Education

NC superintendent defends teacher pay comments amid criticism

Posted January 26, 2018 5:00 p.m. EST
Updated January 29, 2018 4:43 p.m. EST

— North Carolina Superintendent Mark Johnson defended comments he made about teacher pay after local school board members and others criticized his remarks during a conference Thursday.

Johnson was doing a question-and-answer session at a Public Policy Conference hosted by the North Carolina School Boards Association in Raleigh when an audience member asked about teacher pay. Debbie Marsh, a Mooresville Graded School District board member, said she had an immediate reaction to the superintendent's answer.

"He began to assert that $35,000 was a good salary for someone in their 20s. I was sitting up front and immediate[ly] started shaking my head," Marsh told WRAL News by email. "He turned to me and reasserted that it was a good salary. I responded that it is not. He then changed the subject."

Johnson makes $127,561 a year as state superintendent.

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."

Former North Carolina Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said he attended Thursday's conference and witnessed the interaction between Johnson and Marsh.

The superintendent "was basically was trying to defend the efforts of the NCGA to increase teacher pay. His comment specifically was framed that $35,000 was really good money for someone in their 20s. He then stated that in rural counties that $35,000 is better than the average wage for those counties," Jeter told WRAL News.

"When he gave the response that $35,000 was good money, [Marsh] said no, it wasn’t and shook her head no. He then repeated the statement two more times in response to her demonstrable disagreement with his statement," Jeter added.

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

Others questioned whether the comments had been documented. Jeter assured them the superintendent had made the comments, adding: "I’m not offering a position of whether or not the statement is fair, only that he did in fact make the statement. I leave it up to y’all to decide the appropriateness of it."

When reached for comment Friday, the North Carolina School Boards Association said they did not have any audio or video recording of the conference.

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.​