I am a white woman, educated in Durham, by mostly white teachers. From preschool to high school, my classrooms were led by people who looked like me, talked like me, disciplined me like my parents did, and held me to high expectations. I skated through school with ease and “success.” After becoming a teacher myself and studying education policy at the graduate level, I now realize that my peers of color did not receive the same benefits of having a teacher that looked like them, and I didn’t have the opportunity to learn from adults with lived experiences different from my own.
To ensure students have the opportunity to learn from a diverse group of teachers, North Carolina should fully fund the NC Teacher Cadet Program, an initiative to recruit and support public school students into the teaching profession.
Research  shows students of color who are taught by a same-race teacher experience increased academic achievement, higher attendance, graduation and college matriculation rates, and lower suspension and drop-out rates. For low-income Black boys specifically , having one Black teacher in grades 3-5 reduces the probability of dropping out by 40 percent.
Teachers of color also help white students combat their implicit and explicit racial biases, which is imperative if we are to build a more racially just society. I may have been successful in school by certain standards, but I was racially illiterate long after my high school graduation.
Unfortunately, these benefits are rarely conferred on most public school students. In North Carolina, our teacher workforce is disproportionately white (80 percent), while our student population is majority students of color (52 percent and growing).
The North Carolina General Assembly should diversify the state’s teacher workforce by fully funding the North Carolina Teacher Cadet (NCTC) program. NCTC encourages public school students, many of them students of color, to become teachers. High school juniors and seniors study identity, child development, education history and policy, and teaching as a profession in an honors course. They also receive college advising and volunteer in local classrooms. At its highest enrollment, NCTC served more than 4,000 North Carolina students. Currently, there are almost a thousand NCTC alumni teaching in North Carolina.
Unfortunately, the General Assembly eliminated all funding for the program in 2011. While the program still exists thanks to philanthropic support, it now serves only 500 students, offers fewer components, and must charge fees for participation. With state funding, NCTC would reinstate full-time staff, strengthen college access support for students, and expand, with extra support, to the most economically distressed counties in the state.
We currently have a political window to demand NCTC receive funding:
First, the powerful uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have led to unprecedented, bipartisan willingness to work to dismantle white supremacy in our institutions, and that includes the disproportionate number of white teachers.
At the same, in January 2020, Superior Court Judge David Lee issued an order  requiring North Carolina to take immediate actions steps toward fulfilling our constitutional obligation to provide all of the state’s children with the opportunity for a “sound, basic education” as ordered by the state Supreme Court in Leandro v. State of NC (1997). Leandro laid bare that our schools — especially those that serve high percentages of low income and children of color — have been brutally underfunded for years. The recently published “West Ed” report,  commissioned by Judge Lee, outlined what North Carolina must do to right this wrong and funding initiatives like NCTC are one of the top recommendations for meeting the Leandro mandate and ensuring diverse, well-prepared teachers in every classroom.
Finally, COVID-19 is still raging, exacerbating existing racial inequities and our teacher shortage. We must act now to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic, which we will be seeing for decades to come. It makes sense to build on what we know works and use the infrastructure that already exists in our state.
So, what can you do?
Watch the video on the NCTC website  to learn more about the program and call your state representative to ask them to support significantly more funding for the program. Remind them of their constitutional obligation to ensure all children receive the opportunity for a “sound, basic education.”
If we invest in creating a diverse teacher pipeline, we will better the school experience of North Carolina children, support their academic success, and plant seeds for a more racially just North Carolina.
Leah Baldasare is a former educator who graduated in May 2020 with a Master of Public Policy degree from Duke University. She has been serving as a project manager for the North Carolina Public Education Task Force this summer.