NC lags the nation in teacher pay and is losing its best educators

Dave Hartzell loves teaching, and his principal at Sterling Elementary says he’s one of her best.

But the birth of a baby and Hartzell’s desire to let his wife stay home with the child are forcing him out. After six years of teaching he earns about $36,000 a year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – and that’s almost $5,000 above the state minimum.

It’s not enough to support a family, says Hartzell, who is 30. In Virginia, where he started his career, he says he could make about $15,000 a year more.

It’s crunch time for North Carolina and Mecklenburg County to decide how to keep teachers such as Hartzell.

The General Assembly convenes next week. High on the agenda: boosting teacher pay, especially for early-career teachers who are stalled at starting wages.

Also next week, the CMS school board will vote on a budget. Superintendent Heath Morrison wants $27 million from the county to ensure that employees get 3 percent raises. It’s a controversial move because most of the money for raises traditionally comes from the state. But Morrison says the local community can’t afford to wait.

“We are seeing teachers leave our community and leave our state,” he said.

North Carolina’s dismal numbers have become a drumbeat in education circles: 46th nationally in average teacher pay. Dead last in pay trends over the past decade. Turnover on the rise – at a 10-year high in CMS.

While there’s fierce debate over how to solve the problem, there are points of broad agreement: North Carolina teachers deserve better pay. The challenge goes beyond the size of their paycheck. And this year’s short session won’t bring the full solution.

State leaders know teachers and voters are hungry for a plan to make North Carolina a place where talented youth and accomplished veterans come to work and thrive.

“This is a time for action and specifics, not for plans and studies,” said Eric Guckian, Gov. Pat McCrory’s senior education adviser. He said the governor will soon elaborate on plans.

This year and next, state officials will look at a mix of strategies: Across-the-board raises. Revising the scale to provide bigger raises earlier. Creating performance-based rewards and new career options for teachers. Rethinking the pension plan and pay for credentials.

All are controversial. And most experts say real reform will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

For Hartzell, it will be too late. He talks sadly of finding work in insurance or banking if he stays in Charlotte.

“I still love every second in the classroom,” he says. “Maybe if people who are as dedicated as me leave, that’s the only way to make a difference.”

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No easy answers

Changes the state legislature made last summer, such as eliminating pay for master’s degrees, offering a limited number of $500-a-year performance raises and abolishing tenure, remain mired in controversy and lawsuits. A teacher-pay task force created to craft a long-term vision recently recommended more study.

Julie Kowal of CarolinaCAN, the North Carolina branch of a national reform advocacy group, calls revamping the pay system the toughest policy issue she’s ever encountered.

“How much is enough? Who should get what?” says Kowal, whose group promotes changes in teacher pay and evaluation. “It’s an enormous part of our budget. It impacts so many thousands of people personally.”

K-12 education is the largest item in the state budget. This year’s $7.9 billion, which includes money for vouchers and charter schools, accounts for 38 percent of the total.

And the state’s 95,000-plus teachers have a strong presence in every community.

The problem has bipartisan roots. Under Democratic leadership and the onslaught of recession, teaching jobs throughout the state were slashed and salaries repeatedly frozen.

Once Republicans took control in 2011 and the recovery began, tax cuts took precedence over state employee raises. Personal and corporate tax cuts approved last year will remove $2.4 billion from state revenue over the next five years, legislative analysts predict.

By comparison, the state would spend $53.4 million for each 1 percent hike for North Carolina teachers, or just more than $71 million to include all school employees.

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Comparisons are tricky

Comparing pay and benefits for educators is complex.

Depending on experience and credentials, some teachers do better in North Carolina than surrounding states, while others fare far worse. And compensation varies not only by state, but often by district and even school.

North Carolina’s system was designed to provide small “step” raises each year, up to the 30th year. Surrounding states have fewer steps. Tennessee, for instance, recently dropped from 21 levels to four, with the last mandatory raise coming at the 11th year.

Until this year, North Carolina teachers could earn a 10-percent bump for a master’s degree. State legislators eliminated that last summer for new hires and teachers who haven’t already earned that pay. The state provides another 12 percent for certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, one of the nation’s more generous rewards for that credential.

That means teachers at the top of the scale compare well with other Southeastern states, especially in counties such as Mecklenburg and Wake that add a substantial boost from local money. Several schools in CMS offer bonuses to recruit for hard-to-fill jobs or to reward performance, though they generally come from government and foundation grants that run out after a few years.

For instance, the highest bonus payment last year went to a West Charlotte High teacher who had been recruited with money provided by the private Project LIFT and the CMS strategic staffing program, adding $19,000 to a base pay just under $40,000. More than 1,000 CMS employees got bonuses last year.

But North Carolina’s average starting pay falls below that of South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia, according to a recent state study. The gap ranges from South Carolina, which averages $1,500 more than North Carolina starting pay, to Virginia, where the edge is more than $7,000 a year.

And pay freezes have locked North Carolina teachers into that level for the first six years of their career, stalling an already slow advancement in wages.

The result: North Carolina loses its ability to keep teachers during the years when they develop their skills, start families and make decisions about where they can earn a living.

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Bigger raises faster

In February, McCrory and GOP legislative leaders announced plans to raise starting salaries by more than $4,000 a year by 2015. Up to the 10th year of experience, teachers would get smaller raises, ranging from $550 to $3,780 a year. After that, there’s nothing in the plan.

Recent state budget reports, including one released Friday that projects a $450 million revenue shortfall when the current year ends June 30, are dampening hopes of an across-the-board raise.

Some teachers and advocates support restoring the old pay scale, with its gradual raises for each year of experience, and putting teachers back to where they would have been without the recent freezes. That approach would benefit newcomers and veterans alike.

Other experts say the “frontloading” proposed in the GOP plan provides the best shot at getting and keeping teachers from a younger generation that’s less likely to be enticed by job security, a good pension and slow progress toward a living wage.

Based on the current state scale, a teacher with only a bachelor’s degree can work 30 years and not crack $50,000. CMS adds $4,600 a year to the starting scale, and the local supplement increases with experience. Even so, it takes 22 years to hit $50,000 on the CMS bachelor’s degree scale.

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Tough issues ahead

Tough challenges await as long-term solutions are crafted.

The idea of rewarding teachers for demonstrated student results is popular, but figuring out how to do that has stymied schools across the country. In North Carolina, the push to create new tests used primarily to evaluate teachers has sparked backlash from the left and right.

And performance-based rewards have a history of disappearing when money gets tight, which makes educators wary. For instance, the state’s longstanding ABC bonus program, which rewarded school gains on state exams, was cut during the recession.

Another simmering issue: Are counties taking enough financial responsibility for public education?

North Carolina has historically borne a bigger-than-average share of the bill. Last year, state money amounted to almost 60 percent of public school revenue. Only eight states – none in the Southeast – contributed a higher percentage, according to a National Education Association tally.

Heavy state contributions help equalize education in more prosperous urban counties and impoverished rural ones. But some state leaders are considering shifting state dollars toward teacher pay while leaving counties to pick up the bill for state-funded support functions, such as transportation.

Hartzell says he’d like to see state leaders look at creative solutions such as year-round school. Currently, teachers are paid for 10 months. During the summer, many take jobs such as bagging groceries, he noted: “You don’t have part-time jobs that pay full-time money.”

A year-round professional paycheck would help teachers, he said, while year-round classes would benefit students who lose ground during long breaks.

Such a switch wouldn’t be cheap and it wouldn’t be simple.

But that’s one more point experts agree on: None of the real solutions are.

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