AT THE SCHOOLHOUSE DOOR: The Unconscionability of Low Teacher Pay

March 8, 2013

This week, a presentation at the State Board of Education meeting revealed an absolutely staggering fact.

Alexis Schauss, the Director of School Business for the Department of Public Instruction showed a PowerPoint slide show in which one of the slides read that it takes “15 years for a teacher with a Bachelors Degree to make $40,000.”  This information goes hand in hand with the report from the National Education Association shows that North Carolina is 46th in the nation in teacher pay.  

Time after time, legislators say that the most important person in a class is the person standing in front of the room.  Yet when it comes time to prove it, the General Assembly does not put the money where the rhetoric is. Teachers did receive a 1.2% raise last year but that was only after four years of receiving no raises and mounting criticism.  Teachers themselves have become caught up in the free market language that has been so much of the privatization movement.

Public school teachers have heard that they are CEOs of the classroom. In order for this business analogy to work, the teachers would be able to choose their employees and students. They have to take any student who walks through the door – and each year, most teachers proudly accept the challenge of teaching new students. Yet new students may also require an adjustment to their teaching style. Unfortunately, it rarely means an adjustment of their salaries.

What we hear most about teacher salaries is that teachers should be paid for their performance.  If the students do well, then the teacher will be paid accordingly.  This strategy just adds to the reliance on high stakes testing, and making education more about scores and less about learning. Suddenly a teacher's salary increase is riding on whether a student gets enough correct answers. No one should have to carry such a burden.

Perhaps the saddest collision between low teacher pay and deepening cuts happens when teachers buy classroom supplies. We have become so used to teachers purchasing supplies for their classrooms that office supply stores provide discounts and reward programs. The legislature should be responsible for paying teachers what they are worth and ensuring that each classroom has everything it needs for the teacher to be effective.  

It would be interesting to know what financial decisions teachers are forced to make because they simply don't have the money. Did they decide against buying a new car?  Are they staying in a studio apartment because it is affordable or are they at risk of being homeless if they lose a roommate?  If they have to take on another job to make ends meet, are they thinking about all the work they have to do for class while waiting tables or working in retail?  Worse, do they think about the money they have in their bank account and wonder if they have enough to cover the supplies they need to buy, even with a discount?

Teachers paying for supplies should be so shocking to the conscience that the state should be embarrassed. Being 46th in the nation in teacher pay should be so unconscionable that the General Assembly should be thinking about how to increase wages so that $40,000 is the least it would give for a starting salary.  A teacher should not have to wait four years for a 1.2% raise, and he or she certainly should not wait 15 years to reach a salary $40,000.  The state expects teachers to create good world citizens and a workforce to help rebuild North Carolina’s economy.  The least it can do is pay teachers so that they can participate in the economy, too.

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