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Low pay harms K-12 teacher recruitment and retention

Science teacher Raymond Thomas chats with his coworkers in the library of Carrboro High School.

Science teacher Raymond Thomas chats with his coworkers in the library of Carrboro High School.

“Fourteen years later, my pay is still not back up to where I was when I left the (research) industry,” said Thomas, who is now a Carrboro High School science teacher. “So I think that says a lot about pay for teachers.”

The average salary for K-12 teachers in North Carolina was ranked 46th in the U.S. in 2012. State budget proposals for the 2014-15 fiscal year try to address stagnant teacher pay, but teachers’ legal rights may be at risk.

The national average for teacher salaries in 2011-12 was $55,418 per year, according to the National Education Association. North Carolina’s average teacher pay was $45,947.

In the budget proposed by the N.C. Senate, teachers could see an average 11.2 percent base salary raise, but only if they agree to give up their career status rights, commonly referred to as K-12 tenure.

K-12 tenure guarantees teachers who have earned career status the right to request a hearing if they are dismissed and excludes their contracts from coming up annually before the school board. Teachers are still re-evaluated annually. After a K-12 teacher works for four years, his or her school district board can vote on granting career status.

‘An ethical issue

Thomas said K-12 tenure in North Carolina does not always guarantee job protection.

“At the university level, tenure is a very strong job guarantee whereas (K-12) teacher tenure is more a series of not job protection, but job rights in terms of having a hearing before you’re arbitrarily dismissed,” Thomas said.

Although the N.C. Senate’s proposed pay raise could bring up the state’s low national ranking in teacher pay, some question why eliminating tenure is included in the deal.

“Why are those two things tied together?” said Jeffrey Nash, a spokesman for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. “Either you do or don’t have the money to pay the teacher the raise.”

But state Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, co-chairman of the N.C. Senate Education Committee, said in a press release the state Senate is pleased to offer teachers a choice between higher pay and teacher tenure.

“We appreciate the feedback we’ve heard from our teachers on the need for a pay increase and the desire for a choice on tenure,” Tillman said.

The teacher pay raises in state budgets proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. House do not affect career status rights. However, their budgets proposed average pay increases of 2 to 4.3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

Nash said tenure would not save or cost the state money.

“It’s not a financial issue, it’s an ethical issue,” he said.

Lagging salaries

N.C. K-12 teachers’ salaries have been frozen for five of the past six years. Thomas said two of his colleagues left at the end of this school year.

“Even with proposed pay raises, they would still be making more in the places they went to,” Thomas said.

And Nash said it is hard for schools in North Carolina to recruit and retain teachers because of the state’s low pay.

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“It’s very hard to be at a teacher fair next to some school district from Maryland, Virginia or South Carolina and try to recruit when the person next to us is offering $10,000 or $15,000 more,” Nash said.

A national conversation

Earlier this month, a California judge ruled the state’s union-backed teacher tenure and layoff and dismissal laws infringe on students’ rights to equal education opportunities.

Nash said regardless of what a state’s teacher tenure means, teachers should not have to fear for their jobs.

“Connecting to California, I see an erosion of teacher authority in the classroom,” he said. “If we’re afraid for our jobs, it makes it very difficult to manage our students and create an equitable climate in the classroom.”

UNC law professor Jeffrey Hirsch said job security plays an important role for those considering job offers.

“Basically, getting rid of tenure or whatever job security you have is essentially lowering the salary as well and the overall value of the package,” he said.

Thomas said teacher tenure laws have been criticized for keeping bad teachers in the classroom, but he thinks North Carolina has effective systems for administrators to address low quality teaching.

“We invest in teachers and train them, and other states benefit for that,” he said. “Surrounding states are benefiting from our pay disparity as experienced and qualified teachers leave the state for better pay.”

State & National Editor Amy Tsai contributed reporting.

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