Is McCrory or Cooper telling the truth on teacher pay?

The Observer editorial board

Gov. Pat McCrory touts this year’s teacher pay raises. The state still has a ways to go.
Gov. Pat McCrory touts this year’s teacher pay raises. The state still has a ways to go. File photo

Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper are playing ping pong with teacher pay, smacking accusations back and forth with a flurry of ads and email blasts. So who’s right?

The charges and counter-charges reflect the gubernatorial campaigns’ accurate belief that teachers are a vital constituency this election year. So are the parents and others who want North Carolina schools to be the best they can be.

McCrory, a Republican, is airing a new ad in which he claims that he gave North Carolina teachers the largest pay raise in the country and another raise every year since. He says the average teacher pay this school year will be over $50,000.

Cooper responds that McCrory has failed teachers. He says North Carolina ranks 41st nationally on teacher pay and that state education spending is low. He features teachers who are leaving the state or who say the teachers they know aren’t making that kind of money.

It’s enough to leave voters confused. Who’s telling the truth? We found that they both are, and they’re both leaving out a lot of context.

Here are the facts:

North Carolina’s national ranking in average teacher pay fell precipitously during and after the 2009 recession. In McCrory’s first year as governor after being elected in November 2012, teachers got no raise and the state ranked 47th, at $44,990.

The next year, McCrory and the legislature gave teachers an average 6.3 percent hike, the largest in the nation, bumping the ranking up to 42nd. The next year teachers got a very small raise and moved up to 41st. And for the current school year, they got an average raise of 4.7 percent, pushing average teacher pay to somewhere right around $50,000. New national rankings won’t be out for many months, but North Carolina is clearly moving slowly in the right direction. And when adjusted for cost of living, North Carolina ranks somewhere between 28th and 33rd, according to John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood.

Still, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Pay hikes under McCrory have helped early-career teachers far more than veteran ones. And even though the average statewide is around $50,000, a majority of teachers – and perhaps up to two-thirds by one estimate – makes less than that.

The state itself doesn’t pay an average of $50,000. It pays less, and most (but not all) local governments supplement the state pay to bring up the average. McCrory and legislators can’t take credit for that.

Even with the recent hikes, North Carolina still ranks low and moves only from ninth to seventh in the Southeast. The most experienced teachers had their longevity pay rolled into their salaries. Teachers are spending their own money on school supplies. And they have larger workloads after the state cut some 7,000 teaching assistants. Perhaps worst of all, North Carolina still ranks near the bottom in state per-pupil spending.

McCrory is right that teacher pay is rising. Cooper is right that it has a long way to go. North Carolinians, perhaps, should cast their vote for the one they believe will do the most to help teachers get to where they deserve to be.