The political debate over teacher pay in North Carolina overwhelmingly focuses on the statewide average salary. It’s relatively easy to understand, but it’s not always useful.

How you feel about your pay depends heavily on your stage in life. A $40,000 salary at age 24 feels a lot higher than the same pay at age 54. And if an entry-level marketing job pays way more than a first-year teacher’s salary, you might stay away from the classroom.

To figure out how teacher pay stacks up against other jobs new grads could take, Longleaf Politics compared data from the state teacher salary schedule with data compiled by the N.C. Commerce Department on salaries for all bachelor degree holders.

As it turns out, starting teachers make pretty good money compared with other entry-level jobs with a bachelor’s degree. They won’t be rich, but they’ll be making more money than most of their peers.

This doesn’t mean that North Carolina should stop increasing teacher pay. But it’s a useful way of looking at a highly emotional debate.

Starting teacher pay has risen sharply to $35,000 per year.

A half-decade ago, the starting pay was around $30,000. After several years of pay increases under the Republican-controlled General Assembly, that figure is now nearly 20% higher.

Accurate as of the 2018-19 school year.

These numbers represent the minimum salary teachers receive at each year of experience. Many counties provide some sort of supplement to the base-level pay, usually a percentage of the salary.

In urban districts like Wake, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, starting teachers earn more than $40,000 in their first year.

After all the local supplements are taken into account, the average starting salary ends up at $37,631 per year. This is higher than South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, but lower than Virginia, according to the National Education Association.

That’s well above the median salary for UNC-system graduates.

Universities are required to collect data on the salaries their students receive after graduation through the “Common Follow-Up System.” Numbers from the state commerce department show that even without a supplement, teachers are doing better than the majority of their bachelor’s degree-holding peers.

New graduates average a $21,236 salary in their first year after graduation. New teachers make $35,000 or more that year.

In year 2, graduates make $31,410. Teachers will make $36,000 at a minimum.

Of course, there is variation between campuses. Graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill report higher starting salaries, but they’re in the same ballpark as teachers in urban counties.

Average starting salary by graduation year. Graph via UNC-CH

At N.C. State, teachers make starting salaries comparable to most other types of graduates, except engineers.

Graph via NCSU

Teacher salaries remain competitive for around half a decade.

Teachers are still making more than their peers by the third year. In some counties, they’ll be closer to the 75th percentile.

Mecklenburg County’s teacher pay supplements range from 15% to 19% of their state salary. This puts teachers at or near $50,000 around age 27, or five years into the teaching profession.

At this point, it becomes harder to make comparisons. Somewhere between years 5 and 10, most North Carolina teachers will make more with their single salary than the median household income in North Carolina of $52,000.

But once you get past the first five years, higher salaries are certainly easier to come by in other jobs.

So, what do we do with this information?

This is good news in an environment that perpetually focuses on the negative. Pointing out that early-career teachers make competitive salaries is not an attack on teachers. Quite the opposite, it’s something we as a state should celebrate.

Moving forward, instead of arguing over the “average” teacher salary, we should think about teacher pay in several different categories.

The entry-level teacher is in good shape financially compared with their peers. The situation changes slowly as time moves on. That leaves teachers — and lawmakers — with several options.

In the private sector, more pay generally comes with more responsibility and management roles. Teachers can join the ranks of school administrators, who frequently make more than $100,000 per year in North Carolina. Increasingly, teachers can take on more responsibility in the classroom to earn higher pay. Several General Assembly experiments have sought to create career ladders for teachers.

They can trade higher pay for a 10-month calendar, solid benefits and a fulfilling career. Or they can leave for another profession.

No state pays teachers salaries that are comparable with the highest-earning careers. It’s simply the reality of government employment.

But there are still plenty of valid policy debate for state lawmakers.

  • What does North Carolina want to incentivize?
  • Is the bigger problem recruiting new teachers or retaining older ones?
  • How can we hold on to highly effective teachers?
  • What is the right benchmark we should use for setting teacher salaries?
  • Is it OK if teachers see the role as a five-year job before moving on?
  • Should we reward teachers based on longevity or performance?
  • Can performance be accurately measured?

Reasonable people can disagree.

Buses heading to Baldwin Elementary in Hope Mills. Photo by Gerry Dincher via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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