NC ranks 48th in school funding. Education advocacy group says it’s high time for lawmakers to fix that problem.

By: - February 2, 2023 6:00 am
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North Carolina’s ranking as the best state in the nation to do business doesn’t square with its rank near the bottom of states —  48th — in public school expenditures, Mary Ann Wolf, president and CEO of Public School Forum of North Carolina said Tuesday.

When adjusted for regional cost differences, the Tar Heel state is dead last in school funding effort, Wolf said during the public school advocacy group’s annual “Eggs and Issues Breakfast” in Raleigh. More than 400 educators, lawmakers and public school advocates attended the event.

“North Carolina prides itself in being a state that is known for being business-friendly, but what if we could also take pride in being known for how we value public education,” Wolf said. “We can have both. In fact, the two go hand in hand. Thriving communities attract business investment and high-quality, well-funded, equitable schools are required for communities and businesses to thrive.”

The Public School Forum unveiled its “Top 5 Education Issues for 2023-24,” which guide its legislative agenda.

This year’s list begins with ensuring “fair and competitive compensation for educators.” The Forum called on lawmakers to take the “bold” step of increasing teacher pay by 24.5% to bring them up to what “similarly educated peers” in other sectors earn.

“These recommendations may sound bold, but the salary increases we’re calling for are not extravagant and we need to remember that,” Lauren Fox, the Forum’s senior director of policy, said to applause. “We’re talking about making teacher pay comparable to other fields and reaching the national average.”

The numbers show the challenges of retaining and recruiting teachers for North Carolina’s public schools:

  • The state ranks 38th in teacher pay.
  • The average annual teacher’s salary is $53,458.
  • Beginning teacher pay is $37,000 — 17% below what first-year Alabama teachers earn, and far below the North Carolina’s minimum living income of $48,346 for a family of one adult and one child.
  • North Carolina started the year 4,400 teachers short of what was needed.

“The truth of the matter is that many of our teachers … are struggling to afford things like childcare, to cover healthcare costs, and they’re often unable to afford to live in the communities where they work, so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing excellent educators leave the profession to work in other fields.”

Andrew Houlihan, superintendent of Union County Schools, said teacher pay and less-than-ideal working conditions have become a significant barrier to recruitment and retention since the pandemic.

Houlihan said his district is high performing and had not traditionally experienced recruitment or retention problems. “Until about two years ago, where we looked around the room and said, ‘Oh, my gosh,’ we cannot find a Kindergarten teacher,” he said.

To make a difference in teacher recruitment and retention, Houlihan said the state should increase base pay to a minimum of $70,000 a year.

“If you want to go down the road of pay for performance or a merit pay system, do that as a bonus,” Houlihan said. “Do not tie that into your base pay.”

Anthony Jackson, superintendent of Chatham County Schools, said before the pandemic, school leaders thought 1,800 teaching vacancies were daunting.

“Now, here we are with twice as many vacancies utilizing the exact same strategies that we used that didn’t work for that,” Jackson said. “I would challenge us to start thinking differently about that.”

The NC Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission is working to revamp teacher licensure and pay structures, with hopes of addressing a teacher shortage problem fueled by low pay and tough working conditions.

How to follow education issues at the state legislature:
Before advancing to a full House and Senate vote, bills have to wend their way through committees. Below are links to two committees where education bills are typically debated — though if there’s money attached, the bills must also usually pass through finance and appropriation committees. For more information, visit
You can also sign up to receive email alerts about committee meetings at the respective web pages.
House K-12 Committee
Senate Education/Higher Education Committee

Plans call for a new licensing and compensation structure that would replace the state’s seniority-based salary system with one that partially rewards teachers for student performance on state tests.

The proposal has been wildly unpopular among teachers. They contend it is an unwanted move to a system of “merit pay” that places too much emphasis on student scores on standardized tests. They argue that a better strategy to recruit and retain teachers is to pay them a fair wage.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and other supporters say the new plan would help to attract more candidates to the profession, increase pay, and retain veteran teachers with the promise of advancement and higher compensation.

Truitt was invited to the Eggs and Issues event but was unable to attend, a Forum spokesperson said.

Other priorities on the Forum’s Top 5 list for the coming year:

  • Grow, retain and diversify the pool of teacher candidates.
  • Address the root causes of mental health and school safety crises.
  • Prepare students for the world they live in.
  • Implement, monitor and evaluate the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, required as a condition of the Leandro court case

Full implementation of the comprehensive plan, which grew out of the state’s long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit, would require lawmakers to appropriate nearly $6 billion in new education funding by 2028.

Supporters are currently focused on Years Two and Three of the eight-year plan. The state Supreme Court ruled in November that the state must transfer funds to pay for those years. Recent estimates show that nearly $677 million in the comprehensive plan is unfunded for those years.

Many of the Forum’s legislative priorities, such as hiring adequate school psychologists, counselors and social workers to address growing student mental health concerns, are covered in the comprehensive plan. From 2019-202o, the rate of youth suicides increased by 50% in North Carolina, according to the state Child Fatality Task Force.  Meanwhile, there was a 46% increase in youth with one or more major depressive episodes. At present, the state’s ratios of specialized mental health personnel per student is well below those recommended by professional standards organizations.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, argued in January that funding is not a panacea for public schools.

“We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that more money alone buys positive outcomes for our students,” Berger said. “Success in education policy is about more than hitting some arbitrary funding goal.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.