NC teachers feel strain of cost of living

Rising costs are forcing some teachers to make tough decisions, even as the state raises base pay.

Posted Updated
Teachers hold second protest over pay
Emily Walkenhorst
, WRAL education reporter

A few months ago, as he entered his 16th year as a public school teacher, Jeremy Shaner did something he hadn’t done since his 20s. He took a summer job.

The Johnston County Schools high school English teacher worked at a coffee shop in June and July. After a year of pandemic-strained working conditions, he deserved a summer break. Instead, he took orders from customers, placed orders to roasters. Whatever the shop needed.

It had been three years since his last raise and he wanted to make sure his family of four was staying afloat.

“There’s really not been any extra money at all,” he said. “We’ve been pretty static.”

North Carolina data and reports show teacher base pay often doesn’t rise with inflation. Even with a handful of pay increases in the last 10 years, teacher salary buying power is less than it was 20 years ago.

And for teachers like Shaner, pay hadn’t increased at all since his first check of the 2018-19 school year, while the state failed to adopt a new budget.

Now, pay bumps in the first new budget in years will make a difference for some employees. But for others it will be less than the difference inflation has made since 2019.

“To be called on one hand sort of essential and a hero and then on the other hand to be treated the way we’ve been treated in the budget and then in some cases publicly by government officials,” Shaner said. “It makes you not want to do it.”

Not keeping up with the cost of living

The lament of public school teachers is common and has been ongoing for years — increasing workloads and paltry salary increases. The perception of low pay often deters people from the profession, according to Chad Aldeman, policy director at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.

But the focus on pay for school workers has come into sharper view in recent years, particularly with disorienting demands brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic in a region where apartment rental rates and single-family home prices continue to rise at a rate that often outstrips inflation.

“At some point it’s more of a housing problem or childcare problem than it is a salary problem,” Aldeman said.

The scenario, which has made it more difficult to fill open positions, has emboldened teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others to fight, often successfully, for more money.

How teacher pay will change under the new state budget, approved in November, and how it has changed over time for teachers, depends on the individual. It depends on when they were hired, whether they are nationally certified and in what district they work, among other things.

The pay increase under the new state budget could be a few hundred dollars in one year for some and a couple thousand dollars in one year for others. Put another way: about enough to pay for a rent hike for some teachers and or about enough for a down payment on a used car for other teachers.

The budget provides 1.3% increases in base pay for all experience levels this year and another 1.3% next year. It’ll cost the state about $82.8 million for the nearly 90,000 state-funded teachers. The state is also spending another $100 million on supplements for counties to pay teachers and administrators in all but five of the state’s biggest counties. That will fund extra pay for about 64,000 state-funded employees.

A court-ordered plan in the 28-year Leandro school funding lawsuit called for more funding for teachers, as well as a study on competitive pay for school employees. With lawmakers opposed to the plan, however, most but not all of the pay increases were approved in the budget bill.

Base pay for North Carolina teachers has gone up from time to time, though not every year.

On top of that, teachers earn more money with more years of experience. National board certification can add thousands more dollars in annual salary, and less than one-quarter of North Carolina teachers have such certification.

But how much that money is actually worth changes at a different rate.

Teachers nationwide make less money now than they would have years ago.

Pay increases during the 2000s led to a pre-Great Recession peak in teacher compensation that’s since declined.

Now, teachers are making about what they made in 1990 and 2000, when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s an average annual salary of $63,645 in 2020.

In North Carolina, pay peaked before the Great Recession. Average annual salary in 2000 was $39,404, equivalent to $59,872 in 2020. In 2020, they earned just $54,682.

That’s the fifth-highest percent decline — down 8.7%— from 2000 to 2020 in the country. The nationwide change was a 0.2% increase.

Effective salary declines over that time in North Carolina’s neighbors were 8.4% in Virginia, 6.1% in South Carolina, 6% in Tennessee and 2.8% in Georgia. Deeper declines were 19% in Indiana, 16.6% in Michigan, 12.5% in Florida and 10.1% in Arizona.

It’s not clear yet how much average teacher pay is now, but it will rise with the new state budget. Counties are also raising their local salary supplements this year. And from 2010 to 2020, they rose 42.1% to nearly $5,000 per teacher.

Shaner’s first year of teaching was during the 2006-07 school year.

That year, first-year teachers earned $28,510 annually. With a Master’s degree, and Shaner has one, they earned $31,360 annually.

National board certification, which teachers can attempt after three full years of teaching, adds a few thousand more dollars in annual salary. An even bigger increase in pay for board certification has since replaced Master’s degree pay in North Carolina.

Teachers with at least 10 years of experience also earned longevity pay, though the state did away with that in 2015.

Under that scale, by the time Shaner reached 15 years of experience, he’d earn $44,060 annually, plus a $991.35 longevity bonus. If that were adjusted for inflation, he’d earn about $60,000 today.

