NC’s teacher pay ranking: Why it’s a hollow victory

North Carolina’s average teacher pay has jumped to 29th in the nation, according to the National Education Association, a move of five spots from a year ago and almost 20 spots from 2013. That’s progress, and any progress is good. North Carolina Republicans certainly think so, and they’ve spent some of this week crowing about the news.

Last we checked, though, No. 29 is still in the bottom half of the United States — and the way we got to 29th makes even that accomplishment a bit hollow. For starters, the average N.C. teacher pay figure of $53,975 includes about $4,600 in local supplements that counties pay to recruit and retain teachers. That’s not state funding, but local money from governments that felt they had to pick up the slack from stingy N.C. lawmakers. Take away that $4,600, and North Carolina slides right back toward the bottom.

Also, while a dozen counties, including Mecklenburg and Wake, offered more than that $4,600 local supplement, more than 100 of 115 N.C. school districts offered less local money. In our state’s many rural counties that struggle with smaller budgets, teachers aren’t getting close to the kind of pay that Republicans are high-fiving about this week.

There’s also a bigger problem with our NEA ranking: It’s not the best way to look at teacher pay. Most North Carolina teachers, as well as those considering the profession, aren’t pulling out national rankings and saying “I’m moving to (insert better paying state here).“ More likely, they look at what teachers are getting paid where they live, and they compare it with what other jobs pay. Then they decide if teaching is really the path they want to continue on.

What do N.C. teachers find when they ask that question? North Carolina ranks 49th in the country in wage competitiveness through 2017, according to the Economic Policy Institute. While teachers across the U.S. made an average of 18.7 percent less than comparable workers, in North Carolina it was a startling 35.5 percent. Despite improvements since 2013, we’re still giving teachers good reason not to teach.

We can change that, much like we did two decades ago when Gov. Jim Martin decided this state had fallen too far behind in teacher pay. This editorial board has long advocated for substantial and sustained pay increases across the board for teachers, not a smoke-and-mirrors approach that offers one-time bonuses or pays new educators but is skimpy with teaching veterans.

One such blueprint was offered last week by Gov. Roy Cooper, whose budget proposes a 9.1 percent average increase in teacher pay over two years. What’s most important is how that happens: Cooper proposes restoring things Republicans have taken away, such as pay increases for veteran teachers and extra pay for teachers with master’s degrees. Similarly, N.C. Superintendent Mark Johnson is calling for raises of 5 to 7 percent for all teachers and a boost in pay for those who take on advanced teaching roles, such as by earning master’s degrees.

Doing so will not only encourage teachers to keep teaching, but reward them for investing in their craft and careers. That would be something truly worth celebrating.