Fact Check: Teacher pay claims raise questions
U.S. Senate candidate Thom Tillis is touting a teacher pay raise in a new campaign ad. Voters should approach claims around this raise with caution.Posted — Updated
"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.
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.
Because this claim comes in three different flavors, this fact check will offer three different ratings.
** 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
** This post was edited from the original to include Brenda Berg's input.
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