He was set to earn $53,900 this year, before the budget. Under the new budget, he’ll earn $55,720, with no longevity bonus. A new state salary supplement for his county could add about $700 to his pay, if the district chooses to distribute equal amounts to each teacher.

Shaner thinks if he had a degree in science or math, like some high school teachers do, he could easily find a job that paid more.

The Triangle especially has a lot of growth in those industries.

“If they can work for Novo Nordisk or Red Hat” and make $60,000 or $70,000 per year or more, he said, “I think the choice becomes pretty obvious.”

Can’t find a place to live

Grant Bess and his wife, Sarah, moved from Utah to North Carolina in 2021 with their futures in mind.

Bess, after spending the last decade in college and the military, was hunting for his first full-time teaching gig.

He’d been eyeing North Carolina for years because of its green and its Southern culture. Then last year Sarah, a Charlotte native, got into Duke University’s doctoral program in occupational therapy.

The private university tuition promised to be expensive, but the Besses chose the Triangle over their other choices simply because they liked the area and believed they could make it work.

As North Carolina tries to attract people to the teaching profession and recruit people from out of state to fill the teaching ranks, Grant Bess is an example of someone who’s bought into what the state is selling.

But, quickly, he’s begun to question that judgment.

Bess wants to keep teaching; that’s not the direction he’s leaning now.

He works 40 to 60 hours per week teaching, planning, grading, meeting with other faculty and staff and parents. It’s not the hours that are deterring him most; it’s the pay.

He’s worried he can’t afford to keep teaching. At least not in North Carolina.

“If the cost of living is not going to be there, then we’re going to go,” he said.

Bess took a job as a 7th grade social studies and English teacher in the Wake County Public School System. At $41,274.60 a year, it was his highest offer.

It didn’t take much time to realize how far that money would — or wouldn’t — go.

Grant and Sarah discovered their $1,100 per month Durham apartment, which they found and inspected remotely from Utah, had water damage. The carpet smelled like urine. They left immediately.

Now the rent at their new place is $1,500.

Sarah got a job to help make ends meet.

They fear being priced out of the housing market down the road, so they decided they should buy a house. Now they’re struggling to find one they can afford.

Because Grant Bess spent several years in the military, he’s now 28 years old and working for starting wage pay — the same amount a 22-year-old fresh out of college, with no military experience, would make.

He’s also hoping to soon start a family.

“Starting my family at 30, 31 is pretty reasonable,” he said.

He and Sarah would like to put down roots in North Carolina, but after the next couple years, their future is a blur.

If their financial situation doesn’t improve enough, they’ll be faced with some choices.

They could stay and Grant could take another job that pays more, though he would prefer to teach than do anything else.

Teachers who leave the profession often make less money, though, according to Aldeman, the Georgetown director.

They could stay and Grant could become a stay-at-home father, while Sarah works, but he’d prefer to be working.

The bigger state salary and a bigger supplement from one of the state’s highest-paying school districts means Bess will earn $41,891.47 this year. It’s an increase of $616.81 in a year, or $61.68 per month during a 10-month contract.

He thinks he’ll barely notice it when his rent goes up.

Most of the extra money Bess will earn this year will come on top of that, in the form of one-time bonuses from the state and county — $3,750 from the county and $1,800 from the state.

It brings his total compensation closer to what he’d like to be paid.

“But the problem is they’re paid in the form of bonuses,” he said. He can’t put them on a mortgage application.

“If that same money was wrapped into my annual salary package, I’d feel a lot better about settling into North Carolina,” Bess said.

Since the school year began, the county has raised its local teacher salary supplement twice — by 2.5% — and the state has approved a pay increase.

It will add $61.68 to his monthly paycheck.

Next year, he’ll get another $61.68 per month pay boost. Once he reaches 12 months of employment, if the state funds his step increase, he’ll receive another $102.60 more per month. In all, by next year, Bess is set to earn $226 more per month.

But for Bess, that’s still just inching closer to what he’s learned he needs to earn to make ends meet.

Even Bess’ new salary next year of $43,377 would still be below the ceiling to qualify for federal housing assistance.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator considers a living wage, for a person who supports both themselves and their spouse, to be about $51,000 in a year.

Bess considers himself a political moderate, though he finds himself frustrated by political rhetoric around wages. He hears that market forces will prompt wage increases and job creation will balance with market demand.

But none of that applies to him, he said. The state has a monopoly on schools and lawmakers aren’t raising wages enough, he said.

Bess hears politicians speak about what’s being taught in schools and race and gender issues. Whatever changes are designed to improve school environments can only go so far for teachers, though.

“Nothing is going to be able to make up for not being able to afford to live somewhere,” he said.

CORRECTION: Teachers can attempt National Professional Teaching Standards Board certification after three full year of teaching. Certification costs $1,900 and requires additional work and testing. A previous version of this article incorrectly implied teachers automatically receive certification after three years.

Related Topics


Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.