Are we in the race to the top or the plunge to the bottom? Some of our states leaders would have us believe its the former. After all, we did rank among the top states in the federal Race to the Top competition that brought us $400 million in additional federal funding back in 2010. We earned that money by showing Washington our most innovative learning programs.
And weve had a remarkable string of years in which the states K-12 public schools have increased their achievement levels and decreased the dropout rate. This has happened despite significant cuts in state education funding during and after the Great Recession. Its a tribute to great teachers and educational innovation.
Its also the good fortune of many school systems like Cumberland Countys that they came into the recession with fat rainy-day funds that theyve tapped, year after year, to keep enough teachers in the classrooms to get the job done.
But how long can innovation and dedication keep it all afloat? At what point do we begin sinking again?
By several measures, North Carolina has become a bottom-feeder state. That does not portend a brilliant future.
According to the National Education Associations tabulation of school spending in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, only Texas, Utah and Arizona spend less per student than we do.
As many school districts are proving, modern technology is a potent way to stretch funding. Districts that have equipped their students with iPads loaded with cutting-edge teaching software have reported dramatic gains in achievement and have been able to get there with fewer teachers. This is no longer an experiment. Its being done across the country, with similar results.
But we still need teachers. We need good teachers, innovative teachers, tech-savvy teachers to pull that off.
Were not going to get them. Were going to lose them, unless we start spending more money. Why? A good teacher can get an instant 4 percent raise just by moving no kidding to South Carolina.
We rank 46th among the 50 states and D.C. in teacher pay. Only New Mexico, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Dakota renowned temples of education pay their teachers less. Move two states south to Georgia and a teacher can make about $53,000 a year, on average. Thats close to the $55,000 national average.
Or if youre really good and not bothered by snowy and icy winters, you could teach in New York, the best-paying state, where teachers make an average of $73,000 a year.
Thats exactly what the best teachers will be doing. They have bills to pay and families to raise, too, and the best and brightest of them will compete for jobs in the places that recognize the worth of a good teacher.
The General Assembly budget writers are sharpening their pencils and getting ready to figure out state spending for the next two years. Given the campaign pledges about austerity and tax cutting, its a safe bet theres no plan to substantially increase education spending despite all that empty blather about educating the work force for tomorrow so we can fill all those wonderful new jobs that must surely be on their way.
I know that spendings not everything. But at some point, the vultures will start picking at our education carcass. And I would suggest that when our per-pupil spending is $1,000 a year less than Mississippis, our carcass is ready for their feast.
MCT Information Services
Tim White is the Fayetteville Observers editorial page editor.