State teacher pay hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Teachers call it the 'NC teacher tax.'
Social studies teacher Kim Mackey, who teaches at Green Hope High in Wake County, isn’t afraid to do a little math. A few years ago, when she started to suspect that her salary wasn’t worth what it used to be, she began to collect her own salary data in a spreadsheet.
Mackey started by looking at the state’s teacher salary schedule from the time she began teaching in North Carolina, in fall 2007. She is a veteran teacher with 18 years of experience, 16 of them in North Carolina public schools.
“I really started to notice that what I was promised in purchasing power, when I chose to come to North Carolina hadn't been fulfilled,” Mackey says.
Using the salary schedule offered when she signed her first teaching contract in North Carolina, Mackey adjusted each year for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, and compared that to her actual salary that year. She calls the difference the "NC teacher tax.”
For teachers like Mackey, who have taught for 18 years, the “NC teacher tax” could run around $80,000 added up over the course of their career so far.
#NewProfilePic pic.twitter.com/E2KNqR3ujs— Kim Mackey (@educatedpolicy) March 21, 2023
Mackey recently teamed up with computer programmer Derek Scott to create an online tool to help other teachers make the same calculation based on the year they began teaching.
“The state would literally have to cut them a check for that amount to call it even compared to what they signed up for when they joined teaching,” Mackey says.
Mackey says she would like to offer state lawmakers the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t know how much inflation has affected teacher salaries in real dollars, and she hopes they will consider this as they prepare the next state budget. The House budget proposal is expected to be released next week.
What policies create the difference?
It’s hardly news that public school teachers across the United States are paid less compared to professionals with similar levels of education and experience. And teachers aren’t alone in dealing with the current effects of high inflation on their household finances.
The “NC teacher tax” tool seeks to highlight how inflation has been affecting veteran North Carolina teachers’ salaries over the course of their careers, not just in recent years. Teachers’ state-funded base salaries are not pegged to inflation and are subject to fluctuating policy changes in biennial state budgets.
Every state budget includes a salary schedule for traditional public school teachers that outlines how much a teacher will make depending on their years of experience during that budget cycle.
This salary schedule gives teachers a glimpse of how much they can expect to be paid later in their career.
Each new salary schedule depends on what lawmakers choose to allocate in the state budget. State budgets prior to 2013 included annual step raises for every year of additional experience. Those raises helped to account for inflation and compensated teachers for their experience.
In 2018, the General Assembly eliminated annual step raises for teachers with 15 to 24 years of experience, while boosting pay for younger teachers so that they would reach a $50,000 salary sooner, after 15 years of experience. In 2014, state lawmakers ended longevity pay for teachers, an annual lump-sum payment to state employees who have more than 10 years of service. The General Assembly has never restored step raises or longevity pay for veteran teachers.
Each state budget typically results in a new teacher salary schedule that is greater than the previous salary schedule in nominal dollars, but if that increase does not outpace inflation, it means teachers can’t afford to buy as much with that raise.
Other state and local policies also contribute to teacher pay. Teachers receive local salary supplements paid for by county taxes and state pay for earning national board certification. Teachers who earned master’s degrees before a state law was repealed in 2013 are on a higher state salary schedule. The online tool accounts for the loss of longevity pay in the calculation, but not these other salary factors that are specific to a teacher’s individual situation.
“We have simplified it by not including variables, but those variables would have only increased the size of the teacher tax,” Mackey says. “So, folks who use the website can have confidence that is the minimum that they were shortchanged.”
Teachers React to the NC Teacher Tax website
Teacher Shannon Wymer says she was shocked to see the output when she used the “NC teacher tax” tool based on the salary she signed up for in 1998. It amounted to more than $100,000.
“Teachers aren’t paid a whole lot anyways, so $100,000 was a lot of money when you think about it over the course of your career,” Wymer says.
The tool allows teachers to view how their inflation-adjusted pay has changed either from the time they first began teaching in North Carolina, or since 2007-2008, which was the high watermark for inflation-adjusted state teacher pay.
Wymer says she wasn’t surprised that state lawmakers passed smaller raises in the years immediately following the Great Recession, but she wasn’t aware how those biennial budget decisions had added up.
“I kind of knew pay had stagnated,” Wymer said. “They weren't giving the pay raises they had been, but I guess I just didn't realize how much they were not raising that pay.”
Mackey says the reaction she’s received from fellow teachers who have calculated their “NC teacher tax” is that they feel validated.
“They knew they were putting less in their cart, [even] before inflation was on the radar of people the last few years,” Mackey says. “Now this tool really empowers them to understand, it's not in your head – and in fact, here's the number.”