RALEIGH (October 24, 2023) – “My heart breaks.”
That phrase was repeated more than once in a recent discussion of teacher pay and recruitment in North Carolina.
The forum at Meredith College was the third in a four-week series of Home Town Debates on education topics sponsored by Spectrum News and the NC Institute of Political Leadership. Higher Ed Works and BEST NC serve as advisors for the series.
The discussion focused in part on how North Carolina ranked 34th in average teacher pay and an embarrassing 46th in beginning teacher pay before adoption of a new state budget last month. The state started the 2022-23 school year with more than 5,000 vacant teaching positions.
Beyond pay, the discussion also broached the intrusion of politics into the classroom and its effects on teacher morale.
“I am sad, mad and angry every day at how they are treated and that their stories are not being told,” said state Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, a former teacher and principal. “And my heart breaks when I look at teachers who have given their everything for children who deserve it and I see their eyes filled with tears, or they call me and say, ‘Can you help me get a job at X?’
“And that is part pay, but it is even more – which they will tell you – in the political undermining of them as the professionals who should be trusted to teach our children. When you create an environment that has been intentionally created to undermine the trust of educators, and we are forcing them to have multiple jobs, I don’t know what we would expect with morale,” Clemmons said.
“So my heart breaks when I think about what the teachers of North Carolina are going through and how much better they deserve, because I’ve spent my life watching them change kids’ lives, and they deserve better.”
Clemmons said that when she dropped off her third-grader at school that morning, he was crying because his teacher quit the week before, saying she could not support her family on a teacher’s pay – and he had lost a teacher he loved.
She noted that North Carolina’s average teacher pay was 21% below the national average. If North Carolina adopted Alabama’s teacher pay scale, she said, the average increase in (beginning) teacher pay would be 17%.
Jill Camnitz, a member of the State Board of Education and former chair of the Pitt County Board of Education, said that the new state budget does provide for slightly better starting salaries and expansion of advanced teaching roles.
“It doesn’t solve the problem, because there’s still a lot of inequity … in terms of experienced teachers,” Camnitz said. “But that was helpful, I think, that we are going to be able to at least compete in the Southeast with the increases that are in the budget.”
When it comes to recruiting teachers, Brenda Berg, the President and CEO of BEST NC, discussed basic principles of supply and demand as she argued for differentiated pay – higher pay for teachers in high-demand fields or high-needs schools.
“The vast majority of new jobs are requiring significant math skills. We don’t have math teachers. So, again, I think we need to do something to raise the floor,” Berg said. “…We did a study of this. UNC System graduates with a major in math earn $9,000 more than a similarly experienced teacher.”
“That’s how the private sector works,” she said. “The state schedule should be the floor.”
Advanced Teaching Roles
The State Board of Education proposed a new licensure and pay plan for teachers that the General Assembly largely ignored in the new budget. One of its elements was to offer as many as 20% of teachers an additional $20,000 a year to serve as “advanced teachers” and mentor a team of less-experienced teachers.
The budget did provide $2 million to expand advanced teaching roles slightly, and $10.9 million in salary supplements for the limited number of teachers now serving in those roles.
Berg noted that 37% of the state’s teachers last year were lateral-entry (now labeled “residency”) teachers who didn’t have an education degree or a single day of student teaching.
Camnitz said advanced teaching roles offer classroom teachers opportunities both to advance and earn higher pay.
“It also pays dividends with the residency teachers and the new teachers, because those advanced teachers are the ones that are coaching and mentoring them. So it all works together quite nicely,” she said.
“If we could just get it done.”
The panelists agreed that the state’s system for licensing teachers – and particularly the praxis exams aspiring teachers must take – desperately need an overhaul.
Berg noted that an art teacher in Cumberland County who received glowing reviews is now a substitute teacher in the same classroom where she taught as a fully licensed teacher a year ago because she couldn’t pass the exam, which has a 65% pass rate.
Clemmons said she works with lateral-entry teachers, many of them young mothers with student loans and children to care for, all on a beginning teacher’s salary.
“They are barely hanging on,” she said.
Yet many say they can’t take the praxis exams because they can’t afford the $300 fee at a time when the state has thousands of classrooms without licensed teachers, she said.
“That is a broken model,” Clemmons said. “There is bipartisan, overwhelming consensus that the licensure system needs to be revamped.“
The panelists also agreed that North Carolina’s teacher shortage is a crisis.
“The teacher crisis is heartbreaking,” said Dr. Deanna Townsend-Smith, the Senior Director of the Dudley Flood Center for Educational Opportunity, holding her hand to her chest.
Camnitz said there is a sense of urgency in the education community and among members of the business community who are paying attention.
“We should feel that sense of urgency to make the changes that need to happen. It’s very frustrating that the whole state isn’t up in arms about this,” she said.
“These kids who are in school right now – they don’t get another chance at this,” she said. “There are teachers doing wonderful things – no question about that – but they deserve better than what we’re giving them right now.”
Townsend-Smith invoked the finding of the 29-year-old Leandro lawsuit over state education funding that every child in North Carolina is entitled by the state constitution to an opportunity for “a sound basic education.”
“We are truly at a crisis moment,” she said. “And if there’s one thing that we can all agree on, it’s that education is a public good. It is not just for today – it is for their life.”