What’s Behind the Teacher Shortage?

January 3, 2022

North Carolina faces a daunting shortage of qualified classroom teachers, and the problem is getting worse – not better.

All across North Carolina, school districts are reporting severe shortages of personnel: support staff, assistants, and especially, classroom teachers. The common denominator? Poor compensation.

In the 2019-2020 school year, North Carolina’s average teacher pay dropped to 33rd in the nation. While the national average teacher salary was $64,133, North Carolina’s was only $54,150. Not only does North Carolina trail the national average, but our average classroom teacher salaries are undistinguished in the Southeast as well:

    1. Georgia: $57,095
    2. Virginia: $54,986
    3. North Carolina: $53,940
    4. Kentucky: $53,434
    5. Tennessee: $51,349
    6. South Carolina: $50,882

(All figures courtesy of the NEA 2021 Rankings and Estimates report, reflecting the 2020-2021 school year.)

Average classroom teacher salaries are only part of the puzzle, however. In North Carolina, teacher salaries are determined through a complicated schedule based on years of experience and local county supplements (though salaries are still overwhelmingly paid by the state). This system allows wealthier counties to pay teachers, and other instructional and support staff, more than poorer counties. Republican lawmakers removed salary increases for teachers who obtained advanced degrees in 2013.

But a better metric to understand how attractive North Carolina’s public school system is to new teachers is to look at starting, not average, salaries. In essence, this is our school system’s “starting offer.” And when one looks at starting teacher salaries, the full scope of North Carolina’s weakness compared to our neighbors really shows.

North Carolina is represented by the dark red line:


When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina’s starting teacher salaries trail all of our direct neighbors. In fact, North Carolina’s teachers make approximately one quarter (25.3%) less than other non-teacher college graduates.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that enrollment in North Carolina’s traditional teacher training programs – the pipeline for the thousands of classroom teachers our system depends on – is down by more than 25% in the last decade. Young people are taking a good look at the education profession in North Carolina and choosing not to pursue it.

In every other professional domain, whether in business, sports, the arts or trades, it is axiomatic that talent goes where it is rewarded. The most talented basketball players, movie stars, landscapers, business executives, plumbers and doctors all go where they are best-compensated for their talents and skills. Teachers, of course, are no different. Yet as it concerns educators – and, it seems, only educators – anti-education lobbyists dispute the link between teacher pay and the recruitment and retention of new talent.

When asked, voters consistently say they disagree with this strategy. Large majorities of North Carolinians agree that teachers and educators are not paid fairly today, and that slashing corporate taxes while underfunding education is the wrong decision. Yet right-wing lawmakers continue on their steady course of strategically divesting from North Carolina’s public school system. One wonders how far this strategy will go.

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