Sen. Phil Berger sidesteps an inconvenient truth about NC teacher pay

By: - December 5, 2019 12:31 pm

Sen. President Phil Berger

Despite having voted to expand the economics and personal finance curriculum in the state’s high schools, North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger fails to apply basic principles of these subjects when touting supposed accomplishments in teacher pay in his Nov. 25 op-ed in Raleigh’s News & Observer, “Yes, Republican tax policies are working in North Carolina.”

Perhaps most notably, he conveniently forgets to apply a rather basic concept called “inflation.” Ignoring inflation in GOP efforts to convince North Carolinians that teachers have experienced windfalls under their tenure is an irresponsible representation of the reality of teacher wage growth, or lack thereof. While corporate income taxes have been cut by more than 50%, many teachers are, when one adjusts for inflation, out tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages.

Instead of touting “average” teacher pay (in the op-ed, Berger brags that “Since 2014, average teacher pay shot up by more than $9,000”) let’s look at actual teachers’ pay across the salary schedule. Consider the following real-world examples:

Mrs. Walker-Kelly started teaching music to elementary school students in 2007, the same year the Class of 2020 started kindergarten. She didn’t sign up for an 11.92% pay cut from the state worth a cumulative total of more than $68,000 so far. When she signed up, North Carolina still offered longevity pay to keep veterans in the classroom and a 10% pay increase for earning a master’s degree to improve teaching and learning. To her credit, she finished her master’s degree in 2018 even though the state changed the rules in 2013, becoming the first state in the nation to no longer pay teachers extra for earning advanced degrees.

During the same time period, veteran middle school teacher Mr. Lucas received an effective pay cut of 9.64% from the state, amounting to a cumulative loss of $69,000. These lost wages could have gone a long way in helping him save for retirement.

Ms. Hardinger is a cancer survivor, and the $64,000 she lost in cumulative wages could have helped to pay for her treatment. These lost wages amount to more than the annual salary of the teachers she mentors, and this year she has $7,600 less in purchasing power compared to teachers at her same level of experience when the Class of 2020 was in kindergarten.

Even teachers nearing ten years of experience are making less than “what they signed up for” when they joined the teaching ranks.

In 2010, when Republicans took the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, Mrs. Lewis moved to North Carolina to teach middle school English Language Arts. She didn’t sign up for an effective pay cut of 5.76% under the Republican reign that has been worth more than $23,000 during the course of her career. Like Mrs. Walker-Kelly, she has also been denied pay for a master’s in literacy that she earned in 2016. She uses her skills from this degree in a Title I school and helped the school earn an SEL Innovation grant. She works a second job to pay the costs of both her initial teaching degree and master’s degree. The $23,000 in lost wages would have drastically lowered her student loan debt and helped make it so that her only job is to focus on her students.

Image: Adobe Stock

Mr. West is a social studies teacher who is happy working with North Carolina’s students but is not yet sure that he can make this state his home. Beginning teacher pay has remained stagnant when adjusted for inflation: A first year teacher in 2007 made $36,592 in today’s dollars. This year’s starting salary is $35,000.

Those with fifteen to twenty-four years of experience receive no pay increases along salary schedule steps.

The most experienced veterans and retirees effectively receive pay cuts as prices rise and their pay remains frozen.

How can new teachers like Mr. West build a life here with such stagnant pay? North Carolina’s students deserve to learn in schools that attract excellent new teachers and keep valuable experienced teachers. The salary schedule needs to reflect these priorities.

Sen. Berger’s claims do not reflect the reality that real teacher wages have remained underwhelming during his tenure. And while he fails to adjust for inflation, he has no trouble inflating Republican accomplishments to the point of deception.

Berger and his Republican lawmakers need to stop the deceptive “record raise” claims and provide genuine and meaningful pay increases of at least 5% across the board for all certified and classified school staff.

Businesses attract new workers with the promise of strong public schools for their children.  Supporting education can no longer be the opportunity cost of yet another tax cut.

Kim Mackey is a veteran Wake County public school teacher and the author of the blog educatED Policy.

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Kim Mackey
Kim Mackey

Kim Mackey is a veteran Wake County public school teacher who comments on public policy at the website educatED Policy, where this commentary was first published.