RALEIGH — State lawmakers in Raleigh are about to release their budget plans for the 2016-17 fiscal year. Although they may not recommend the 5 percent average pay raise for public school teachers that Gov. Pat McCrory proposed a few weeks ago, there will be a substantial raise in their budget.
Most fiscal conservatives favor such a raise. That’s not because we’ve lost interest in restraining state spending growth, or are trying to ingratiate ourselves with the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association.
Rather, fiscal conservatives favor an increase in compensation for teachers — and for other public employees in critical jobs — because it is the right priority to set given current fiscal and economic conditions.
What are those conditions? Well, North Carolina is projected to run a substantial budget surplus this year. That, in turn, reflects the benefits of a growing economy, overall spending restraint during the past five years, and lower-than-expected growth in enrollments in other programs and institutions.
Furthermore, the General Assembly and the McCrory administration are led by politicians who properly recognize the limits of “average teacher pay” as a guide for good policy. If they were simply offering to raise the compensation of all teachers by an equivalent percentage — regardless of performance, duties, or the needs of hard-to-staff positions and schools — then fiscal conservatives would be skeptical.
But that’s not how the current leadership in Raleigh has been approaching the issue. They’ve junked forms of compensation that didn’t produce better instruction, such as the foolish practice of paying teachers to get largely irrelevant graduate degrees, while focusing legislative attention on starting salaries and pay raises for teachers in their early careers, which is when most improvement in teacher effectiveness occurs.
There will be more raises and bonuses for experienced teachers as part of this year’s package, which is understandable. Still, policymakers seem inclined to continue reforming the way teachers are compensated, including differentiation by demonstrable need and pilot programs for performance pay. Given the petty politics and irresponsible rhetoric employed by their left-wing critics, this qualifies as courageous leadership deserving of conservative support.
As the latest NEA report makes clear, North Carolina has raised teacher pay more than any other state in the nation since McCrory took office in 2013. The state still ranks relatively low in average salaries expressed in nominal dollars, but the NEA itself cautions readers of its teacher-salary report not to treat such a ranking as meaningful. Discussing “average salary figures in the absence of other data about the specific state or district provides limited insights into the actual ‘value’ of those salaries,” the teacher union observes. “For example, variations in the cost of living may go a long way toward explaining (and, in practice, offsetting) differences in salary levels from one area of the country to another.”
North Carolina is one of those states where living costs are lower than the national average. When John Locke Foundation research director Terry Stoops adjusted the latest NEA salary figures for cost of living, his preliminary analysis found that North Carolina ranked 33rd in average teacher pay in 2015-16.
That still doesn’t convey the reality of the situation, because it is an average for all teachers. In fast-growing states such as North Carolina where schools must hire new teachers every year just to keep up with enrollment, the teacher population tends to be disproportionately young. Ranking salaries by years of experience would bring North Carolina even closer to the national median.
Instead of chasing headlines or poorly measured statistical goals, McCrory and legislative leaders are boosting and reforming teacher compensation in order to attract and retain high-performing educators to some of the most essential and challenging jobs in the public sector. As long as policymakers maintain overall fiscal discipline, by spending less in other areas on the budget, their strategy consists of applying basic conservative principles to what most voters consider to be a high priority.
Makes sense to me.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.