Education

Breaking tradition, NCAE won't invite superintendent to convention due to teacher pay comments, other reasons

Posted January 27, 2018 11:06 a.m. EST
Updated January 29, 2018 4:43 p.m. EST

— ​One day after North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson sparked controversy by saying $35,000 is a good starting salary for some young teachers, the state's largest public school employee organization announced that it will not invite him to its annual convention this March.

Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, shared the news on Facebook late Friday, noting that this marks the first time in 48 years that the group has not invited a sitting state superintendent to speak at its Annual NCAE Representative Assembly.

In an email to WRAL News early Saturday, Jewell explained there are "many reasons" his group is not inviting Johnson this year, despite allowing him to attend last year.

"He was invited last year, just three months after he took office. He accepted and was politely welcomed by our members," Jewell said. "With his first year in office completed and his silence regarding cuts in public education of our 1.5 million students, his desire to privatize and deregulate our schools with vouchers and for profit charters, and his silence in cuts to the Department of Public Instruction, we have decided not to invite him [this year]."

In a statement to WRAL News on Saturday, Johnson said: "My first priorities as state superintendent continue to be the students, educators and parents in North Carolina. Unfortunately, there are some who still want to play politics with the facts. I’m disappointed but not surprised this group wants to shut out diversity of ideas on how we improve our schools."

Johnson is an outspoken advocate for school choice, but has been criticized for being silent at times about major issues facing traditional public schools, including budget cuts to the state education department.

Johnson has said he prefers to work behind the scenes, speaking with lawmakers privately rather than sharing his thoughts on policy in public settings. But on Thursday, he shared his thoughts on teacher pay while speaking at a conference hosted by the North Carolina School Boards Association in Raleigh.

Debbie Marsh, a Mooresville Graded School District board member, said the superintendent told the audience "that $35,000 was a good salary for someone in their 20s." Johnson makes $127,561 a year as state superintendent.

"I was sitting up front and immediate[ly] started shaking my head," Marsh said. "He turned to me and reasserted that it was a good salary. I responded that it is not. He then changed the subject."

A spokesman for Johnson said Friday that the superintendent was not being quoted accurately and defended his statements.

"Johnson said that a $35,000 starting salary (NC’s starting teacher salary) is good money for a single 22-year old individual just out of college in many of our counties. Also keep in mind that $35,000 figure does not include local supplements or the value of the state employee benefits package," spokesman Graham Wilson said in an emailed statement.

"His context was that in many North Carolina counties, that is above the median household income," Wilson added. "In fact, there are 17 counties in North Carolina with a median household income at or below $35,000, and there are 33 counties where the median household income is below $40,000, meaning in those counties an individual teacher would be making more than many families. In addition, Supt. Johnson told the group he is working with the General Assembly to increase the starting salary for teachers and make improvements to the teaching profession that will help attract and retain more great teachers."

Some took to Twitter to criticize the superintendent, including Rani Dasi, chairwoman of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education.

Teacher pay is often a hot topic in North Carolina, where the average teacher makes $49,837 a year. Gov. Roy Cooper has called for 5 percent raises for teachers in each of the next two years as part of a five-year plan to raise salaries to the national average.

Johnson discussed his own goals for teacher pay in an interview with WRAL-TV on Tuesday:

"(Teacher pay) will be increasing. The General Assembly has set the goal to hit $55,000 average teacher pay, and I support them and I know we’ll hit that goal. They’ve also been very focused on starting teacher pay, raising that. They’re bringing that up now to $35,000, which that’s just the state level. The supplements can range. So where cost of living is more, as here in Wake County, that can be higher. But that $35,000 mark for a starting salary if you’re in your early 20s, that is really good, especially in some of our rural districts. So that’s a good start, but obviously, we need to do more. Teaching is the most important job. It’s one of the most difficult. Without teachers, no one else has a profession. So we need to make sure that we’re not only rewarding teachers, but we’re also recruiting and retaining because as our economy’s doing so well in North Carolina, we also have to be very mindful that there are positions that qualified applicants for being a teacher could actually go to different types of career paths. So that’s another reason why, just economically, it makes sense to encourage raising teacher salaries and also principal salaries. Principals are the leaders of the school. If anyone has a tougher job than a teacher, it’s a principal."

North Carolina ranks 35th in the nation for average teacher pay, an improvement from 2016, when the state ranked 41st, according to estimates by the National Education Association. Among the 12 states in the Southeast, North Carolina ranks fifth, an improvement from ninth in 2016. The State Board of Education has set a goal to become No. 1 in the Southeast.

During the 2001-02 school year, North Carolina ranked 19th in the nation, with pay within $2,000 of the then-national average of $44,655. In 2013-14, North Carolina hit its lowest rank in more than a decade – 47th in the nation, with teachers paid nearly $12,000 below the national average of $56,610.

While average teacher pay rankings are one way to compare North Carolina to the rest of the country, education leaders say those numbers don't tell the whole story. For example, average teacher pay does not take into account the experience level of teachers in different states.​