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Is North Carolina really a destination for teachers?

When former teacher James Sadler saw a headline last week calling North Carolina a “destination for teachers,” he had a very hard time believing it.

Sadler, who left a good paying teaching job in Philadelphia to follow his fiancee to North Carolina, said that when he arrived here he took one look at the teacher salary schedule and said no way.

“I would’ve had to take a 50 percent pay cut,” said Sadler. And in order to just get back to last year’s salary he earned in Pennsylvania, Sadler says it would have taken him 11 years in the classroom here in North Carolina — and that’s with a master’s degree.

Pay wasn’t the only thing to deter him from getting back into a school—the fact that principal salaries rank 50th in the nation really made Sadler question the prospect. “Such low salaries for principals tells me that very good and experienced leaders are probably not attracted to the state — and that impacts my ability to do my job as a teacher and make sure my students are successful.”

For the time being, Sadler has decided to go back to school and pursue a PhD in education policy. But he misses life in the classroom and still keeps tabs on his old students.

“I just want to keep doing something that works toward improving their educational opportunities.”

A destination for teachers?

“North Carolina: a destination for teachers,” is a headline that suggests teachers might finally find what they’ve been looking for in a career in education: a living wage, adequate classroom resources and support, ample professional development opportunities and due process when a conflict arises that could result in the loss of a job.

Many of those elements of the teaching profession, however, have been diminished or even eliminated over the past several years in North Carolina.

The report that suggests NC is a destination for teachers, authored by the John Locke Foundation’s Dr. Terry Stoops, does not attempt to put a spotlight on those kinds of career benefits. Instead, Stoops takes a narrower look at teacher mobility and asserts that North Carolina is a destination for teachers based on this one fact: since 2009, the state granted more licenses to out-of-state teachers than the number of teachers it has lost, according to data published by the NC Department of Public Instruction in a report known informally as the “teacher turnover report.

But according to Dr. Thad Domina, an education policy researcher and associate professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Stoops’ analysis doesn’t tell the whole story.

“We are enjoying a teacher in-migration in spite of — not because of — the policy framework we’re dealing with,” said Domina.

Domina said North Carolina is a destination for people, period — there are roughly 1.5 in-migrants to every out-migrant, and the state ranks in the top five for migration in the United States, according to a report by a moving company that has tracked migration patterns since 1977.

“Teaching forces are simply keeping up with population growth,” said Domina, who said he doesn’t think folks’ decisions to move to North Carolina has much to do with how attractive it is to teach here — instead there are greater economic forces at play, like the relatively low cost of real estate and the fact that the economy has been getting stronger with each year since the Great Recession, making it easier for families to secure jobs and move.

Teacher retention rates, said Domina, are also an important part of the story that’s left out of the Locke Foundation report. Stoops says that’s a factor he plans to look at in a future report.

“It’s easy to get teachers in the door, but it’s hard to keep good ones,” said Domina. “Idealism does get people in the classroom, but talking with former teachers over the years, the idealism doesn’t keep you there — it is hard grinding work.”

The kind of work that Domina says demands more rewards over the long haul than what North Carolina currently offers.

A downward trend

Dr. Michael Maher, an assistant dean for professional education at North Carolina State University, pointed out that the last three years of data in the report authored by Stoops actually present a negative trend — between 2012 and 2015 there was a 30 percent drop in the number of out-of-state teachers coming to teach in North Carolina. And the numbers of teachers reporting that they left to teach in another state? That figure nearly doubled during the same time period.

“That paints a really different picture,” said Maher, one that doesn’t look much like a destination.

Stoops acknowledged some of this in his report and speculated that as the Great Recession came to an end, teachers had an easier time finding jobs in their home states and chose not to move to North Carolina. But those recent trend lines were not a focus in the report.

Maher also said there’s yet another factor to consider when looking at importing teachers into the state — North Carolina has been a ‘teacher shortage state’ for at least 15 years.

“North Carolina hasn’t been able to prepare enough teachers to fill the industry’s demand even with all of our various pipelines — public and private teacher preparation programs, alternative teacher prep programs, etc.,” said Maher. “We just haven’t been able to produce enough teachers to cover the actual need.”

That problem will only grow as enrollment in teacher preparation programs has been on a sharp decline. Between 2010 and 2016, enrollment at 15 UNC schools of education has fallen by 30 percent.

The problem of why teachers leave or stay really is a complex problem, said Maher — and it can’t simply be boiled down to one marker.

Looking forward

Maher does agree with Stoops on some points, like licensing portability. But while we should make it easier for folks licensed in other states to come to North Carolina and teach, we should do that without compromising quality.

“We want to hold high standards for our teachers and not lower the bar for entry,” said Maher.

There are a number of bills moving through the legislature right now that Maher says could help North Carolina move toward becoming a real destination for teachers.

The bill to restore the Teaching Fellows program is a good one, said Maher, along with a bill that would expand the NC New Teacher Support program. Another bill would eliminate licensing fees for North Carolina graduates.

“It’s a small fee, but in the grand scheme of things that $55 or so matters,” said Maher.

Two other bills include incentives for building higher pay into the salary step schedule.

“All of this helps increase attractiveness,” said Maher. “Those are the kinds of things that we need to have in place, then look at data later on — are fewer teachers coming, are more people leaving, etc.”

And, said Maher, we have to do more to reward veteran teachers as well, who have largely been left behind over the past several years.

James Sadler said it would take a lot at this point in time to get him into a North Carolina classroom.

“There is a clear pattern of disinvestment in education in this state over the past few years, so if I were ever to reconsider teaching here, that would need to change.”

Lindsay Wagner

Lindsay Wagner is a contract reporter for EducationNC focused on child nutrition.