Fact Check: Teacher pay claims raise questions

Posted August 29, 2014
Updated January 11, 2015

This is a still image from Thom Tillis' "Math" campaign ad.

— Teacher pay may be a state budget issue, but it is already featuring prominently in North Carolina's U.S. Senate race, and one of the biggest claims sent us scrambling for our calculators. 

"A 7 percent pay raise. That's what we passed this year for North Carolina teachers. That's simple math," House Speaker Thom Tillis said in his most recent campaign ad. 

While it may be simple math, the language is actually a bit tricky. In fact, without an on-screen disclaimer, Tillis would have been in contention for a red light on our fact-check scale

Tillis, a Republican, is trying to unseat first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. 

"This year Gov. (Pat) McCrory and Speaker Thom Tillis fought for and won one of the largest teacher pay raises in state history," says the narrator in an ad by Carolina Rising that aired in August. The math on that claim is a little murkier, but some slick phrasing saves it from a red light. 

Not so with some bolder claims that date to when Tillis and Republican legislators first unveiled the budget. 

They touted what was called "the largest teacher pay raise in state history," a claim that has since been repeated by other campaigns despite being numerically dubious. 

Because this claim comes in three different flavors, this fact check will offer three different ratings. 

THE RAISE: Months before the 2014 legislative session began, lawmakers and McCrory pledged they would work toward a significant teacher pay raise in 2014 after going five years without a meaningful pay increase for public school employees. 

Teacher pay became one of a handful of sticking points that held up a budget deal and prolonged a testy legislative session.

When lawmakers finally settled on a deal, it included a plan that both provided for raises and restructured the state's salary schedule. Two facets of that restructuring contributed to confusion over what the plan would mean for individual teachers and made boiling them down to a snappy tagline fit for a campaign commercial somewhat dicey. 

Through the 2013-14 school year, teachers with at least 10 years of experience would get an annual longevity payment at on their hiring anniversary that would boost their overall compensation. The new teacher salary schedule folded that longevity pay into the overall salary.

There's something of a debate about what the impact of including the longevity money, which the state had already promised senior teachers, would be. According to both the North Carolina Association of Educators and McCrory, that 7 percent average pay raise touted by Tillis and his fellow Republican leaders becomes a 5.5 percent average raise. Some teachers got a letter stressing this 5.5 percent number the week before Labor Day. 

** However, Brenda Berg, CEO of the non-partisan BEST NC, points to numbers that show it's only the cost of the pay raises that is only a 5.5 percent increase. The average teacher does get a 7 percent increase, and the average raise could be seen as closer to 9 percent if longevity wasn't backed out.

More importantly, not every teacher gets the same raise. In their proposals earlier this year, Republican leaders placed a great deal of emphasis on early-career teachers, saying that low starting salaries had become a recruitment problem. 

While the new teacher pay schedule means big bumps for some teachers earlier in their career – teachers entering their fifth and sixth years get 18.51 percent raises under the new plan – late-career teachers don't do as well. Once what had been longevity pay is factored in, a teacher entering his or her 30th year of teaching will see only a 0.29 percent pay raise, far short of 7 percent. 

How longevity pay affects overall raises has been a point of contention between top Republicans and the NCAE.

But it's clear when Tillis says in his commercial that lawmakers passed "a 7 percent pay raise," that's not true for all teachers. On-screen text adds an important disclaimer to the ad, clarifying that it is "an average pay increase." While the average teacher will see a 7 percent pay increase, most teachers will be above or below that mark.

The chart outlining these changes deal with teachers who have bachelors degrees, although those with certain masters degrees and national board certifications benefit as well. The NCAE breaks out how the new budget deals with those individuals. And this does not count funding by local school districts, some of which supplement the base pay provided by the state. 

RAISE HISTORY: As they rolled out this plan, Republicans declared it to be the "largest teacher pay raise in state history," a claim that a salary history compiled by the General Assembly's non-partisan fiscal staff calls into question. 

