Why are some teachers griping about their hefty pay raise?

“Here’s a fact: Every public school teacher will make more than they did last year. The state budget has a provision that would prevent teachers from making less.” – Reema Khrais, “Explaining NC’s Teacher Pay Raises,” WUNC Radio, August 8, 2014.

The state budget recently passed by the N.C. General Assembly set aside $290 million to cover an average 7 percent salary increase for public school teachers and raises for other school-based personnel.  But not everyone is happy about that.

In fact, some have gone to great lengths to argue that it is not a “real” increase.  If you adjust for white asparagus crop yields in Germany and divide that by the annual northward movement of the Tropic of Capricorn (in arcseconds, obviously), then they are right.

All kidding aside, why are there so many objections to an education budget that benefits public school employees?

I am not going to address all of the various criticisms of the pay increase below, but most fall into four categories.

1. Confusion over substantial changes to the salary schedule and provisions associated with it.

For example, some of our most experienced teachers do not know that they may not necessarily receive the dollar amount indicated on the new salary schedule. If their salary and longevity payment was higher last year, they will earn that amount plus a $1,000 a year bonus. So, what appears to be a pay cut is actually a pay increase.

2. Bitterness about the stagnation in teacher salaries since 2009.

Aside from a 1.2 percent pay increase passed by Republicans in 2012, there has been little movement in teacher pay over the last five years. The N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE) and their allies contend that the state legislature owes it to teachers to compensate them for that period and increase pay even more to reach the “national average” as calculated by their parent teacher union, the National Education Association.

Contrary to the opinion of the NCAE, this year’s increase is not designed to be a “small down payment on North Carolina’s IOU to public education.” (Honestly, I am afraid to ask what dollar amount that constitutes a “large down payment” or the total “owed” to public education during a period of both Democratic and Republican inaction.) After all, employees of private companies, nonprofit organizations, and even state government do not demand that their employer compensate them for pay freezes and/or cuts to benefits during lean years. In fact, I believe that few employers would seriously consider such a petulant request or take kindly to rank-and-file employees hanging an IOU over their employers’ heads.

3. Belief that compensation should be based on one’s assessment of their own value.

I think most folks would acknowledge that teaching is a tough job. In addition, many would agree that good public schools improve social, economic, and political conditions. Given these beliefs, teachers in both the highest and lowest paying states contend that their pay does not reflect the difficulty and importance of their job. North Carolina teachers who complain about this year’s pay increase proclaim that, even with an average 7 percent bump, their salaries are not commensurate with their value. They are “worth” more. Aren’t we all?

In the case of public school employees, however, arbitrary evaluations of value are not a basis for formulating sound public policy. That is because there are complex economic factors that determine how much to pay an employee, and these market conditions only occasionally take value into account.

4. Pure politics

I suspect that if Democrats approved a budget that had a teacher pay increase of this magnitude, the NCAE and other public school advocacy organizations would be holding a ticker tape parade in downtown Raleigh. But this is a budget approved by Republican majorities in the legislature and signed by a Republican governor. As a result, public school advocates call the budget an “insult to the teaching profession” and the like.

The Blueprint NC strategy calls on liberals to “eviscerate, mitigate, litigate, cogitate, and agitate” the Republican leadership in Raleigh. Curiously, their strategy has evolved into “exaggerate, fabricate, and remonstrate.”

I am sure that I missed one or two others. For example, some teachers would have preferred an across-the-board raise for all instructional personnel. Others gripe about the restructured salary schedule.

I predict that much of this will disappear soon.  Summer break is coming to an end.

Terry Stoops / Vice President for Research and Director of Education Studies

Terry Stoops is the Vice President for Research and Director of Education Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the Locke Foundation, he worked as the progra...

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