How to upgrade teacher pay

In the book “That Used To Be Us,” Thomas L. Friedman, a liberal columnist for the New York Times, and Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of American foreign policy at John Hopkins University, argue that America has fallen behind in the world it invented. And although many of the book’s proposals have turned out to be stumbling blocks rather than solutions, the authors are right about one thing – we are falling behind in the world we invented – especially in education.

Today, the status quo has become a dangerous position. Technology and industry are changing more quickly than ever, and large government bureaucracy has prevented our public policy from being able to keep up.

So we would like to offer a few recommendations to those thinking about solutions to teacher pay.

We are aware of North Carolina’s national teacher pay ranking and agree that it is a problem. But we would like to argue that behind the low ranking are structural concerns with our statewide base salary schedule that are more significant to individual teachers than our ranking against the national average. Making it our goal to reach the national average in teacher pay is just that – an average goal. What we need is a new salary schedule aligned with a comprehensive vision for the future.

Since North Carolina last raised teacher salaries to the national average, research has helped us understand more fully the impact that great teachers can make in their students’ lives. Now is a critical time for the state to validate how important it is to invest in excellence. That starts with reforming the base salary schedule to bring it in line with the needs of our students and a 21st century teacher workforce.

The current plan – a 37 step salary schedule – spreads teacher pay increases over an arbitrary number of steps in their career. More importantly, it allocates most of the significant salary “step” increases at the end of teachers’ careers – if they stay that long – while undervaluing them during the years in which they improve the most.

Studies show that teachers improve most dramatically during their first five years. But under the current salary schedule, teachers do not see their first step increase until year seven. That means for six years they improve without any reward. This is a problem.

The current salary schedule also fails to enable schools to compete in our region. Surrounding states have surpassed North Carolina’s starting salaries, enabling them to recruit our graduates with higher starting pay. Most also increase teachers’ salaries earlier in their career, while under the current salary schedule it can take a North Carolina teacher 16 years to reach $40,000. That’s crazy. This encourages high turnover. It is not attractive.

We also know that the top indicator of a child’s academic success is having an excellent teacher. But under the current salary schedule our teachers receive no reward for their excellence and taking on more responsibility.

You see, we were both raised by N.C. educators. Chad’s mom is a former public school teacher who has dedicated her life to early childhood development and currently teaches in our state’s Pre-K program. His younger sister is a second grade teacher in her third year (who has never seen a step increase). Rob’s mom was a public school 4th grade teacher for 12 years and is now the Educational Director for DARE America. His sister also taught in North Carolina’s public school system. Rob even taught in the classroom for two years with Teach for America.

Our families’ involvement in public education compelled us to balance the state’s budget and fix our outdated tax code this year. We knew that increasing teacher pay could not happen without a balanced budget and reliable state revenues. But building that foundation was only the first step.

We must reform the base salary schedule so that it is competitive with other states and offers teachers a meaningful career while directing precious resources toward what research tells us matters most to student learning. Our ability to recruit, retain and reward great teachers should guide our discussion.

Recruiting great teachers means paying teachers better at the beginning of their career. Retaining great teachers means getting them to a professional and competitive wage as quickly as possible while allowing them to grow in their careers. Rewarding great teachers means recognizing their excellence and value to the classroom and compensating them for it.

We acknowledge that being able to say that we pay our teachers at the national average will make politicians everywhere feel good. But what we risk is leaving in place the status quo – structural problems that prevent us from treating our teachers with respect. We should want a salary schedule that attracts the best and brightest and reenergizes our educators who have been neglected by the existing salary schedule.

Addressing these real problems should result in teachers being paid their worth and give every N.C. child a better shot at an excellent education – which is the most important goal.

Sen. Chad Barefoot is a Republican from Raleigh; Rep. Rob Bryan is a Republican from Charlotte.