North Carolina’s teacher shortage: the inevitable result of the General Assembly’s decade-long effort to degrade the profession

There’s nothing more important than an excellent teacher. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

While there are many disagreements in education policy, nearly all researchers agree that within the school walls, there is nothing more important than an excellent teacher. North Carolina’s Supreme Court agrees. In 2004, they established that staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher is vital to providing students with the “sound basic” education guaranteed under our state constitution. And certainly, every parent and caregiver would agree that their child deserves a great teacher.

Apparently, however, the message has not reached the North Carolina General Assembly.

According to data from the North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association, North Carolina’s public schools started the year with at least 4,469 teacher vacancies. That’s an underestimate of the true problem, as just 98 of 115 school districts provided their data. As a point of 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. This is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but clearly shows that vacancies are skyrocketing.

Even in filled classrooms, not every student has access to a great teacher. That same NCSSA survey reports that the number of teachers on provisional emergency licenses has nearly doubled, increasing from 1,942 to 3,618 this year. Schools are eager to hire any available candidate, which will likely have a negative impact on many students in classrooms with no vacancies.

Vacancies can also negatively impact classrooms led by great teachers. In cases where a full-time substitute is unavailable, teacher vacancies might be covered by other teachers in the school. Adding responsibilities to over-stretched and underpaid teachers is a good way to worsen your staffing challenges in the future.

These challenges will undoubtedly fall hardest on the students who most deserve great teachers. Research tells us that schools serving students of color and those from families with low incomes are almost certainly experiencing a higher share of teacher vacancies.

As tragic as these developments are, they shouldn’t come as a 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 teacher salaries. In the 2011 school year, the year before control of the General Assembly changed hands, North Carolina’s average teacher salary fell 16% below the national average. That gap has grown to 19%, according to the most recent estimates.

Raises from the most recent state budget are unlikely to help. While legislative leaders congratulated themselves for offering teachers a 4% pay raise, persistent inflation means that teachers will actually see their purchasing power case by 4% this year. Adjusted for inflation, starting salaries have fallen 14% over the past seven years. If only North Carolina’s leaders had followed the lead of lawmakers in Mississippi and Alabama who offered their teachers large, across-the-board salary increases.

North Carolina continues to offer some of the least-competitive teacher salaries in the nation. Our teachers earn 24.5% less than their North Carolina peers in other professions, one of the largest gaps in the nation. Some may argue that low salaries are the trade-off teachers make for a generous benefit package. But the benefits offered to North Carolina teachers are far less generous than those offered to teachers in neighboring states.

Source: NCGA Fiscal Research Division, as found at https://webservices.ncleg.gov/ViewDocSiteFile/42748

Here are some other General Assembly actions that have helped make North Carolina inhospitable for teachers:

  1. 2012: The elimination of the Teaching Fellows scholarship program brought to an end one of the state’s most important pipelines for producing excellent teaching candidates. While the program has been restored in limited form, the 160 candidates it’s producing per year falls far short of the state’s goal under the Leandro court case to create 1,500 candidates per year. This same year, state leaders added measures of standardized test results to teacher evaluations.
  2. 2013: Career status (aka “tenure”) was eliminated, allowing districts to fire teachers for arbitrary reasons and creating a chilling effect on teachers who want 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 degree program.
  3. 2014: That year’s budget eliminated longevity pay that had previously provided teachers with salary bumps ranging from 1.5% to 4.5% for reaching certain longevity milestones. The elimination of longevity pay was coupled with a lowering of the base pay rates for most experienced teachers — moves clearly meant to discourage experienced teachers from staying in the classroom.
  4. 2017: The budget included a provision that new hires would no longer be eligible for retiree health care effective Jan. 1, 2021.
  5. 2021 – 2022: State leaders have fanned the flames of bigoted moral panics against “critical race theory” and LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Lawmakers, led most enthusiastically by Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, have falsely claimed that teachers are trying to indoctrinate students. State Treasurer Dale Folwell, US Representative Dan Bishop, State Sen. Ralph Hise, and State Rep. John Torbett have supported events led by a group that regularly directs violence towards teachers by falsely accusing them of “grooming” their students.

For many teachers, the future continues to look bleak. Gerrymandered legislative districts make it nearly impossible for voters to change General Assembly leadership. The state superintendent is no friend of teachers, having eagerly fanned the flames of the CRT and anti-trans moral panics that have put teachers in the crosshairs of a small but vocal minority of bigoted parents. Even Gov. 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 heavily in teachers and public education to address vacancies and the 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). It is unclear where help may be coming from.

There are no easy solutions that will quickly reverse the harm inflicted on our state’s teacher pipeline over the past decade. It will take consistent, sustained investment in pro-teacher policies to reverse these negative trends. Most notably, state leaders should:

  1. Provide large across-the-board salary raises 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 much-less-wealthy Alabama, the average teacher would be getting a pay raise of 17.4% this year.
  2. Reverse the anti-teacher policy changes of the 2010s.
  3. Allow teachers to collectively bargain. Research indicates that districts with strong teacher unions have more teachers with stronger qualifications, higher retention rates for high-quality teachers, higher dismissal rates for low-quality teachers, and lower high school dropout rates.
  4. Fully implement the Leandro Plan. The Leandro Plan will dramatically improve teacher working conditions by providing teachers with the supplies, materials, and support staff necessary 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 mentoring and support programs that will help retention.

Legislative leaders have failed to produce a plan to address the teacher shortage. Absent immediate and dramatic action, thousands of students will continue to sit in classrooms led by unprepared substitutes. Thousands more will receive instruction from under-prepared teachers on emergency licenses. The overall quality of the teaching force will continue to fall as schools settle on filling vacancies with any available candidate rather than selectively filling vacancies with the best candidates.

The harms created by the teacher shortage are particularly tragic today. After two years of pandemic trauma and instructional interruptions, there’s never been a more important time for all students to be led by great teachers. Yet there’s no indication state leaders will take the steps necessary to solve the problem.

Of course, state leaders’ lack of concern shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the teacher shortage is a problem that the General Assembly leadership deliberately created.

Kris Nordstrom is a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project.

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