The issue of teacher pay has played a large role in this year's budget battle between Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and the Republican-led legislature.

Cooper says the budget didn't do enough to help teachers, while the GOP has accused the governor of blocking the raises they did include in their proposed budget.

Democratic State Senator Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg recently entered the fray. Jackson sent out a tweet that said, “We need to raise NC teacher pay to at least the national average - which is where it was back when I was in public school.”

Jackson appears to be suggesting that North Carolina's average teacher pay matched the average salary for teachers nationwide.

To gauge the accuracy of Senator Jackson's claim, WFDD's Neal Charnoff spoke with Politifact reporter Paul Specht.

Jackson said he finished high school in the year 2000. So Politifact looked at that year, the 1990s and into the 1980s. Turns out, the good old days weren't all that great.

Lagging behind

Our primary source was the National Education Association, which is known for releasing annual reports detailing the average annual teacher salary in each state. (In March, the organization estimated North Carolina's average teacher pay at $53,975 for the 2018-2019 school year, WRAL reported.)

NEA data shows that, over the last 40 years, North Carolina's average teacher pay never reached the national average.

Average teacher pay in North Carolina vs. the nation's average teacher salary. (Credit: National Education Association)

The National Center for Education Statistics also tracks teacher salaries for the U.S. Department of Education. For the 1990s to 2000, the NCES had similar numbers to the NEA.

The data is “spotty” for older years, according to Tom Snyder, the NCES director of annual reports and information staff. But, for the years NCES does have, Snyder said: “North Carolina is lower than the national average.”

For 1990 and earlier, the NCES shows:

1989-1990: U.S. $31,367, N.C. $27,883

1979-1980: U.S. $15,970, N.C. $14,117

1969-1970: U.S. $8,626, N.C. $7,294

We also reached out to the North Carolina Association of Educators, a left-leaning advocacy group for teachers. Kevin Rogers, the group's government relations and communications manager, said North Carolina has “never quite hit” the national average.

“The closest we came was in 2001-2002,” Rogers said. “We were ranked 20th in the country, with an average North Carolina salary of $42,680, as compared to the national average for that year of $44,660."

Rogers' mention of rankings takes us to Jackson's argument.

Mean vs. median

So far, we've been comparing North Carolina's average pay to the nation's average pay. But when we reached out to Jackson, he said he used the word “average” to compare to other states — not the average (or mean) salary for the country as a whole.

“We were above average (U.S. teacher pay) in my senior year of high school, understood as the median rank for all 50 states,” he said.

It's true that, in 1999-2000, North Carolina's ranking among all 50 states was 23rd — meaning the state paid better than half the states. And, as Rogers mentioned, North Carolina moved up to 20th during the 2001-2002 school year. So, as far as rankings go, North Carolina looked good when compared to other states.

But, there are a couple of problems with Jackson's reasoning.

First, a state's ranking isn't necessarily reflective of whether it pays teachers more than the national average. Let's look back at the 1999-2000 school year. North Carolina ranked 23rd, but the state's average teacher pay was still $2,599 below the national average.

Second, his explanation suggests that average pay refers to the “median rank for all 50 states.” But that's not how the average teacher pay is determined. It's determined by looking at average pay across the country – not by taking the median salary of the states. Being above the middle value in a list isn't the same as being above average.

Jackson told us that the difference between what his tweet says and what he meant is a matter of semantics. In this context, however, the word “average” has a very specific meaning.

We asked Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst for the liberal North Carolina Justice Center, about how he'd interpret someone saying they “want to raise North Carolina's teacher pay to the national average.” Nordstrom has done extensive research on the topic. He said, “I would interpret that as wanting to bring the state's average salary to the same level as the nation's average salary.”

Our ruling

Jackson said North Carolina needs “to raise NC teacher pay to at least the national average - which is where it was back when I was in public school.” Jackson told us he graduated high school in 2000, so we looked at that year and the preceding decade.

We found no evidence that North Carolina's average teacher pay ever matched the national average.

Jackson said he used the word “average” as a reference to the median salary among all 50 states. There's some validity to his claim that, generally speaking, North Carolina could be seen as faring better than most other states for a couple years.

But this argument strays from his original tweet, which made no mention of North Carolina's rank, median pay or how its pay compared to other states.

We rate the tweet False.

Copyright WRAL 2019

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