Will North Carolina's education system rise or fall?

March 5, 2013 

Are we in the race to the top or the plunge to the bottom? Some of our state’s leaders would have us believe it’s 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 we’ve had a remarkable string of years in which the state’s 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. It’s a tribute to great teachers and educational innovation.

It’s also the good fortune of many school systems – like Cumberland County’s – that they came into the recession with fat rainy-day funds that they’ve 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 Association’s 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. It’s 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.

We’re not going to get them. We’re 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. That’s close to the $55,000 national average.

Or if you’re 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.

That’s 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, it’s a safe bet there’s 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 spending’s 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 Mississippi’s, our carcass is ready for their feast.

MCT Information Services

Tim White is the Fayetteville Observer’s editorial page editor.

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