One could point to North Carolina’s modest overall means. This is a state where many thousands of people remain in the grip of poverty, even with regions such as the Triangle enjoying impressive levels of income and wealth. While the state’s total personal income in 2011 ranked a respectable 13th in the country, its per-capita income ranked 39th. And income was relatively stagnant over the previous decade, with growth that ranked a dismal 47th.


Those patterns argue for tax policies ensuring that high-income earners pay in accordance with their ability to pay. Yet the General Assembly last year went in the other direction, lowering and flattening the state income tax.


Backers of the move say it will help the state compete for business, boost the economy and mean new revenue eventually. But at least in the short run, revenue is likely to shrink. So a state that in 2011 tied for 31st in a measure of tax effort — state and local tax revenue per $1,000 in personal income – isn’t in line to do any better.


The upshot will be continued pressure on school budgets. Already, the results of that pressure aren’t pretty.


Schools shortchanged


When it comes to state funding, North Carolina does fairly well in terms of overall education expenditures — i.e., from kindergarten through college. In 2010-11, according to the NEA, those state outlays per capita ranked 20th nationally, and tied for 15th in outlays per $1,000 of personal income.


But this state’s localities don’t contribute as much to education as their counterparts in many other states. The bulk of the money is expected to come from the state. And when combined state and local funding is considered, North Carolina doesn’t look so good. By that measure, the state’s per capita expenditures for all education levels in 2010-11 ranked 43rd. For the public schools, they ranked a whopping 48th out of 51 (including the District of Columbia) — better only than Tennessee, Arizona and Idaho.


Budget-cutting to cope with the recession’s lingering aftermath and to make room for tax cuts surely hasn’t helped. The NEA reported that for 2012-13, North Carolina’s expenditure per K-12 student ranked 44th. At $8,844, the figure was a disappointing 78.6 percent of the national average.


Education spending levels that have failed to make up for lost ground or to accommodate growing enrollments were among the legislature’s many unfortunate budget choices – choices ratified by Gov. McCrory. Compounding the damage was a move to deprive most teachers of their job security.


After a first year in office during which he sometimes seemed politically tone deaf, McCrory now is moving to try to mend fences with teachers and education advocates. He and his advisers are talking up the proposed pay raises and telling teachers in effect to don’t worry, be happy.


Skepticism, though, is understandable – given that legislative leaders want to switch to a model where raises go to the “best” teachers, as determined by elusive metrics of student performance that could well be a formula for unfairness. Increasing the base pay for rookie teachers no doubt would help the state keep its classrooms staffed. But if anyone has figured out where the money will come from – not only to attract more newcomers to the teaching profession but also to better compensate successful veterans – they aren’t saying.


Former four-term Gov. Jim Hunt jawboned the legislature during the 1990s into raising the state’s teacher pay to the national average – only to see it fall back amid economic turmoil and political turnover. Now Hunt is calling for a renewed drive to pay our teachers at a level more nearly reflecting the difficulty and importance of their work. McCrory takes more cues from his Republican allies in the legislature than he does from the Democratic lion Hunt. Yet he’d do well to listen to North Carolina’s most successful state government leader of modern times.


Good public schools are cornerstones of places where everyone — rich or poor, native-born or immigrant — has a fair chance to see hopes and dreams come into bloom. If our schools are underfunded and beset by damaging policies, the harm is felt community by community, family by family, child by child. North Carolina poor national rankings for school support are like a diagnosis of a wasting disease. We can take comfort, though, that we know the cure.


Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches. This essay appeared originally appeared on the Council’s website.

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