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The Learning Leader: Progress on Teacher Pay, Problems in Teacher Pipeline?

Editor’s Note: This post was initially published in the fall 2016 edition of The Learning Leader, Watauga County School’s newsletter. 

The General Assembly delivered a much appreciated pay hike to teachers this year, one that averages 4.7%. However, the actual increase received by individual teachers varies from zero to 13.1%, depending on where they are on the pay scale.

While it’s too soon to know the impact of the increase on the state’s ranking in teacher pay, it is hoped that it will at least lift NC out of the bottom 10 states in the country. It remains a given that teachers in NC will, on average, still earn considerably less than their counterparts nationwide.

Until recently, NC ranked dead last in the country in pay increases granted to teachers over the last decade. While that may no longer be the case, low teacher pay has not been the only headwind for public schools in NC in recent years.

State budget cuts for supplies, textbooks and similar educational resources, big reductions in teacher assistants positions, and the elimination of the state’s Teaching Fellows program (scholarships that encouraged high caliber students to enter the field of education in NC) have also contributed to reduced interest in the teaching profession. The result of these trends is now showing up in the teacher pipeline: enrollment in teacher education programs in the NC university system is down about 30% in the last five years.

As a result, teacher recruitment is becoming more difficult for school districts across the state at a time when enrollment is rising and a large number of educators are becoming eligible to retire. The challenge is most pronounced for teachers in middle school, high school math and science, and in special education.

“We’re very fortunate that we can still find high quality applicants for our openings,” noted Assistant Superintendent and Human Resources Director Dr. Stephen Martin, “but it is getting more difficult in certain areas, and some other districts are facing a real problem getting the quality candidates they need.”

Dr. Martin and his team in Human Resources, along with principals and district administrators, have been very busy filling the positions that became vacant in the school system since last spring: 65 people have been hired in WCS in the last five months (out of about 650 positions total), continuing the recent trend of a hectic hiring season in the spring and summer of the year.

Dr. Elliott noted that a declining supply of teachers in the pipeline at a time of rising need is a serious concern going forward. “I think teaching is the noblest and most rewarding profession anyone can pursue, but our state needs to do much more to make it attractive to students in high school and college who are making decisions about their field of study and the careers they will pursue. North Carolina needs to make a career in teaching more inviting through better compensation, more opportunities for professional growth, and by demonstrating a consistent commitment to a well-funded system of public education. Great teachers are the lifeblood of our schools and supporting their work should be our number one priority.”

The state budget for many categories of public school funding is still below the levels of seven years ago even as statewide enrollment has continued to rise. Meanwhile, state funding of vouchers for private education, with no accountability to the taxpayers, has risen dramatically, and the General Assembly endorsed a plan earlier this year to add tens of millions of dollars to the budget for private school tuition in coming years. Tax cuts for high income house-holds and for corporations have also made it more difficult to fund public education in NC.

To date, the legislature has not considered a plan for raising teacher salaries to the national average or a goal of restoring previous cuts to funding for school supplies and other needs.