Politics & Government

Fact check: Teacher rally prompted false and misleading claims about NC education

NC educators march again in Raleigh

For the second year in a row, North Carolina educators marched en masse to the legislature in Raleigh on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 to demand more funding for public education from state lawmakers.
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For the second year in a row, North Carolina educators marched en masse to the legislature in Raleigh on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 to demand more funding for public education from state lawmakers.

This story was updated May 3 at 4:45 p.m. See story for correction.

To hear the chants on the streets of downtown Raleigh, the demands from education advocates are simple.

What do they want? More resources for educators and students. When do they want it? Now.

The response from state lawmakers has been equally straightforward: teacher pay and other quantifiable education standards have improved.

And then there are numerous claims in-between, which sometimes lack context and substance.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, an educators advocacy association, led a march to the capital in downtown Raleigh on Wednesday. The event both advanced and provoked claims about education in North Carolina that were inaccurate, misleading or presented without proper context.

Here are a few claims that deserve to be addressed:

NC lawmakers’ actions

A Facebook ad for an April 24 forum in Charlotte hosted by Progress NC and the NCAE said, “Politicians in Raleigh have done almost nothing to reverse the long-term cuts to our public schools.” The post refers to cuts made by legislators during the recession, which began to hurt state government in 2008.

It’s fair to note that average teacher pay — when adjusted for inflation — hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels, as PolitiFact North Carolina reported last year. But it’s misleading to suggest that state lawmakers have done “almost nothing” to reverse the cuts.

The legislature has increased annual spending on public K-12 schools and boosted average teacher pay each year since fiscal year 2013-14, according to North Carolina’s Department of Public instruction. A graph on page 18 of this budget report shows the improvement each year.

The GOP’s record

A poster found on tables in the legislative building during the rally on Wednesday compared 2013-14 salaries — which it labeled as “old Democrat pay plan” — to 2019 salaries under the “Republican pay plan.”

The poster gives the impression that Democrats controlled the legislature in 2013, which isn’t true. Republicans gained control of the legislature in 2010, and in 2012 gained a supermajority, which they didn’t lose until 2018.

A photo of a poster distributed during the Red 4 Ed rally on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Contributed

Teacher pay

A flyer distributed at the legislature during the rally said North Carolina ranks 34th in teacher pay. Democratic state Sen. Terry Van Duyn, who’s running for lieutenant governor, also tweeted that ranking.

But that number from the National Education Association is outdated and represents the 2017-18 school year. The NEA reported in March that North Carolina’s new estimated teacher pay is an average of $53,975, making the state 29th in the country.

Protesters carried signs that talked about teacher pay, too much testing, the General Assembly and state school superintendent Mark Johnson

NCAE’s demands

The NCAE published a list of demands to accompany their rally. The list calls for adding counselors and other school workers to meet national standards, providing a $15 minimum wage for all school personnel, and a 5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for retirees, among other demands.

Those demands are often shared without information about their cost and the legislature’s recent efforts. The legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal research staff recently estimated the costs of some of the demands.

Minimum wage: North Carolina last year became the first state in the country to pay most of its state employees a $15 minimum wage, which equates to about $31,000 a year. The raise applies to most jobs in state agencies and the UNC system, but excludes temporary workers, public school or community college employees who currently make less than $15 an hour, The News & Observer reported. It would cost $110 million to boost the remaining workers to $15 an hour, according to the research staff’s memo.

Cost of living adjustment: It would cost $240 million a year and add $2.5 billion in unfunded liabilities, according to the memo. N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell told PolitiFact he’s unaware of any adjustment of 5 percent or more “over the last 50 years.”

Counselors: The N.C. Department of Public Instruction estimates that it would cost about $700 million to bring all of the school support positions up to national standards, according to the fiscal research memo. The American School Counseling Association recommends that school counselors oversee no more than 250 students each. North Carolina’s ratio in 2016, the most recent year available, was 375 to 1 — which beats the national average of 464 to 1. Only 12 states had better ratios, and each of those states has a smaller population than North Carolina.

NC Superintendent’s letter

Before Wednesday’s rally, State Superintendent Mark Johnson sent an email newsletter to parents and educators that aimed to clarify what he called “the facts about our schools.” While the statistics mentioned in the email are correct, they are used in invalid, or confusing, comparisons.

In the first bullet point in the email, Johnson says that “average teacher salary in NC is now $54,000 per school year.” In the same bullet, he said in North Carolina, “the median teacher salary per school year is more than the median household income per year.”

The comparison of average (or mean) salary and median salary is a confusing association and usually isn’t fair. A mean is the average of a set of numbers. A median is the middle number in a set of data. The disadvantage of using the mean is that a single high or low value in the set of data can skew the result. Medians are unaffected by high or low values, as it is simply the middle number.

The Department of Public Instruction said in an email it historically has followed the industry standard of only tracking mean, or average, teacher pay. It does not include bonuses but would include the average supplemental pay from school districts.

Politifact asked DPI for clarification on the data used in Johnson’s email. DPI said the $54,000 figure is from the 2018-19 school year but that the median salary was $49,600 in the 2017-18 school year. In the original Johnson email, $50,320 is cited as the median household income in North Carolina.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said specific figures for median teacher pay and household income weren’t provided in Johnson’s email. They were provided. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the median base salary is $49,000. It is $49,600.

Second, a teacher’s salary refers to an individual’s wages, while household income can refer to one’s salary, but also investment gains and benefits of potentially more than one person. Any earnings from retirees or part-time students in a residence are counted in this number, for example.

Screen grab

In another bullet point in the newsletter, Johnson says the average (or mean) salary for first-year teachers ($39,300) is greater than the “average starting salary for other college graduates” ($26,400) and more than the “median wage for individuals in North Carolina.” ($30,326). Again, Johnson compares means and medians.

If we compare that median wage of $30,326 with median teacher pay of $49,600, it appears that teachers are paid more than the median wage for individuals in North Carolina. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, North Carolina’s 2017 median hourly wage comes out to $34,757 for someone working 40 hours a week for every week of the year.

Still, this comparison doesn’t offer the clearest picture. Teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree, and 41.6% of North Carolina teachers have a master’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2011-12, the earliest year available. The median wage for individuals includes workers who aren’t in the same educational attainment bracket, and as a result aren’t paid as much. A better comparison would be to look at starting teacher pay with starting pay for other professions requiring similar educational attainment.

Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-of-center policy thinktank, have tracked the teacher pay gap for 15 years. EPI researchers only compared working-age, full-time workers with similar educational attainment and found teacher pay in North Carolina trails that of other professionals by 26.5 percent.

This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email factcheck@newsobserver.com.

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