When I headed off to college, I could not have predicted that many of the funding streams, positions, and benefits in North Carolina’s education system would evaporate over the course of my teaching career. Since 2008, state education funding has been on a downward slide. When adjusted for inflation, North Carolina spends about 7.9% less than it did before the recession. Legislators looking for ways to improve conditions for K-12 students and teachers could start with bringing back so many of the things that been disappearing over the last ten years and are now gone.
Gone: Teaching Fellows scholarship program for most education majors
My senior year of high school, my father said there was no money for college and that I would have to wait a year or two before going. Determined to prove him wrong, I explored my options and discovered the NC Teaching Fellows scholarship. Teaching Fellows provided myself and, over the program’s history, thousands of students financial and experiential support as we earned our education degrees. In return, Teaching Fellows recipients committed to teach for at least four years in North Carolina.
In the years before Teaching Fellows was eliminated in 2011, 500 students received the scholarship each year. In 2018, 110 students received scholarships as a part of a new, much smaller and retooled Teaching Fellows program, While the program is fantastic for those students who qualify, it is limited to STEM and special education majors. This limitation fails to recognize the shortage and need for qualified teachers across all areas of K-12 education. Expanding the program so that more students are included and it is open to all education majors would go a long way toward strengthening the pipeline of prospective teachers to fill the needs across our state.
Gone: Reasonable pay raises for veteran teachers
For the first half of my career, teaching salaries were on a steady rise for all experience groups. While there has been a much needed boost for salaries at the entry point of the profession, the stagnation of salaries for veteran teachers serves as a deterrent for entering or staying in the profession. A North Carolina teacher with 30 years’ experience makes only $22 more per month than they would have in the 2007-2008 school year. Teachers with 31 or more years’ experience today actually make $78 less per month than a teacher with comparable experience made in 2007-2008. Who wants to sign up for or stay in a job in which you can work for 30 years and your entire raise over time is far less than the price of an average new car? Being unable to attract or retain talented young teachers in the profession is a loss for our students statewide and it is time to make teaching a viable lifelong profession by ensuring that veteran teachers finally get substantive raises.
No parent sends their child to school hoping they will learn from a textbook in which George W. Bush is still identified as the president and/or VCR’s are featured as a relevant technology. However, for many students, this is their reality as districts are continuing to use textbooks and other resources that were in place when textbook funding levels were drastically reduced.
Technology funding was also slashed despite the fact it is ever more important that students become technologically proficient. Interestingly, the teacher evaluation standards require that “Teachers integrate and utilize technology,” a frustrating requirement for teachers who work in school systems in which budget cuts have led to very limited technological access.
In addition, supply funding cuts have teachers across the state digging deep into their pockets to provide needed and unfunded resources for students, including something as basic as pencils. These funding sources provide what should be the basic foundational resources and supplies for student learning. It is simply unconscionable that they haven’t been restored to pre-recession levels even when there have been budget surpluses since 2015.
Gone: Master’s pay salary increases
When I sought my Master’s degree, I did so to become a better teacher, knowing being more knowledgeable in my content area would benefit the students I taught. While I had to take on student loans to complete the degree, I knew that the pay raise I ultimately received would help pay off the loans and provide a much needed long-term, if modest, increase to my salary. New teachers can now only get that boost if they move to one of the many other states in the country who still have pay bumps for having a Master’s degree. This provides a strong incentive for young teachers to consider leaving North Carolina.
Given that student enrollments are heading up while we still have a teaching shortage, we do not need to lose teachers due to having more limited opportunities for pay advancement. Teachers work tirelessly to encourage students to become lifelong learners while our own state sends the message this same ethic is not valued or important for them. Restoring Master’s pay would encourage teachers to further their learning and provide paths for teachers to increase their salary while staying in the classroom.
I have worked for 12 principals and countless district administrators, including some of the best of the best and some of the most challenging – including, sadly, one administrator who actively engaged in bullying tactics. Career status provided me the assurance that I would not be fired simply due to the capricious whims of an administrator who likely wouldn’t even work in my school or district for more than a year or two. Without career status, teachers are often reticent to be the advocates they need to be for students, due to the possibility that their advocacy could rub an administrator the wrong way and threaten their job. Who loses when teachers are unable to speak up? Students are ultimately the ones most negatively impacted by teachers who are unable to have adequate voice. Restoring career status rights for those who have satisfactory evaluations and several years of teaching experience would provide security from being unfairly targeted by an inexperienced or difficult administrator and send a statewide message that teachers are valued.
Gone: Thousands of teacher assistants, sufficient professional development funds, health insurance for retirees who start teaching in 2021, longevity pay…the list goes on and on, a sad testament to the current state of affairs in our state
In and of itself, each item listed above was one crack in the foundation of the North Carolina educational system. When taken together, however, it’s easy to see why the foundation is now crumbling. Ultimately, it is students who pay the biggest price for lack of reasonable school funding, teacher salaries and benefits, and adequate allotments for teachers and teacher assistant positions.
Parents, educators and community members: Let’s ensure our legislators hear our voice. Let’s let them know that it is high time to fully restore funding to pre-recession levels, when adjusted for inflation, before we have to say that any semblance of a high quality education system in North Carolina is GONE.
Mary Alicia Lyons teaches in the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools and is a 2017-2018 Hope Street Group NC Teacher Voice Network fellow.