Education reform useless without higher pay for teachers
As lawmakers continue to tinker with the education system one thing seems clear: it will all come to naught if teachers do not receive competitive wages. North Carolina was recently named the second worst state to be a teacher, due in large part to the extremely low salaries teachers in NC have to look forward to over the course of their careers. Due to the low pay, teachers are continuously leaving the state in search of greener pastures in neighboring states like Virginia and South Carolina. Politicians can try all they like to reform the system, but without higher pay for teachers, veteran educators will be harder and harder to find in North Carolina.
Shortly after the school year began in August, Cumberland County schools had nearly 90 teaching vacancies. Robeson County, a much smaller school system, had nearly as many.
All across the state, we had a lot of company. Earlier this month, a story in Education Week looked at North Carolina's struggle to keep teachers in the classrooms, noting that it's not so much a problem of recruitment as of teachers who are fed up and leaving the state. The turnover rate is averaging about 15 percent. Five years ago, it was around 11 percent.
WalletHub, a website that analyzes all sorts of statistics to produce a torrent of best-and-worst lists, ranked North Carolina last week as 50th in the nation for teachers. Only West Virginia is worse. The state surprisingly came in at 43rd in teacher safety - defined by the number of teachers who say they've been threatened by a student - 46th in per-pupil spending and 49th in teacher salary increases over the past 10 years.
"It's clear that their salaries really aren't keeping up with inflation," a WalletHub analyst said. "I think teachers can say that all over the country, but the rates at which North Carolina really hasn't been increasing over the past 10 years is so much worse than all these other states that we're seeing."
Add to that the legislative dismantling of the state's teacher-assistant program, lawmakers' assault on the association that is a weak version of a teachers union, and an attempt to end teachers' also-flimsy tenure rights, and it's easy to see why they're wearing out the exit door.
A pay raise for new teachers, hiking their starting salary to $35,000, may help attract talent to North Carolina schools, but it won't keep them here for long, because more experienced teachers have made little or no salary headway.
That 10-year trend should be a reminder, too, that the decline in teacher salaries - from around the national median to something approaching the bottom of the barrel - is a bipartisan exercise. It started while Democrats controlled the legislative and executive branches, then was pushed along by the Republicans when they took over.
Our lawmakers can pursue all the educational reform in the world, but it won't work until we can attract and keep good teachers. We'll do that when we boost salaries back to the national median.
Let's be clear: Without a great K-12 education system, most of our other goals are out of reach. And without good, well-paid teachers in our classrooms, our education initiatives will fail.