On at least three occasions – 1974, 1981 and 2006 – lawmakers granted teachers an average salary increase of 7.5 percent or more. The claim is on shakier ground when longevity pay is pulled out of the raise total. While a 5.5 percent raise would still be good compared with years such as 2010, 2011 and 2012, when there were no teacher raises, it's decidedly middle-of-the-pack compared with the raises given throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. 

RAW DOLLARS: Since the raise is not the "largest in state history" in percentage terms, and even the "one of the largest" claim looks rickety, we asked those making the assertion how they backed it up. 

"The largest previous appropriation we have record of for teacher pay raises prior to this budget was in 2006-07," wrote Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger. "The amount that year was around $242 million, and our salary increase of $282 million exceeds that amount."

Putting aside the oddity of framing a raise in terms of the money needed to fund it rather than what it means to the people on the receiving end, this argument uses nominal dollars – figures that don't adjust for inflation – and is the same approach used by Carolina Rising to justify its ad. It is problematic for two big reasons. 

First, the number of teachers and the state's education budget tends to grow over time. The numbers bounce around because the number of students changes and tough budget times have forced school districts to keep a tight rein on personnel costs. But as an example, according to state Department of Public Instruction figures, the number of full-time teachers in North Carolina has grown from a 10-year-low in the 2004-05 school year to a high of 99,098 full-time teachers in 2008-09. In the 2013-14 school year, the latest for which data is available, DPI reported there were 95,116 teachers. 

That means any raise will likely be spread over more people, whose salary costs also have been growing – albeit much more slowly than in normal economic times. As an aside, school districts have warned that the number of teachers has not kept pace with the number of students.

The use of nominal dollars presents an even bigger problem.

When comparing costs over time, particularly when you talk about salary data, economists say that using nominal dollars is mathematically unsound. That's because a dollar today is not worth what a dollar was worth even a few years ago.

To compare the 2006 pay raise to the current year pay raise without adjusting for inflation is "totally cheating," said George Washington University economist Tara Sinclair.

"It just doesn't mean much for the teachers who are getting those raises," Sinclair said. "What teachers care about is what they'll actually be able to buy." 

Using nominal dollars over even short periods of time can make a difference, confirmed North Carolina State University economist Michael Walden.

"My inflation calculator shows it takes $1.10 in 2014 to purchase what $1 did in 2009," Walden said. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, in order to have the same impact as the 2006 $242 million raise, lawmakers would have needed to spend $285 million in today's dollars. In fact, there are several raises over the past 20 years that, adjusted for inflation, are bigger that the $282 million offered by lawmakers this year.  

Although it would be fodder for another article, Sinclair pointed out that because North Carolina teachers had only one small raise in the past four years, this year's raise mainly helped make up for economic ground teachers lost due to inflation over that period.

Fact Check Yellow THE CALL – A 7 PERCENT RAISE: A claim like Tillis' that teachers got a 7 percent raise is correct, but only if you say that it is an average raise. Some teachers got more; many received less. This may sound like a technical point until you consider the person on the receiving end of a less-than-1 percent raise. Dropping the "average" is misleading, and Tillis' ad is saved from a red light only because it has an on-screen disclaimer. As it is, the claim could be confusing to viewers as presented, and we give it a yellow light on our fact-checking scale

Fact Check Yellow We're giving North Carolina Rising a separate yellow light for its ad. Since the group doesn't really define what it means by "one of the largest" teacher pay raises in state history, we won't put out the red light. Clearly, teachers on average are getting raises. But both the state's history of teacher pay raises and the fuzzy math that ignores inflation tells us to take this claim with a grain of salt. 

Fact Check RedTHE CALL – LARGEST TEACHER RAISE: The news releases that said this budget had "the largest teacher pay raise in state history," and any political advertising that parrots this line, is stretching the numbers to the breaking point. Using raw dollars is an unusual and, according to economists, mathematically unsound way to measure the potency of a particular raise. This claim completely falls apart based on inflation-adjusted numbers. It gets a red light.

** This post was edited from the original to include Brenda Berg's input. 


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  • brrrrabbitt Sep 4, 2014

    Teaches in NC should be paid the national Average. A lot of fuss about a 5% raise that does nothing but catch up a pathetic nothing the last 5 years. $100 million was floating around to offer to Toyota. Probably several times that around in different funds. It might help to put salaries at the front of the budget instead of last and use whatever is left over.

