Wake County’s teacher loss points to looming shortage

April 20, 2014 

Kelly Nystrom is a teaching veteran and a fifth-grade teacher at a very good Wake County school, Underwood Elementary in Raleigh. She has a master’s degree, multiple certifications, excellent rapport with students and colleagues and is devoted to what she does.

But she’s leaving the profession for “the private sector,” she says, where the pay and the benefits and the long-term prospects will be better.

As Wake County school officials and teachers demonstrated Thursday afternoon, in a news conference at Underwood, Nystrom’s story is sadly no longer the rare exception. More teachers are leaving in mid-year. In fact, the departure rate is up an astounding 41 percent.

Jacqueline Jordan, Underwood’s principal, said at the news conference that her school was losing five teachers, and she rightly wondered what was going to happen at other schools as well. Underwood is highly regarded, and parental support there is as strong as it is anywhere. Parents are ready with financial support, with time devoted to helping the school and the kids.

There’s no mystery why departures are up. Republicans made public education a political target.

Because of personal animosity between Republicans and the N.C. Association of Educators, some members of which criticized budget cuts, Republicans have at times seemed to make teachers the enemy.

And Gov. Pat McCrory’s flirtation with giving beginning teachers a better starting salary isn’t going to turn things around. For one thing, his proposal to raise starting pay from about $30,000 to $33,000 is hardly a game-changer for people trying to support their families.

And since McCrory came out with his idea, Republicans in the legislature have made it pretty clear that other teachers, veterans, aren’t going to get any more money. Currently, North Carolina ranks a disgraceful 46th in teacher pay in the nation. This, after former Gov. Jim Hunt had once brought salaries to the national average.

Jordan noted that at her school, two teachers had lost their homes to foreclosure, one left California years ago but was still making $20,000 less than she made there, another teacher got a job with an insurance company. A teacher with two kids qualifies for food stamps.

Teachers in Wake take a survey when they leave. More than 200 of them cited nonteaching jobs, dissatisfaction with teaching, moving to another agency, teaching in another state. Last year 117 teachers cited those reasons. More than 140 teachers, the system said, have taken full or early retirement this year. Last year, the number was 55. And, no, the fault in the departures and retirements is not connected to former Gov. Beverly Perdue or the Common Core curriculum, as some Republicans have suggested.

Michael Maher of N.C. State University’s College of Education also attended the news conference and offered a dire forecast for North Carolina’s ability to hire and retain good teachers. Fewer students are going into his university’s education program, and the state is going to have what he called a “pipeline problem.”

Teaching isn’t going to be a profession of choice because teachers, Maher said, get low salaries on graduation and carry high loads of student debt. In North Carolina, there is no more teaching fellows program to assist with loan payback, no tenure, no raises and less money for teaching assistants.

The message delivered Thursday in Wake County could be repeated in most of North Carolina’s school districts. McCrory and his teacher-bashing mates in the General Assembly now face a defining challenge for his administration: Will they step up to stop the teacher drain and prevent a teacher shortage, or will they let the state’s public schools wither away? Because the challenge is indeed that serious.

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