On Teacher Pay, Make Sure You’re Getting a Good Deal

North Carolina is on the cusp of approving a new state budget that, among other things, raises teacher salaries by an average of 7 percent and reduces class sizes in kindergarten and the first grade, according to a report from Alan Blinder in the New York Times. The new budget proposal also trims spending in a number of other areas. What appears to have happened is that conservative lawmakers in North Carolina have realized that the best way to limit the blowback associated with spending cuts is to placate teachers, a large and influential political constituency.

One of the reasons teacher compensation has proven so central to the political debate in North Carolina is that North Carolina is one of only 15 states with a teacher salary schedule set at the state level. There are almost 100,000 public school teachers working in North Carolina and 82,000 other public school employees, including administrators and non-teaching staff. In 2010, there were 2.7 million ballots counted in North Carolina’s general election. Assuming that every single public school employee, including teachers, voted in 2010 (unlikely), they would represent 6.74 percent of the North Carolina electorate. One assumes that this individuals have some sway over their spouses, and that retired public school personnel also have an interest in the politics of public education. This creates a major challenge for those who might want to reform teacher compensation. Republicans in the North Carolina Senate had originally proposed a pay-for-tenure swap, in which teachers who chose to stay on the current salary schedule with tenure could choose to do so while those who opted out of tenure would see an average raise of 11 percent. But this (excellent) proposal was later abandoned. The teacher salary schedule has been adjusted somewhat. But it is still very far from the evidence-based salary schedule proposed by Duke University economist Jacob Vigdor, in which starting salaries are robustly increased, salaries increase rapidly while teachers gain experience in their first 5-10 years, and then salaries plateau. Recognizing that his new evidence-based salary schedule would create losers among older, more experienced teachers, Vigdor proposed a transition program in 2008:

Phasing in the system, applying the evidence-based schedule to new teachers while retaining the traditional schedule for those who wish to remain on it, would shift the burden from highly experienced teachers. Of course, this burden would not disappear. It would shift to taxpayers, who would have to finance higher levels of teacher salaries until the completion of the phase-in period, perhaps 20 years or longer. The costs of paying new teachers on the evidence-based schedule while keeping existing teachers on the traditional schedule would peak after 10 years, at which point savings associated with the flattened rewards for experience would begin to outweigh the costs of higher salaries to younger teachers. In North Carolina, the long-run transition costs would amount to about $1.6 billion, half of which would be incurred in the first dozen years after the transition. That’s equivalent to a one-time charge of $180 per state resident, or roughly $12 per resident per year if financed over a 30-year period. Relative to the more than $1,000 per capita the state government spends on education each year, this is a modest sum.

And it seems well in line with the spending levels contemplated by North Carolina lawmakers. There is nothing wrong with trying to placate teachers — provided you succeed in actually buying meaningful reform. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...

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