  • 1truth Sep 1, 2014

    Check the parking lot when school is out? I believe your findings would be similar to looking at any business parking lot at days end. The difference would be that teachers are grading papers, researching new resources for students, answering emails, and planning for the next day, week, month, quarter, semester, and year at home. Understand that teachers are charged with teaching the entire curriculum but not all students learn the material at the same rate. Adjustments are constant. Please allow me to shed some light on longevity and a "7% raise". One teacher provided the following analogy: Teachers with at least 10 years of service received breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. This year, the teacher with at least 10 years of service will receive breakfast + (1/3) dessert, lunch + (1/3) dessert and dinner + (1/3) dessert. The legislature calls this new distribution of the same dessert a raise. It is simple math, but not as some would lead you to believe.

  • teacher2X4 Sep 1, 2014

    View quoted thread

    If your daughters really was a teacher in NC you would know better. The school you drive past May be empty at 4pm, but not mine. I work 6:30 to 4:30 with no bathroom breaks and most of the time my lunch consists of 5 to 10 minutes between emailing parents. Yes I get a week off for Spring Break and Christmas, but my smear isn't free. This summer for example was spent working, for free! I spent 16 days at school on my own time working on new curriculum standards and 5 days at an unpaid workshop to better meet the needs of my students. And I haven't mentioned the work I take home. It's people like you that have it out for teachers, people that have zero idea what really goes on in a classroom. I'm guessing your biggest gripe is that you feel you pay our salary because you pay taxes right? If I were you I'd be more worried about how the politicians are spending your $. There's so much more I'd like to say but I've got to go to work. Yes on a holiday!

  • lazydawg58 Aug 30, 2014

    There are two things that seem to get overlooked or brushed off when these raises are discussed. The first is that longevity is gone after 2014-15. It is paid out this year over 10 pay periods rather than one after the completion of the year. Starting in 2015-16 there will no longer be any longevity pay, just a flat teacher salary. Don't let anyone try and twist that around and say teachers still get it. They don't. If they did, in 2015-16 pay would increase on the salary schedule to factor in 1.5 to 4.5 percent for longevity from the year before. The second overlooked aspect of this plan is the salary freeze that lasts for five years for most teachers. Sure some teachers early in their careers get a nice bump this year, but going forward they will see no pay increases for up to five years. For veteran teachers with 25 or more years in the classroom they will see their salary frozen for the rest of their career! That isn't encouraging for the retention of teachers.

  • Gary Hines Aug 30, 2014
    user avatar

    So they lied! Imagine that. Is anyone surprised! Why doesn't WRAL tell us how the infusion of money from the "Education Lottery" is being spent??? Is it not even enough to be relevant? The State government should itemize where every dollar goes so shouldn't be difficult to find out and print. I bet teachers would like to know.

  • kirtl Aug 30, 2014

    Politicians making claims that are only partially true to make it reflect good on them but bad for their opponent? Nothing new. The real tragedy? We have to vote for one of these pathetic candidates. I hate the thought that we have to settle for the minimum.

  • Emcone Aug 30, 2014

    Don't like the working conditions then quit. Stop crying all the time. Teaching is a part time job and you get decent pay and benefits for a part time employee. My youngest daughter is an NC teacher so don't reply with the excuses, I know better. Spring break, Winter break, Summer break, Holidays off. Drive past any school at 3:30-4:00pm and the parking lot is empty.

  • REPUBLICAN HANS Aug 29, 2014

    View quoted thread

    Please provide a source for this. I'm not disputing it, I just wanna see and read it for myself.

  • Steven Natalie Perkins Aug 29, 2014
    user avatar

    "While the average teacher will see a 7 percent pay increase, most teachers will be above or below that mark."

    Uhm... Is that really a sentence in this article? ....just wow.

  • Dat MoFo Aug 29, 2014

    Actually you can retire, stay out for six months then return to work. You can still draw your retirement and get paid for working for the state. There is, however, a cap on how much you can earn.