One of the very real consequences of the General Assembly’s recent budget cuts and North Carolina’s declining commitment to fund its public schools is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit our state’s best and brightest to our ever-shrinking corps of teachers. North Carolina has now fallen even further down the list (from 45th to 49th nationally) in per pupil spending according to recent estimates by the National Education Association (NEA).
These cuts are more than just numbers on paper and have already had a profound effect on the teaching force.
Contrary to the claims of Republican legislative leaders, the newly adopted education budget cuts to have led to hundreds of teacher layoffs and thousands of lost jobs according to data released recently by the Department of Public Instruction. Unfortunately, this is merely an escalation of a trend of cutting our public schools’ budgets. Since 2008-09, North Carolina’s public schools have cut 8% of their staffs, with the largest cuts coming this year, at the same time as enrollment has continued to grow. Almost 6,000 teaching jobs have been lost over this period.
As State Superintendent June Atkinson noted, “We are not keeping our state’s commitment to students when you look at staffing levels in North Carolina public schools.”
What these numbers do not show is a growing national problem, particularly acute in North Carolina that was not discussed in the debate over the budget – the problem of attracting high quality teachers to teach in the state’s public schools. One of the few tenets of education policy upon which most agree is that high quality teachers are the key to boosting student achievement. Our nation’s inability to attract and retain our best and brightest into the teaching profession is the primary reason why other countries are catching up to and passing the United States on every major international benchmark.
The international policy group known as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently released a report on teacher compensation that found the United States ranked 22nd out of 27 industrialized countries. In the United States, teachers earn just 60% of the average pay of full-time college educated workers.
In most of the countries that are beating us on international tests, teachers earn 80-100% of the average pay of full-time college educated workers. How can we attract the highest quality teachers if we are telling them through their salaries that their jobs are less desirable and important than other jobs that require a college degree?
The problem is even worse in North Carolina because we pay our teachers less than the national average. The starting salary for a teacher is just $31,000, which is quite low for a job requiring a college degree and teaching certification. Over the past 10 years, compensation for teachers in North Carolina has decreased by over 6% in real dollars while the national average has seen an increase of about 3.5%.
Of course, most teachers do not teach because of pay. At some point, however, good people may be forced to leave the profession when faced with the reality of supporting a family on a salary that is just 60% of the average they could be earning with the degree they possess. While the nations we seek to compete with are drawing their teachers from the tops of their college classes, the compensation schedule in North Carolina leads to a system where most teachers are not coming from the top halves of their graduating classes.
Programs like Teach for America, which draw thousands of top college graduates from prestigious universities into the teaching profession, show that it is not an impossible feat. The mass exodus of these same graduates from the program after the mandatory two year period shows, however, that the low salaries we pay teachers are not enough to keep a lot of people in the field.
North Carolina’s teachers have done an incredible job under these circumstances, as evidenced by increasing graduation rates and improved student achievement as measured by test scores over the same period their wages and positions have been harshly reduced. However, they cannot keep this up forever without improved financial support. We will fall farther and farther behind other states and even other countries.
In order to continue to recruit businesses and grow our economy, North Carolina must have a well-educated workforce capable of filling the high-skill jobs of the future. And for better or worse, the only way to do that is to recommit ourselves to public education and pay our teachers a fair wage for the incredibly important work that they do.
Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.