K-12: Symptoms of lousy pay

Published September 29, 2022

By Higher Ed Works

Imagine you’re a ninth-grade math teacher with 36 students in your class.

Beyond the histrionics and hormones that rage at that age, just how much attention can you give each of those kids?

Yet with thousands of empty teacher jobs across the state, such class sizes happen even in 2022 in North Carolina’s public schools. Schools opened last month with more than 4,400 vacant teaching positions – 11,000 vacancies when staff were included.1 

It’s a symptom: A symptom of diminished respect for the one profession that creates all others, as the adage goes. A symptom of a higher-education pipeline that siphons off would-be teachers to more lucrative fields. And yes, a symptom of lousy pay.

Adjusted for inflation, average K-12 teacher salaries in North Carolina have actually declined since 2011-12. Our national rank has reached as high as 30th and as low as 47th – we ranked 34th in 2020-21.2  

That’s nothing to brag about. In fact, we ranked behind Alabama.3 

And speaking of inflation, teachers received an average raise of 4.2% this year – less than half the rate of inflation at the time.4

Politicians love to say North Carolina is spending more than it ever has on education – that’s true.

But please don’t fall for it. We’re also the nation’s ninth-largest state.5 And we’re still growing – especially after a wave of job announcements over the past year.6 

North Carolina has at least 46,556 more children ages 5-17 now than it did in 2010.7  That’s 46,556 more brains taking shape. At 55 seats per bus, those children would fill 846 school buses – picture 846 yellow buses circling the Legislative Building in Raleigh.

That’s why we’re spending more overall. But when you break it down to the amount spent per student, North Carolina ranked 42nd in 2020.8 

Again, nothing to brag about.

As a percentage of our gross domestic product – a measure of what percentage of our revenue we devote to public education – the 2.5% we spent in 2018 ranked 49th among the states.

Is that something to brag about?

In 2009, the state spent more than 3% of its GDP on public schools.9 That one-half of 1% difference in a state GDP that now amounts to more than $500 billion is another $2.5 billion a year we might devote to our children.

THIS GOES BEYOND politicians – beyond Republicans and Democrats – to our basic values as a state. By these measures, we don’t value public education as much as other states do.

North Carolina was once hailed as a beacon of education and enlightenment in the South. These days, we need to put our money where our mouth is. We need to be, rather than to seem: Esse Quam Videri.10

With the jobs flowing to this state, those ninth-graders will need those math skills. 

We need to pay the people who teach our kids.

Some 7,737 K-12 teachers – 8% of all teachers – left teaching in North Carolina in 2020-21.11 

Enrollment in our public universities’ colleges of education has fallen 43% since 201012 – not to mention a dearth of teachers of color.13 Lateral-entry teachers – those without an education degree – have surpassed the UNC System as the leading source of teachers in our public schools.14 

And teachers who are not fully licensed are concentrated in some of the state’s poorest school districts in northeastern North Carolina.15 

When we include the number of lateral-entry teachers seeking to be licensed, there has been an increase in the number of teachers in the pipeline. But lateral-entry teachers – those seeking “licensure only” in the chart below – are also the teachers most likely to leave the profession.16 


After 28 years of litigation – 28 years of deference to the General Assembly as a generation of children passed through our schools – lawyers argued before the NC Supreme Court last month over whether the courts can order spending to satisfy the state’s constitutional obligation to provide its children with access to a sound basic education.

Melanie Dubis, an attorney for the counties that first sued the state over inadequate funds in 1994, told the justices the state’s legislative and executive branches haven’t met their responsibilities.

“These branches failed the children,” Dubis said. “Now the future of the children of North Carolina is in this Court’s hands.”

At issue is Superior Court Judge David Lee’s ruling last November for state officials to transfer $785 million to meet the state’s obligation.

The State Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction – defendants in the case – agreed to the plan. But legislative leaders intervened, contending that only the General Assembly can allocate funds.

“When the state of North Carolina violates the fundamental, affirmative constitutional right to the privilege of education for 20 years, can this Court do anything about it?” Dubis asked. “The answer is, and must be, yes.”

Money is available. The General Assembly entered its short session this year with a budget surplus of $6.5 billion and tucked away many of those dollars in reserves.17 

Meanwhile, a state commission is developing a new teacher licensing and pay plan. But the NC Association of Educators and many teachers don’t like the plan’s emphasis on performance data.18  

A new pay plan could take five or more years to put in place. But we can’t wait for that. We must act to increase teacher pay and recruit more teachers now.

Those 36 ninth-graders deserve it.

1 https://www.wunc.org/education/2022-08-22/nc-has-over-11-000-vacancies-in-public-schools-a-statewide-survey-finds
2 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 28.
3 https://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/2022/07/07/alabama-is-schooling-north-carolina-on-teacher-pay/#sthash.fiq2rbOC.JdAVHt6H.dpbs/; https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2022/08/20/boyle-column-nc-trails-alabama-sc-tennessee-teacher-pay/7841283001/
4 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/07/a-pay-cut/
5 https://worldpopulationreview.com/states.
6 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article259891705.html
7 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 8.
8 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 43.
9 https://ncses.nsf.gov/indicators/states/compare-indicators/public-school-expenditures-to-state-gdp.
10 https://www.ncpedia.org/esse-quam-videri
11 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 26.
12 https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article264526776.html
13 https://www.higheredworks.org/2020/12/help-wanted-teachers-of-color/
14 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 20.
15 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 24.
16 https://www.bestnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Facts-Figures-July-2022.pdf, p. 25.
17 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/09/leandro-time-to-pony-up/
18 https://www.higheredworks.org/2022/08/don-martin-a-middle-ground-on-teacher-pay-plan/.