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Train wreck in progress

Editor’s Note:  Today is John Tate’s last meeting after serving 12 years on the State Board of Education and eight years on the school board for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  I appreciate his public service to our students, our schools, and our state.

Some six years ago, North Carolina ranked 24th in average teacher pay. This past year, we claimed the less-distinguished 46th spot. While some of this precipitous fall could be attributed earlier on to the recession (and the requirement for our state’s budget to be balanced), one should not turn a blind eye to actions of the North Carolina General Assembly since then, most notably a significant tax cut — originally anticipated to cost more than $600 million, but now forecast to be more given lagging tax collections. Other states chose not to follow suit, some even having raised taxes to address the need to invest in education, part of a strategic initiative no doubt framed to insure their best and brightest are not deterred from considering the profession.

Today, we face a double-edged sword:

  1. The challenge to our schools of education (who train our teachers) to attract students to the profession: Consider that, cumulatively, over the last five years, our university system has witnessed a 27 percent drop in applicants to their “college of ed” programs.
  2. Competition on our state’s borders: The disparity of our beginning teacher pay to that of our neighbors remains alarming. Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina all pay more than we do. In other states where we have traditionally recruited, the pay is even higher.

Consider these two factors against the backdrop of need, fueled in large measure by turnover and to a lesser extent by growth in our student population. Last year, we needed almost 11,000 teachers statewide to fill vacancies in our classrooms. While a good bit of this need stems from retirement, we have to ask ourselves, can we do better on retaining our teachers, particularly our teachers who have been in the classroom for less than five years? Absolutely.

While a good bit of this need stems from retirement, we have to ask ourselves, can we do better on retaining our teachers, particularly our teachers who have been in the classroom for less than five years? Absolutely.

But consider that 52 percent of our teachers have opted to hold second jobs (and, remember, many of these 2-job holders are teachers who have been in the system for as long as five years, having faced frozen salaries until only recently). Also, with the recession now in our rear view mirror, more employment choices are available to our teachers at greater pay — pay levels that eliminate the need for that second job.

But back to that 11,000 number that is before us to be filled. Consider that, historically, roughly half that number was generated organically, through graduates of our university system and private college network. Aside from a relatively small number garnered through lateral entry (from related job fields), the balance has been met through reciprocity with other states and their licensure process. In other words, almost a third of that 11,000 need has been recruited from other states — states that are now paying considerably more than our own for beginning teachers. As our own superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Ann Clark, recently opined, how would you like to be the human resources (HR) representative charged with filling those recruitment needs? Our pipeline is in trouble.

The Governor needs to be given some credit for recent efforts to close this gap. He has taken the lead in proposing a 2-year plan for beginning teacher pay (before local supplements), lifting starting pay to $35,000 from $30,800. We have to ask ourselves, is this enough to reverse the tide? I think not.

And consider our more experienced teachers who received considerably less in the form of needed bumps. While I think the current debate over incremental pay for both responsibility and results has merit, we need not lose focus on who we are attracting to the profession to begin with, both as relates to quantity and quality.

Who are we recruiting and what is our strategy to effectively recruit?

Right now, my greatest fear is that we will, quite simply, not have the bodies to fill our classrooms in the near future. A stagnant pipeline is a problem; a shrinking one holds the capacity for a train wreck.

For the longer term, assuming we fill these looming vacancies before us, we know from research, well born-out research, that the classroom teacher has the greatest impact on student learning. Stated another way, having anything less than quality in that classroom to effect learning at the desired pace — a pace laced with rigor preparing us for a global, competitive landscape — ultimately affects us negatively, all of us.

Not only do we owe a “sound, basic education” to each of our children (take note of our state’s constitution), but we should take heed of the impact to that greatest of economic engines before us: namely, a well-educated work force to grow our state and community the way we want to.

Consider where we are given the facts before you. A businessman wouldn’t run his company this way. Neither should we, especially when our most precious resource — our children — are at risk.

Start asking yourselves, what should we do? Then ask your legislators who hold the key to the treasury.

John Tate

John Tate was a member of the North Carolina State Board of Education from 2003-2015 and served for eight years on the school board for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.