Last updated: December 11. 2013 11:23AM - 755 Views
Betsey Russell Contributing Columnist

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About a month ago, I shared the story of my child’s teacher, who has now moved to Ohio to teach because he could not afford to support his family on the $38,000 annual salary he made in North Carolina with 10 years’ experience and a Master’s degree. That sparked a response from an Asheville-area lawmaker who argued that the state of Ohio actually spends less on teacher salaries than North Carolina.

In a way, he’s right. In Ohio, the state itself provides only about a third of education funding, and local taxes are responsible for the majority of education budgets, which include teacher pay. In North Carolina, about 70% of education funding has always come from the state, and about 30% from local taxes.

But no matter how you slice it, teachers in Ohio earn more. National Education Association annual state rankings show that the average teacher salary in Ohio was $56,715 in 2011-12, 23% higher than North Carolina’s $45,947 average. And by the way, it takes 16 years of teaching in North Carolina to reach the $40,000 mark.

So, should North Carolina try to be more like Ohio, and shift the burden of education spending to local governments to boost teacher pay? No, for three good reasons:

First, fragmenting public school funding creates even larger gaps between “have” and “have not” school districts.

Ohio’s salary data for 667 school districts shows a pay range for a starting teacher with minimal qualifications from just above $25,000 to more than $43,000. If you live in a wealthy suburban district, you may be able to generate the bulk of school funding through higher local taxes. But if you live in an urban area or rural county with no strong local tax base, you will struggle to attract highly qualified teachers and adequately maintain and supply decent schools. This proved problematic in Ohio, where the state supreme court declared in the 1997 DeRolph v. State case that the uneven funding of education through districts violated Ohio’s constitution, which requires a “thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state.” Now, twelve years later, they’re still trying to clean up the funding mess.

Second, despite the variance between districts, one reason Ohio’s average teacher pay is so much higher than North Carolina’s is because Ohio has strong teacher unions. Whether you like unions or hate them, they help ensure that Ohio educators get paid like professionals. In a “right to work” state like, North Carolina, that union option doesn’t exist.

Third, and most importantly, North Carolina’s own constitution fundamentally guarantees a state-level investment in public education. Article 9, Section 2 of our constitution states that, “The General Assembly shall provide by taxation and otherwise for a general and uniform system of free public schools, which shall be maintained at least nine months in every year, and wherein equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.”

The leaders who drafted the constitution understood the value of strong, well-funded public schools. They recognized that if we want to be competitive and sustainable as a state, then educating our children must be a priority at the state level — and that includes teacher pay. That’s not to say that local districts shouldn’t supplement salaries — in fact, almost all of them do. But public education is a cornerstone of our shared values in North Carolina, and funding it can’t be an “every district for itself” issue.

In the spirit of our constitution, we shouldn’t treat our teachers, and our students, like they do in Ohio. We should treat them better.

Betsey Russell is a nonprofit communications consultant who lives in Asheville.

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