RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina public school teachers saw their pay drop to among the lowest in the country as state budget-balancing during the Great Recession included a multi-year pay freeze, according to a report Wednesday to the State Board of Education.
Pay for the teachers who educate the state's roughly 1.5 million public school students ranks 46th in the country, above only Mississippi and West Virginia among 12 Southeastern states, the report said. Five years ago, North Carolina teacher salaries were in the middle of the state rankings.
One out of nine teachers earn the lowest base salary of $30,800 because there are few meaningful raises until the fifth year on the job, the report said. The North Carolina average teacher salary of $45,933 last year was nearly $10,000 less than the national average, according to the National Education Association.
Public schools have lost more than 4,000 teachers within the first three years of their careers since 2008, the report said. Losing the newcomers is especially a problem in North Carolina, which has a strategy of developing rookies rather than bringing in veteran teachers.
"If we don't have the teachers at the beginning, in five to 10 years from now we will have difficulty filling those classrooms," said Alexis Schauss, school business director at the state Department of Public Instruction.
The low pay is pushing even the best teachers out, said Darcy Grimes, the North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Grimes, who teaches at Bethel Elementary School in Watauga County, said she knows from conversations that five of last year's nine regional winners of the top-teacher contest are thinking of quitting within a few years to find better-paying work.
"Teachers are tired. They're spending more time than ever before to help their students and to get them where they need to be," said Grimes, who is in her sixth year of teaching.
The report said local governments that are able to supplement base salaries set by the state can boost teacher pay by thousands of dollars. Adding a master's or doctorate degree can also boost pay, but a teacher who has not earned completed advanced education beyond a bachelor's degree will take 15 years to earn $40,000, the study said.
The top salary for a teacher with more than 35 years of experience, a doctorate, a local supplement, and other pay bumps can be $80,865 for a 10-month term, the report said.
The report comes as the state school board prepares a funding request to the General Assembly. Teacher salaries were all but frozen in 2008, when the recession started to bite, until lawmakers approved a small pay increase for the current academic year.
State funding for public schools has fallen by $170 million in the past five years, according to the state Department of Public Instruction, which estimated average total compensation fell by $1,400 in the same period.
During his election campaign last year, Gov. Pat McCrory said he agreed with research identifying teacher quality as the main classroom factor affecting student academic achievement. He promised to change the way teachers are paid so they are rewarded for classroom performance rather than for years of experience.
Critics complain that would make pay subject to principals or other school officials rewarding teachers they like and punishing those they don't, as well as blaming them for problems like uninvolved parents they can't control.
High school graduation rates topped 80 percent for the first time last year, up from 70 percent five years ago. But fewer than half of the state's public schools met expected all learning objectives last year, the state's annual schools report card showed. North Carolina's average combined score on the SAT college-entrance exam fell again last year, though participation in the test and college-level Advanced Placement courses increased.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio