I am married to an educator, a former classroom teacher who earned a master’s degree to become a school librarian. So I’m all for teachers and other educators earning all the state can afford to pay them. Having said that, the debate over teacher pay in North Carolina is lacking both context and perspective, though given our polarized politics, perhaps that’s on purpose.
A first-year teacher in North Carolina makes $30,800 a year, which doesn’t sound like all that much for a newly minted college graduate. But the “work year” for North Carolina teachers isn’t 12 months; it’s 10 months, or 200 days to be precise. At eight hours a day for 200 days, a North Carolina teacher’s hourly wage is $19.25, which sounds pretty good in a country where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. That $19.25 is also better than what other newly minted college graduates are earning. In 2011, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the average hourly wage for young college graduates was $16.81 and falling. In other words, first-year teachers in North Carolina are earning 14.5 percent more an hour than the average young college graduate, and that’s before a pay supplement from the county in which they work.
Beyond pay, North Carolina teachers enjoy generous benefits compared to workers in the private sector – the state pays for their health insurance and contributes 10.51 percent of their salary into a retirement account. In the private sector, most employees contribute to the cost of their health insurance, an average of more than 25 percent of the annual premium. In 2011, the average private sector employee contributed $1,090 to the cost of single coverage health insurance. That’s $1,090 in disposable income that a teacher can keep.
Also in the private sector, employees generally contribute more and employers less to retirement accounts. Moreover, teachers enjoy a guaranteed benefit – a guaranteed amount – in retirement. In much of the private sector, the benefit is not guaranteed because the retirement account is subject to investment losses.
None of this is to say that teachers don’t deserve more money, but a little context shows that the numbers are not as bad as some people make them out to be.
No return on investment
Speaking of teacher pay, going forward, no teacher in North Carolina should pursue a master’s degree unless the job requires it. Simply put, the financial return on that investment is now zero.
According to the website GetEducated.com, the average cost of a master’s degree in education is about $16,000. In North Carolina, the pay bump for a master’s degree is about 10 percent. So a first-year teacher with a master’s degree could pay for that advanced degree in about five years – generally the benchmark for a good return on investment. That means that for the next 25 years of a 30-year teaching career, that extra 10 percent would go straight into a teacher’s pocket. But no more. After next April, any teacher earning a master’s degree will get no extra pay.
Everyone who attends college expects a return on the investment. Not all of us will pay for our degrees in five years, but we all expect a college degree to be worth more in the long run than a high school diploma.
But in North Carolina’s public schools, a master’s degree is now worth nothing
An unintended consequence
On a final education topic, surely Congress did not intend for Obamacare to lead to teacher-less classrooms, but it could happen in Johnston County.
Because teachers sometimes miss a day of school, Johnston County has maintained a cadre of substitutes, many of whom worked 30 or more hours a week. Not anymore.
Under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, employers with 50 or more workers must insure employees who work 30 or more hours a week. The alternative is to pay a penalty for every employee on the payroll. The Johnston County schools can afford neither. So the schools will pay a private company about $17,000 to monitor the hours of substitute teachers. The aim is to make sure none work more than 30 hours a week.
That will save Johnston taxpayers potentially millions of dollars, but it will likely create a shortage of substitute teachers for Johnston County classrooms. It’s possible, says Superintendent Ed Croom, that some classrooms that need a substitute won’t have them. We assume the schools will turn to teacher assistants, though doing so will take assistants away from their regular, important jobs.
Croom predicts school board members will get an earful from parents unhappy that their child’s classroom doesn’t have a qualified substitute teacher. When those parents call, school board members should have the White House’s number handy.