Teacher shortage underscores the unaddressed crisis in NC’s public education system

Published August 4, 2022

By Mary Ann Wolf

“We don’t have any teacher applicants for our vacancies,” said two superintendents from rural North Carolina public school districts.

Think about that.  If they do not find qualified replacements or come up with alternative solutions, students will arrive on the first day of school Aug. 29 in classrooms without teachers.

Public school districts across the state are struggling with skyrocketing teacher vacancies and a dearth of candidates to fill critical positions.

This is a problem that has been escalating for many years. Enrollment in colleges of education is down by 50 percent over the last decade.  Many teachers leave classrooms after only a couple of years in the profession.  Still others are retiring earlier than in the past.

We are absolutely in a crisis. We do not have enough teachers.

Every student is promised highly qualified, effective educators.  We have strong educator preparation programs in our colleges and universities and districts, and schools work to ensure that this is the case. However, if people do not see teaching as a viable career there isn’t anything our schools, districts, or preparation programs can do that will be enough.  This crisis is hitting independent and private schools just as hard.

Why is a state with a strong economy — a state that strives to attract cutting-edge businesses and innovation – not making this obvious investment in our future.

Businesses need strong graduates from our K-12 programs, community colleges, and universities. We have countless research studies pointing to the importance of investing in public education for the long-term success of students and our economy.

In North Carolina, it is the state’s responsibility to fund public education. Yet our state lawmakers make decision after decision FAILING to invest sufficiently in our future — in our kids and their schools.

We also know the facts:

*    NC spends at least $3,000 below the national average per pupil each year.
*    NC beginning teachers currently make 17% less than Alabama, and NC teachers with 35 years experience make 23% less than Alabama teachers.
*    On average, NC teachers make $10,000 below the national average (and this includes the local supplements, so the state funding is much lower).
*    We gave our teachers less than a 4% raise (including the step increases they were promised), which is half of inflation for the same period.
It did not have to be like this.  But years of imprudent policy and funding decisions have led to this point.

The state has a significant budget surplus, $6.5 billion just this year. We have the money – and when considering the return on investment, is there a better way to spend our surplus than to invest in our students?

We know what we need to do.

Soon the North Carolina Supreme Court will once again hear the Leandro Case, the nearly 30 year old case where the courts have repeatedly ruled that NC has not provided the constitutionally-mandated sound, basic education for all our students.  None of the parties contest the fact that the state has not met its obligation.  The appeals focus on who can make the legislature adequately fund our schools.  This week, over 144 nonprofit organizations, philanthropies, and leaders from across the state signed on to this Amicus Brief sharing the urgency of fully funding the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan.

The Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan, agreed upon by the defendants and plaintiffs, provides a detailed, evidence-based roadmap for the investments needed for kids and educators across NC.  It’s not based on politics, but what the research and data tells us we need for kids: High quality and well prepared teachers for every child; High quality principals for every school; Early childhood opportunities; Post-secondary pathways and; Support for students through counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists. And, we need accountability and finance systems that support our schools and districts.

We must stop making choices that prevent us from ensuring our kids have access to a high quality and equitable education. Imprudent tax cuts jeopardize the resources needed to fully invest in public schools so every child has access to a high quality and equitable education that will prepare them for future success.

Our educators need the rest of us to realize what they work to ensure every day – that our students are prepared to lead our state and our communities. We must let our leaders know without uncertainty that we must invest and prioritize education in North Carolina.

 Mary Ann Wolf is the president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.