Raleigh, N.C. — No single claim has been used more often by more candidates this election season, or been more often questioned by critics and our readers, than the assertion that the average public school teacher in North Carolina will make $50,000 during the current school year.
"Average teacher pay next year will be over $50,000," Republican Gov. Pat McCrory says in one of his most recent television ads.
The Carolina Partnership for Reform, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit group that backs Republicans such as Wake County Sens. Tamara Barringer, Chad Barefoot and John Alexander, says, "Now, for the first time, our teachers make over $50,000 a year."
Meanwhile, Democrats such as Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is running against McCrory, air spots and send direct mail decrying the state's lack of teacher funding.
THE QUESTION: Will the average North Carolina teacher make $50,000 in the upcoming year?
SUMMARY JUDGMENT: That claim doesn't appear to be a lie or purposeful exaggeration, but it doesn't get a green light on our fact-checking scale for two broad reasons.
The first is purely a math question. For reasons outlined below, it's impossible to say definitively whether average teacher pay will actually top $50,000 for the coming school year, according to both state government sources and outside analysts.
But even if one assumes lawmakers hit their mark, teacher pay is complex, and the situation varies among the state's 115 school districts. Just because the average teacher in North Carolina might make $50,000 doesn't mean your child's teacher will or that the average teacher in your local school system does. Boiling teacher pay down to one number papers over those important differences.
FULL DISCLOSURE: It is more than fair to point out that WRAL News and other outlets cited the $50,000 figure frequently in reporting on the conclusion of the state budget earlier this year. At the time, the rough approximation was used to describe the impact of budget changes on teachers and public schools.
We are taking a more detailed look at this number at the request of readers and viewers who submitted questions about the claim, especially given that WRAL's reporting has been cited in several political ads.
ABOUT THE AVERAGE: The first thing to note about the average McCrory and other Republicans are putting forward is that it is based in part on rankings and methodology by the National Education Association, which bills itself as "the nation's largest professional employee organization" and is viewed as more sympathetic to Democrats than the GOP.
Using the NEA's methodology, North Carolina's Department of Public Instruction says average teacher salary was $47,931 in the 2015-16 school year. Officials with the department say they won't be able to calculate an estimated average for the current school year until at least December, when school districts will report a host of data to the state.
Certainly, lawmakers have reason to think the average teacher salary will cross the $50,000 mark this year, as they outlined in their budget and related announcements that touted big raises. But not all teachers, especially those who have been in the profession the longest, will benefit from this year's round of salary increases.
On its website, Carolina Partnership for Reform pegs average teacher salary at a very specific $50,150 per year.
That number appears to come from the state budget, which says the "expected average salary for educators from all fund sources" will reach over $50,150 in 2016-17. That number is a projection and not a guarantee.
Also, there is slight variation between the budget passed by lawmakers and how the administration talks about it. The Office of State Budget and Management says average teacher salaries will be "in excess of $50,000," rather than $50,150, in its fact sheet on the budget.
"We are very confident that teacher pay will get to $50k, taking into account both the teacher universe and teacher turnover," Andrew Heath, McCrory's budget director, said in an email.
Outside experts suggest the claim is at least close to accurate.
"We got pretty darned close to $50,000 when we did the math," said Brenda Berg, executive director of BEST NC, an education advocacy group backed by large businesses in the state.
Although her group's estimates fell just shy of $50,000, BEST NC's analyst also cautioned that it wasn't prudent to make a firm projection until school districts report more information about their workforce, including teacher turnover.
TURNOVER: Teacher turnover is an important factor because more experienced teachers make more money. If more senior teachers leave the profession, it will drag down the average salary.
As WRAL News reported earlier this year, teacher turnover was close to 15 percent statewide last year.
Kris Nordstrom of the liberal North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project and a fact check for WFDD-FM have posited that hitting the pay benchmarks outlined by lawmakers would require zero, or at least very little, teacher turnover.
Heath, in an email, said that his office took turnover into account. However, fiscal analysts with the state legislature use a methodology that assumes no turnover, something they've done for the past decade or more.
The uncertainty brought about by turnover is one big reason the Department of Public Instruction is unable to verify the $50,000 average.
SUPPLEMENTS: Whether the average teacher salary turns out to be just over or under $50,000, it wouldn't be close to that number without help from local taxpayers.
In order to compile national figures that can be compared state-to-state, the NEA methodology figure lumps salary paid by the state together with local salary contributions.
"You have to do that," Berg said. "Most other states mainly fund salaries at the local level."
The reason this is an important is obvious to anyone looking at the statewide salary schedule for teachers. For the coming school year, teachers with a bachelor's degree and no other certification will earn $35,000 per year. Without additional national board certifications or other salary boosters, teachers on the state salary schedule won't earn more than $50,000 until their 25th year in the profession.
That's where local supplements come in.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, for example, supplements base pay by 16 percent in a teacher's first 19 years and pays a 25 percent supplement to those who have been in the profession 25 years or more. In Wake County, a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree earned $41,037.50 last year and, even before the last round of pay raises kicked in, would crest the $50,000 mark in his or her 15th year of teaching.
That means there's a big difference in what teachers in relatively large and wealthy school districts earn and what those in school districts that can afford little to no supplement earn in terms of salary. Unlike in Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegon," not everyone can be above average.
It also means that a significant part of the $50,000 benchmark cited by McCrory and state lawmakers is chipped in by local governments, and because bigger school systems with more teachers tend to pay bigger supplements, they tend to pull the statewide average up.
The fact that, without local supplements, average teacher pay would be well below $50,000 is not well documented in ads for either the governor or lawmakers.
RECENT HISTORY: This fact check is focused on whether the assertion that an average teacher in North Carolina earns $50,000 holds water. But the question of whether teacher pay hits that particular number or is off by a few hundred dollars is a punctilious point in a larger conversation about whether teacher compensation is adequate in North Carolina and whether school spending has kept up with needs over the year. Certainly, those touting the number are using it as a way to say they've done a good job on the education front.
WRAL News' Kelly Hinchcliffe has written extensively about where North Carolina's teacher pay ranks as compared to other states and how teachers have gained and lost earning power over the past two decades. Other fact checks have also tackled the same topics.
Those reports note that, after being ranked between 18th and 26th on teacher pay from the late 1990s until about 2008, North Carolina's teacher pay dropped into the bottom 10 out of 50 states at the same time a major national recession hit in 2008. Those pointing to the $50,000 salary number as a reason to cheer say the state will move up to the middle of the teacher pay rankings as a result. However, that would assume no other states make a move to increase their own teacher salary scales.
For reference, it may be helpful to know that North Carolina's median household income was $46,693 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, slightly under the average teacher salary projection. Given that, along with cost-of-living estimates, some analysts argue North Carolina's relatively low teacher salary rankings don't tell the whole story.
THE CALL: Certainly, the budget passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor aims to raise teacher pay in North Carolina to over $50,000 for the first time, but we won't actually know whether the state hit that point until December. There are reasons, such as the expected retirement of veteran teachers, to at least wonder if the state will really hit the benchmark.
More importantly, the claim implies that the state did all of the hard work of raising teacher salaries. But that $50,000 figure relies on local governments like Wake County that provide hefty supplements to teacher salaries, something that boosters of the $50,000 claims don't mention in their ads. This is a case of a simple idea standing in for a complex reality.
The claim gets a yellow light on our fact-checking scale because it is, as yet, unverified and ignores important context.