low teacher pay in North Carolina is a crisis
Have you talked to a teacher in North Carolina recently? Or, more importantly, have you really listened to one? If you know or care about any teachers in this state, you most likely have witnessed their struggle to make ends meet under salaries that do not reflect their unremitting workload.
Think back to your days as a K-12 student. Amidst the early memories of naptime and blocks, the harrowing time warp of middle school, and the delirium of algebra, you most likely encountered a teacher (or a few) who deeply impacted you. Perhaps this teacher challenged you to do your homework, shaped your understanding of difficult material, or engrained in you the difference between their, they’re, and there. More likely though, you remember this person because of the less quantifiable labor that falls outside of their official job description: providing words of comfort during a difficult day, inspiring in you a sense of wonder about a particular topic, helping you navigate financial aid forms for college, standing in as a stable and consistent adult figure during a turbulent home situation. Teachers come to work day in and day out to perform some of the most thankless and transformative work in the nation. They are public servants, trained professionals, and in North Carolina, acutely underpaid.
Ask yourself, if the state slashed your pay, would you (or could you) keep your job? Teachers are paid 35.5 percent less than other college graduates in the state. Many of them continue to teach and take on additional jobs instead of leaving for higher-paying professions. In fact, North Carolina has the third highest number of teachers working second jobs outside of the school system.
How, then, do we talk about what is truly at stake when we talk about teacher pay? Often, partisan talking points spill into abstract realms: arguments over state budgets, pensions, per-pupil spending, state rankings. Amidst the incessant finger-pointing, though, the very basic notion of the dignity of teachers’ labor fades to the background.
The Economic Policy Institute recently released a report indicating that teacher pay, compared to pay for other careers, has eroded for the past half-century. Last year, teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky galvanized support for educators working under tight budgetary conditions. This past May, the issue came to a boiling point in North Carolina as teachers across the state donned #redfored shirts and walked out of their classrooms en masse to show up at the North Carolina General Assembly to demand dignity, respect, and renewed investment in public education. This collective action makes sense when you consider that in North Carolina the pay gap is particularly severe. As of 2018, North Carolina’s teachers have an average salary $9,600 less than the national average. Moreover, teachers spend between $500 and $1,000 on out-of-pocket expenses and North Carolina is one of the five states with the highest teacher wage penalties. While lawmakers have echoed empty words and talking points about their commitment to education, public school teachers in the state have continued to suffer lost wages and pay for school supplies out of their own pockets.
Paying teachers less than what they deserve to earn is a state policy decision made by lawmakers. It is not about weak state economies or tight budgets, it is about priorities. Republican lawmakers have not hesitated as they hemorrhaged money on legal fees to defend unconstitutional gerrymanders or passed tax breaks for multinational corporations. Remember that under a Republican supermajority for the past eight years, teacher pay has not increased in any kind of substantive way. Republican budgets have reflected a clear right-wing agenda: spending cuts that gut public education to finance tax cuts for the wealthy and major corporations. Our legislature has the power to pay teachers more, and they should. If Republicans at the helm of North Carolina’s budgetary process really believed their empty words, regarded teachers as professionals, and took seriously their responsibility for educating the next generation, North Carolina would not be ranking near last in the nation in teacher pay.
Ensuring teachers earn a living wage is a matter of justice. Talk to any teacher and they will tell you they work well over 40 hours a week. They show up early in the morning to prep and do not leave until the last student is off campus. They stand on their feet for the majority of the day. Afterward, many take second, or third jobs just to make ends meet for their own families. Not compensating teachers for their labor sends a message from the state that their work is neither valued, nor deserving of recognition. Right now, teachers in the state work for some of the lowest pay in the nation out of love for their students and for their jobs. We stand to lose them to more competitive states if the legislature fails to pass budgets that compensate them fairly. Moreover, we owe the people responsible for educating and caring for young people a salary that reflects the time, commitment, and sacrifices inherent in their work.