GOP policies could create a teacher shortage in NC

February 9, 2014 

The 12-year veteran biology teacher at a small-town North Carolina middle school would be understood if the reaction to a much-puffed teacher salary boost from Republican legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory was, “Thanks for nothing.”

In announcing raises for early career teachers on Monday, McCrory and GOP legislative leaders seemed to expect showers of praise and hurrays. And sure, it’s good to give young teachers who struggle on roughly $30,000 a year a boost. But in fact, teachers with substantial experience won’t see anything, although the governor hinted at more to come.

Even so, the average salary remains too low. And the Republicans’ sudden interest in helping teachers reeks of political maneuvering.

As a report from The News & Observer’s Jane Stancill and Lynn Bonner showed, North Carolina may be living on borrowed time when it comes to getting the best and the brightest into the teaching profession. It should come as no surprise.

Teacher turnover last year was the second highest in a decade. There are more early retirements. Teacher training enrollments in the state’s university system are down 7 percent.

No surprise. After all, legislators killed a program to recruit top students for teacher jobs through scholarships. A modest form of tenure is being phased out. A master’s degree no longer will be rewarded with higher pay.

And there’s North Carolina’s disgraceful 46th-place ranking in average teacher pay. That’s lower than the neighboring states of Virginia, Tennessee and South Carolina.

On Monday, Republicans came forth with a plan to raise starting teacher pay to $35,000 over a couple of years. Let’s hope that reflects that they have had a conversion to the cause of improving public education and have taken some kind of vow to put away their swords when it comes to teachers.

The more likely reasoning is that GOP leaders have realized their tough rhetoric aimed at public school teachers has backfired, and they’re doing political damage control.

But considering their other actions, raising starting pay is not going to solve a crisis. In Wake County, for example, officials say nearly twice the number of teachers are leaving to teach in other states because of low pay in North Carolina. Wake might have difficultly finding enough new teachers for the 2014-15 school year.

The skepticism toward McCrory and the legislature’s Republican leaders is merited. It’s hard to accept their conversion in light of their teacher-bashing in recent years after some teachers and leaders of the North Carolina Association of Educators dared criticize Republican cuts to public education. Is that payback over?

Now there are indications that the entire state may soon face a teacher shortage. Why this would come as a surprise is a mystery. North Carolina has been fortunate when it comes to getting and keeping teachers. It has benefited from the nobility and the personal commitment of people devoted to public service, perhaps inspired by their own teachers. And the state has taken full advantage of these good people.

Their reward from Republicans in the General Assembly has been frozen wages, changes allowing their classes to get larger and, in the early grades, the loss of teacher assistants.

Former Gov. Jim Hunt proposed, recently, on these pages, that the state again try to reach the national average in teacher pay, now $55,000. Hunt said the state has to commit the money and just push ahead with teacher pay hikes until the goal is achieved. A boost in starting pay isn’t enough, he said.

He’s right, of course. And he knows, as do all North Carolinians who’ve given it any thought, that the state’s bargain, the state’s good fortune in keeping teachers, is about to run out.

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