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'I can’t afford to be a teacher': The battle for teacher raises continues

Romantic Studies Professor, Lorna Avilés works in her office in Dey Hall during her office hours on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. North Carolina Republicans have offered to raise teacher pay as a compromise in effort to finally pass the state budget.

Sally Merryman didn’t become a Spanish teacher to get rich. 

“Everybody knows no matter what part of the country you live in that teachers are not among the highest-paid professionals,” she said.

Merryman applied to college as a pre-med student, but by the end of her sophomore year, she decided to major in education. She said she’d always had an interest in teaching and enjoyed working with younger students. 

Merryman has been teaching Spanish in North Carolina for 23 years, and she’s taught at Smith Middle School for 19. She’s also the president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators.

On Nov. 8, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill that would have increased the average North Carolina teacher’s salary by 3.9 percent within the next two years. It also would have raised non-instructional staff’s average salaries by 2 percent in the same period. The changes would have given additional raises to licensed teachers with more than 16 years of experience.

The bill also said it would include funding increases for the UNC System to go toward salary increases for employees. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, a Republican, said in a press release the proposed raise went “above and beyond what a bipartisan supermajority passed in the original budget.”

But Merryman said she agreed with Cooper’s decision to veto the bill. 

“Three-point-nine percent over two years is a tank of gas a week – if that – for some people,” she said. “I’ll hold out for something that’s respectable because 3.9 percent isn’t respectable.”

N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, Caswell and former state superintendent June Atkinson don't think that’s enough either.

Republicans proposed to cut the franchise tax by more than $200 million in this year’s budget, Meyer said, which Cooper vetoed. Meyer said that money could have gone to teacher raises.

“Corporations need educated workers,” Meyer said. “And North Carolina’s economy is doing well right now. We don’t need another corporate tax cut.”

Atkinson said she thinks North Carolina needed more competitive salaries to attract people to the teaching profession.

“Our teachers did not take a vow of poverty,” she said. 

Low teacher salary hurts the quality of North Carolina schools, she said, because it can lead to more turnover. Low salaries force some teachers to get second jobs and hurts recruiting, she said.

“During the three or four times I campaigned for state superintendent, there was never a time when someone didn’t say to me, ‘You know I would love to be a teacher, but the salaries are too low. I can’t afford to be a teacher,'" she said.

She said a reasonable salary for beginning teachers should fall between $55,000 to $60,000, something she based on college graduates’ salaries across professions. She said she thinks policymakers shouldn’t determine fair wages by comparing teacher salaries to other states’ salaries or the national average.

“We should look at salaries of people who are in professions requiring the same level of responsibility and the same educational requirements,” she said. “We’ve built a comparison that really does not help us in making the case for higher teacher salaries.”

However, Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said that’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. 

“If you’re comparing recipients of bachelor’s degrees, obviously some fields have higher demands for workers, and that’s going to skew the comparison," he said. 

He also said it matters whether someone is comparing public and private sector jobs because there’s a meaningful difference. 

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He said he doesn’t think there’s a good way to measure how teacher pay compares across states because statewide averages depend on the experience levels of teachers, which can vary. He also said statewide average comparisons don’t usually factor in the cost of living.

“You find that statewide averages tend to be fairly misleading and don’t give us a whole lot of information,” he said. “But because they’re easy to understand, it gets a lot of play in the media.” 

Meyer said if teachers want to see higher salaries, they need to organize, speak out and vote for people willing to support increasing teacher pay.

But Merryman said organizing is difficult, partly because North Carolina is a right-to-work state. Because North Carolina does not permit collective bargaining for public sector employees, teachers can't form unions or bargain. 

Without powerful unions, she said teachers have to organize themselves, which takes time and commitment. 

“Walk-outs don’t happen unless you have 90 or 95 percent participation in each building,” she said. “We’re not at that point at a state level yet. I can imagine that if these shenanigans go on much longer, we may very well get there.”


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