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North Carolina and Southern Politics

North Carolina’s teachers deserve a raise — but not the one Republicans are proposing

Last June, I left my classroom in Arkansas for the last time, and in doing so I left the most rewarding and purposeful job I will ever have.

Since then, I’ve had countless dreams of walking back into that classroom, seeing my old students file in and feeling again what it means to be exactly where you need to be. I fear the day when I no longer viscerally remember the joy of seeing a student’s mind open up, or the quiet love that fills a classroom when an entire group of determined eighth graders work beyond what they thought was capable.

There’s nothing like being a teacher. Yet, fewer people are choosing the profession, and even fewer are staying. And in North Carolina, this problem is quickly turning into a crisis.

Enrollment in North Carolina’s 15 schools of education in the public university system has dropped by 30 percent since 2010. Last year, budget decisions by state legislators eliminated more than 5,000 teachers, along with nearly 4,000 teacher assistants. And the state’s Teaching Fellows program, which prepared more than 8,000 teachers and had five-year retention rates above 75 percent, officially ended last year.

At the same time, North Carolina’s schools are finding it harder than ever to retain the teachers they do have. In 2015, teacher turnover reached its highest rate in at least five years, at nearly 15 percent. That adds up to nearly 15,000 teachers last year, with more than 2,200 teachers leaving due to dissatisfaction with teaching or so they could teach in another state.

North Carolina school districts hire about 10,000 new teachers a year. State higher education institutions prepare less than half that amount. And school districts are finding it harder than ever to recruit teachers beyond the state’s borders.

Simply put, North Carolina’s impending teacher shortage is already here.

That’s why lawmakers in Raleigh made the right decision when Gov. McCrory, the House and the Senate announced budget proposals that included significant teacher pay raises. The only problem is it’s not the raise North Carolina’s teachers deserve, nor the one that our state needs.

Following years of salary freezes in response to the 2008 recession, North Carolina’s teacher salaries have plummeted. A decade ago, the state paid teachers better than half the other states in the country. It now ranks among the bottom fifth. State spending on teacher salaries fell more in North Carolina than in any other state since 2000. Overall, teachers have seen their salaries drop by 17 percent (pdf) over the past decade, when adjusted for inflation. It’s no surprise then that many teachers across the state share Megan Taber’s story. After more than nine years teaching in Chapel Hill, she actually earns less today than when she started.

Even if state lawmakers are correct in projecting the pay raise proposals could catapult North Carolina to 24th in the nation for teacher pay, and assuming they actually follow-through on their election-year budget plans, we’re still valuing our teachers well below their worth.

The difference between good teachers and their lower-performing counterparts is dramatic and life-changing. A Stanford study found that a ‘good’ teacher, who performs near the top of the quality distribution, gets an entire year’s worth of additional learning out of their students compared to a ‘bad’ teacher, who performs near the bottom of the distribution. Put another way, a good teacher can get her students to learn the equivalent of 1.5 years of content in one school year, while bad teachers only get half a year of learning. Over the course of a student’s schooling, the difference between having good and bad teachers can mean being well beyond grade level, or well below.

When you map these gains to economic measurements, the worth of a good teacher becomes abundantly clear. According to another Stanford study that combined a teacher’s impact on achievement with the associated labor market returns, the economic difference between a good and bad teacher measures in the millions of dollars. A teacher at the 60th percentile in terms of quality will raise her students’ total earnings by more than $100,000 (as compared to the average), while one at the 84th percentile will shift earnings up by more than $400,000. On the other hand, a low-performing teacher can have a negative impact of $400,000 or more.

Turning around public education in North Carolina will require more than stemming the teacher shortage. More than most issues, education is a matter of quality over quantity. Filling every classroom with a qualified teacher is paramount.

North Carolina’s average teacher salary sits right now at $47,783, nearly $10,000 below the national average. The most generous budget proposal in Raleigh would raise the state’s average above $54,000 in the 2017-18 school year. Even then, we’re still playing for average.

But what would be possible if we dared to aim ambitiously above the mean? What would the future of North Carolina look like if we decided public education really is our priority, and we paid teachers like the heroes we say they are? And what could happen if made the teaching profession so attractive that only our best students could become teachers?

In the year I’ve had to reflect on what drew me to teaching, what I loved about it and why I eventually left, I’ve become certain about one thing — at its best, there is no greater job. I still measure everything I do now with what I did or could be doing as a teacher, and too often my day-to-day falls short. In my heart, I still consider myself a teacher. But while I left for reasons that weren’t tied to my salary, money does matter. Not only does a salary speak to the inherent value an organization, or in this case society, places on your job and worth, but when it comes to teachers, it represents a greater fundamental issue.

We have effectively made it impossible for many young and talented professionals to see teaching as a career. With salary scales that undervalue skill and experience, and the lack of pathways for teachers to grow and develop into the leaders we need them to become for both their schools and communities, what should be the most competitive career in our country has been relegated to one for which we hope people ‘volunteer.’

I loved, and still love, the school and community I left in Arkansas, but I couldn’t see a career as a teacher. That’s because we’re not asking how we can transform the profession into one that leverages the skills and ambition of young people toward developing teacher-leaders who can dramatically affect their communities, and get paid for it.

So while increasing salaries won’t solve all our schools’ problems, it would signal to both aspiring educators and ourselves that we value teachers for who they are — our best hope at a brighter future. That in itself would go a long way toward ensuring every child, in every classroom, has a good teacher.

Will it require more from all of us? Of course. But I’m tired of playing for average in North Carolina.

Pete Mills, from Meriden, Connecticut, is a second-year master’s of public policy candidate at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.



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