Education

Bill would create new Teaching Fellows program with STEM focus

Jenny Bajorek, a 5th grade teacher at Northwoods Elementary, talks to one of her students Sumera Ingram, left. Bajorek became a teacher through N.C. Teaching Fellows Program.
Jenny Bajorek, a 5th grade teacher at Northwoods Elementary, talks to one of her students Sumera Ingram, left. Bajorek became a teacher through N.C. Teaching Fellows Program. 2009 News & Observer file photo

After ending a previous teacher scholarship program, state lawmakers on Thursday proposed a new version that would provide forgivable loans for new teachers who agree to teach in North Carolina in certain subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as special education.

The proposal for a new N.C. Teaching Fellows Program was announced Thursday at N.C. State University by Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Republican representing Wake and Franklin counties, and Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County. They were flanked by other lawmakers and education leaders.

The proposed legislation would cost the state $6 million for about 160 teachers per year. Those chosen by a commission would receive a forgivable loan up to $8,250 a year. Teachers who receive the loan would have 10 years to repay it, but it would be forgiven if they teach two years in a North Carolina school for each year of the loan. Their loans would be forgiven faster – at the rate of one year per year of the loan – if they teach in a low-performing school.

The program’s goal is to draw teachers into high-need fields and steer them to hard-to-staff schools.

“Today we ring the bell for the teachers,” Horn said. “C’mon. We need you, we want you and we value you.”

The proposal comes at a time when enrollment in teacher education programs has dropped precipitously here and across the nation. In North Carolina, enrollment in UNC system teacher preparation programs fell by 30 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Around the same time, the state’s incentives to future teachers ended. In 2011, after Republicans gained control of the legislature, it voted to phase out the previous teaching fellows program, which had been highly regarded. The final class of nearly 500 teaching fellows graduated in 2015.

This proposal will help strengthen our teaching corps in demanding disciplines so that we can sustain these competitive fields in the long run and create jobs for the future.

Margaret Spellings, UNC system president

In the past couple of years, the legislature has raised starting teacher pay to $35,000 in an effort to make the profession more attractive and to compete with neighboring states.

A state report on the teaching profession showed that in 2015, 90 school districts reported difficulty finding teachers for high school math. The hardest-to-staff positions are in math, science and special education.

“We need talented, driven teachers in every single field,” said UNC President Margaret Spellings, adding, “We see our strongest STEM graduates recruited before they’ve even graduated. Having a rich science and technology industry is an incredible boon to our state, but a challenge to our schools. This proposal will help strengthen our teaching corps in demanding disciplines so that we can sustain these competitive fields in the long run and create jobs for the future.”

Hope Williams, president of the N.C. Independent Colleges and Universities, said the bill would help “our students be able to make the financial choice to become a teacher.”

Students with high school diplomas, associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees are eligible for the loans to be awarded on a competitive basis. In that way, high school graduates could seek the loan for four years, but anyone with a STEM bachelor’s degree could use the loan to pursue a teaching license or a master’s degree in education. A community college graduate could pursue the loan to transfer to a four-year university, or a college student could change his or her major to go into teaching.

The bill would establish a commission composed of appointments made by the UNC Board of Governors and the legislature. The panel would include academic deans, teachers, principals, business leaders and a local school board member. Nonvoting members would include the teacher, principal and superintendents of the year, the program’s director and the chair of the State Education Assistance Authority, the agency that would administer the program.

The commission would be responsible for deciding the student selection criteria and choosing the winners. The bill provides that the commission choose the criteria to determine five of the “most effective” teacher preparation programs in the state to participate. The five programs could be public or private colleges and universities. The program’s director would focus on regions of North Carolina that have the worst attrition rates or recruiting struggles.

“This is the kind of innovation that will be the game changer for our schools,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson said about the proposal.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill

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