CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When I saw a news segment about a North Carolina school district looking to poach public school teachers from Oklahoma, I laughed out loud. Not because it’s particularly funny — it isn’t — or because it’s rare to see states advertise for teachers from other states — it’s not.
I laughed because Oklahoma and North Carolina both seem to be locked in a pitiful race to the bottom when it comes to teacher pay, overall education funding and how each state values public education in general.
Oklahoma teachers look for a better deal
The depressing answer as to why North Carolina would try to recruit teachers from Oklahoma is simple: Oklahoma has become fertile ground for teacher recruitment. Teacher pay is low, and deep cuts have forced some school districts to move to a four-day school week. Just last week, the Washington Post profiled an Oklahoma teacher’s decision to accept a new teaching job in Texas.
The teacher, Shawn Sheehan, was awarded Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year award in 2016. Sheehan said he and his wife wanted to stay in Oklahoma but neither could pass up the opportunity to make more money in the Texas. Sheehan, in a letter published in the same Post article, said that he and his family could no longer justify it financially.
“We could stay,” he said, “but it would cost our family — specifically our sweet baby girl. My wife and I are not willing to do that. We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children.”
Sheehan’s story probably sounded familiar to many Oklahomans. He is one of many teachers who have cited their ability to make a living wage as the main motivation for moving across state lines to teach.
Same story, different state
The story sounded familiar to me because I’ve heard it somewhere else — in North Carolina. When I ran a state House campaign in 2014, improving education funding and teacher pay were two of our major platforms. At the time, North Carolina was reeling from the deep education cuts passed by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2013. The state’s ranking for teacher pay fell to 47th in the nation, and per-pupil funding had not yet rebounded to pre-Recession levels.
While working at a campaign event, I met a voter who was furious with his incumbent House member because he had voted in favor of the cuts. He told our campaign that his son, a public school teacher, had recently accepted a position in South Carolina. Our state’s teachers quickly determined that they could make significantly more money simply by moving farther south. This campaign ad wrote itself.
Teacher pay in North Carolina began falling during the period from 2009 to 2010 under Democratic leadership. Pay continued to fall over the next four budgets written and enacted by Republicans. When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina’s average teacher salary dropped more than 13 percent from 1999 to 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The U.S. average teacher salary dropped 1.8 percent in that same timeframe.
Recent pay increases have helped North Carolina regain some ground. As of February, the state’s teacher pay average ranked 44th. Further, state lawmakers are currently debating on teacher pay increases for the next budget; the Senate and House passed two separate versions of the budget that must now be reconciled. This is the first budget passed by the Republican-led General Assembly that will go before Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
Checking the fine print
Oklahoma City station KOCO reported that teachers moving to North Carolina could start at about $43,000 per year in salary (compared to the $31,600 base salary Oklahoma offers), but that’s not entirely accurate: In the interview, an employee of Guilford County Schools told KOCO that her district could pay that $43,000 figure to teachers who had no experience. While that may be true for Guildford County Schools, the same is not true for every district in the Tar Heel State.
The teacher pay formula in North Carolina relies on a combination of state dollars and funds supplemented by individual school districts. The state’s base teacher base salary begins at $35,000 for new teachers, and districts provide supplemental funding that varies widely by county. Unsurprisingly, urban districts provide more supplemental funding than rural districts because the former can draw from richer property tax bases.
The same can be said for Oklahoma districts.
Oklahoma, North Carolina continue to struggle
Oklahoma and North Carolina both struggle to fund education adequately, but lawmakers in both states seem content with providing little more than lip service when it comes to properly funding public education. While neither has returned to pre-recession levels of education funding, Oklahoma and North Carolina continue to put education on the chopping block; they are two of just eight states that have cut per-pupil funding by more than 10 percent since 2008. Of these eight states, five of them (including Oklahoma and North Carolina), continue to favor large income tax rate cuts over funding teacher pay raises and education. (The other three are Arizona, Kansas, and Wisconsin.)
While Oklahoma this year had to deal with an almost $900 million revenue shortfall, the state of North Carolina reported a revenue surplus. In fact, the state has had budget surpluses in 10 of the past 13 fiscal years. Even with the surpluses, districts now must choose between teacher and teacher assistant positions because, after several years of increasing class sizes, lawmakers recently passed a bill that mandated districts to reduce class sizes for grades K-3. Another bill bandied about would have eliminated funding for art, music and PE teachers. Lawmakers made a heroic decision to keep it in the budget — for a single year.
Oklahoma educators should think twice before choosing North Carolina
I appreciate the fact that North Carolina school districts are trying to recruit Oklahoma teachers. I know that we would be lucky to have them. There are many reasons to choose North Carolina — it’s one of the most beautiful states in the country, and we rarely have tornado warnings. (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if that’s a pro or a con; people living here don’t know who Gary England is, and I think that’s tragic.)
But as much as it pains me to write this, selling educators on the idea that teaching in North Carolina would be better than teaching in Oklahoma is simply disingenuous. We can’t gloss over the fact that our lawmakers continue to choose tax cuts over investing in quality education for the next generation. There are many people and groups fighting to get people who care about education to run for office. (Oh, and I should mention that we have to fix a few things to even do that. That’s another commentary for another day.)
For now, it’s a race to the bottom, and I’m not sure I can tell which state is going to get there first.