Although there are many disagreements in educational policy, almost all scholars agree that within the walls of the school there is nothing more important than a great teacher. The North Carolina Supreme Court agrees. In 2004, they determined that staffing every classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher is essential to providing students with a “strong basic education” guaranteed by our state constitution. And certainly, all parents and guardians would agree that their child deserves a great teacher.
Apparently, however, the message did not reach the North Carolina General Assembly.
According to data from the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association, North Carolina public schools started the year with at least 4,469 teaching vacancies. This is an understatement of the real problem, as only 98 of 115 school districts provided their data. For reference and using data from all 115 districts, the Department of Public Instruction reported 3,800 vacancies on the first day of the 2020-21 school year, up from 1,829 in 2019-20. It’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it clearly shows that vacancies are skyrocketing.
Even in full classrooms, not all students have access to a good teacher. That same NCSSA survey reports that the number of teachers with provisional emergency licenses nearly doubled from 1,942 to 3,618 this year. Schools are eager to hire any available candidate, which will likely negatively impact many students in classrooms with no vacancies.
Vacancies can also have a negative impact on classrooms led by excellent teachers. In cases where a full-time replacement is not available, vacancies may be filled by other teachers in the school. Adding responsibilities to overworked and underpaid teachers is a good way to make your staffing problems worse in the future.
These challenges will undoubtedly fall hardest on those students who most deserve excellent teachers. Research tells us that schools serving students of color and those from low-income families almost certainly experience a higher share of teacher vacancies.
As tragic as these developments are, they should come as no surprise. North Carolina’s teacher shortage is the predictable result of the General Assembly’s 12-year crusade against teachers.
The most obvious sign of this destructive crusade can be seen in teachers’ salaries. In the 2011 school year, the year before the General Assembly change of control, the average teacher salary in North Carolina fell 16% below the national average. This gap has increased to 19%, according to the most recent estimates.
Increases in the most recent state budget are unlikely to help. While legislative leaders have praised offering teachers a 4% pay rise, continued inflation means teachers will indeed see their purchasing power to fall 4% this year. Adjusted for inflation, starting salaries have fallen 14% over the past seven years. If only North Carolina leaders had followed the example of lawmakers in Mississippi and Alabama who offered their teachers big pay raises at all levels.
North Carolina continues to offer some of the least competitive teacher salaries in the country. Our teachers earn 24.5% less than their North Carolina peers in other professions, one of the largest gaps in the country. Some would argue that low salaries are teachers’ trade-offs for a generous benefits package. But the benefits offered to teachers in North Carolina are far less generous than those offered to teachers in neighboring states.
Here are some other General Assembly actions that have helped make North Carolina inhospitable to teachers:
- 2012: The elimination of teacher-researchers scholarship program ended one of the state’s most important pipelines for producing excellent teaching candidates. While the program has been restored to a limited form, the 160 candidates it produces per year fall far short of the state’s goal under the Leandro case of creating 1,500 candidates per year. That same year, heads of state adding standardized test score measures to teacher assessments.
- 2013: career status (aka “mandate”) was eliminated, allowing districts to fire teachers for arbitrary reasons and creating a chilling effect on teachers who wish to advocate for policies that would benefit their students. That same year, the 10% salary supplement for teachers with a master’s degree was eliminated for teachers who had not yet started their study program.
- 2014 : That year’s budget was eliminated longevity bonus which previously offered teachers salary increases ranging from 1.5% to 4.5% for reaching certain longevity milestones. The elimination of the longevity allowance has been accompanied by lower basic pay rates for most experienced teachers – measures clearly intended to discourage experienced teachers from staying in the classroom.
- 2017: The budget included a provision that new employees would no longer be eligible for health care for retirees effective January 1, 2021.
- 2021 – 2022: Heads of State have fanned the flames of sectarian moral panics against “critical race theory” and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Lawmakers, led with great enthusiasm by Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, falsely claimed that teachers were trying to indoctrinate students. State Treasurer Dale Folwell, U.S. Representative Dan Bishop, State Senator Ralph Hise and State Representative John Torbett have backed events led by a group that routinely spearheads violence against teachers by falsely accusing them to “prepare” their students.
For many teachers, the future continues to look bleak. Gerrymandated legislative constituencies make it almost impossible for voters to change the direction of the General Assembly. The state superintendent is no friend of teachers, having greedily fanned the flames of CRT and anti-trans moral panics that have put teachers in the crosshairs of a small but vocal minority of bigoted parents. Even Governor Cooper, whose administration breathed new life into the Leandro litigation, has been largely silent on the need — a need detailed in the court-ordered Leandro plan — to invest more in teachers and public education. to fill vacancies and lack of resources in our schools. Joined by 31 Democratic state lawmakers, the governor approved the inadequate 2022 budget against the wishes of the North Carolina Association of Educators (and the NC Justice Center). We don’t know where the help can come from.
There are no easy fixes that will quickly reverse the damage inflicted on our state’s teacher pipeline over the past decade. It will take consistent and sustained investment in teacher-friendly policies to reverse these negative trends. Specifically, Heads of State should:
- Offer significant salary increases at all levels with the goal of making teacher salaries competitive with other professions in North Carolina. If North Carolina had adopted the schedule offered to teachers in the far less affluent Alabama, the average teacher would get a 17.4% pay raise this year.
- Reversing the anti-teacher policy changes of the 2010s.
- Allow teachers to bargain collectively. Research indicates that districts with strong teacher unions have more teachers with higher qualifications, higher retention rates for high quality teachers, higher layoff rates for low quality teachers, and lower secondary school dropout rates.
- Fully implement the Leandro plan. The Leandro plan will dramatically improve working conditions for teachers by providing teachers with the supplies, equipment, and support staff needed to help all students meet state achievement standards. The Plan will also invest in teacher preparation programs to increase the supply and diversity of new teachers, while creating mentorship and support programs that will promote retention.
Legislative leaders failed to develop a plan to address the teacher shortage. Without immediate and dramatic action, thousands of students will continue to sit in classrooms led by unprepared substitutes. Thousands more will receive emergency licensing instructions from underprepared teachers. The overall quality of the teaching staff will continue to decline as schools settle for filling vacancies with any available candidate rather than selectively filling vacancies with the best candidates.
The harm created by the shortage of teachers is particularly tragic today. After two years of pandemic trauma and educational disruptions, there has never been a more important time for all students to be led by great teachers. Yet there is no indication that heads of state will take the necessary steps to resolve the problem.
Of course, the lack of interest from heads of state should come as no surprise. After all, the shortage of teachers is a problem that the leaders of the General Assembly deliberately created.
Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.