When the North Carolina Senate late last month rolled out a new step salary schedule for teachers, it was reported in the state media as offering a big raise to educators while taking away job protections. But the new plan isn’t exactly what it seems. It “incentivizes” teachers at specific experience levels to leave the classroom and find another profession. Educator James Hogan explains what lawmakers did in the following post. The final version may look different when the House and Senate compromise, but this is a look at senators are thinking. Hogan taught high school English for years and runs Teach Kids Productions, which makes mostly short films for schools on literary subjects that are intended to spark discussion in classrooms.
By James Hogan
The North Carolina Senate clearly wanted to make some noise when it announced a $468 million budget allocation to develop a new, 21-step salary schedule that bumps starting teacher pay to $33,000, and raises average salaries 11.2 percent. The average teacher would see a salary increase of $5,809, which is the largest single-year teacher pay hike in state history.
The new salary schedule has a couple of curiosities, however. First, it keeps teacher pay flat through the first four years of a teacher’s career to the tune of $33,000 per year, a clear distinction from Governor Pat McCrory’s pay proposal. Then, the Senate scale increases teacher pay $1,000 for every year of service through a teacher’s twentieth year–still not bad. Keep your job another year, earn a grand.
But then, oddly, teacher pay flattens again–teachers earn the same $50,000 wage from years 20-29. That’s a decade of service without a pay raise. In year 30, teachers earn just $42 more. Then, wages rise again, topping out at $56,129 at 36 years of service.
That means 16 years of teaching service–almost half the pay chart–is rewarded with only a cumulative 12 percent salary increase. The same working span, when measured from a teacher’s fourth through twentieth year of service, sees a cumulative salary increase of 47 percent.
So the plan clearly benefits teachers in the middle of the pack. And it provides a clear disincentive for teachers who seek to retire from teaching by denying them a raise for a decade. Why would the Senate structure salaries like that?
This is where the decision to give up career status becomes very important. Make no mistake–the Senate pay scale rewards young teachers and pushes older teachers out in the last third of their career.
And why would the state government be interested in teachers leaving the classroom in their last ten years of teaching? The answer, I’m afraid, rests in some of what Senator David Curtis said in his now-infamous response to Charlotte teacher Sarah Wiles [who wrote a letter to legislators complaining about teachers' pay in the state]:
“You expect a defined contribution retirement plan that will guarantee you about $35,000 per year for life after working 30 years even if you live to be 104 years old. Your employer will need to put about $16,000 per year into your retirement plan each year combined with your $2,000 contribution for the next 30 years to achieve this benefit.”
What he’s saying is the state retirement pension program is the last golden egg for teachers. Here’s why. Say you’re a teacher who began your career the year after college at age 22. You taught for thirty-three years in North Carolina and retired at age 55. Based on today’s standards, you’re set to earn about $28,000 per year in retirement income every year until you die.
If you live another 33 years and die at age 88, that means you stand to collect $924,000 in retirement income. And the reason Senator Curtis was so ardent in pointing out the pension system to Ms. Wiles is that pensions cost the state a lot of money, and my guess is the fiscal conservatives in Raleigh are interesting in doing whatever they can to change that.
So if you’re a teacher and you’re contemplating if it’s better to take a pay raise or keep your career status, ask yourself this: do you plan to retire as an educator? The new, proposed senate pay scale is built to soothe middle-career teachers. It is designed to work them through twenty years of service and then quietly encourage them to leave teaching by keeping their salaries flat. And if they don’t leave on their own, they have a handy, built-in mechanism to get rid of them–the complete absence of career status. They don’t have to fire the teacher who’s a couple of years away from retirement. They can simply opt to not re-hire her.
If you’re 10 or 15 or 20 years into your teaching career, it’s time to pull out the income and retirement calculator. Can you afford to suffer for a little while longer at a flat salary if it means your retirement income is safe and sound?
And if you’re 5 or 10 years into your career, does it make sense for you to take the money now and save on your own for retirement?
Now, this post conveniently ignores the other implications this budget re-allocation brings about: thousands of teacher assistant jobs lost, defunding school nurses, bus mechanics, and administrative jobs, taking away dollars for textbooks, and outside of education, restructuring Medicaid in North Carolina to discontinue critical healthcare services to senior citizens.
Yes, that’s right: the Senate is also making teachers look like greedy villains in the process. You’re literally taking money from grandma’s healthcare plan to pay for your raise.
That said, it’s time for teachers to be okay with being a little bit greedy. You’ve been beaten up for a long time, dear teacher. It’s morally and ethically more than okay for you to take the pay hike, even if it eventually puts your career status in jeopardy. And it’s okay for you to opt out and set your sights on your pension.
But these pay raises are designed to get the Moral Monday monkey off the state legislature’s back. When thousands of teachers flooded Raleigh in protest last year, your elected officials noticed. And they’re getting creative in their response.
Don’t be fooled.