Politics & Government

Fewer teachers are leaving NC schools. But does it mean things are getting better?

Thousands of educators march in Raleigh and demand respect

On Wednesday May 16, 2018, the opening day of the legislative session, educators and their supporters from across the state traveled to Raleigh to demand more funding for public education.
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On Wednesday May 16, 2018, the opening day of the legislative session, educators and their supporters from across the state traveled to Raleigh to demand more funding for public education.

Fewer North Carolina teachers are quitting their jobs, but there’s a debate over whether that means conditions are improving in schools or that educators are persevering despite the problems.

The annual report on teacher turnover shows that fewer North Carolina educators left the profession or changed school districts in the 2017-18 school year compared to either of the prior two years. State Republican legislative leaders say the report, which will be presented this week to the State Board of Education, shows how things have improved for teachers despite complaints from critics.

“This report peels back the political rhetoric around education to show the remarkable impact of consistent pay raises, new investments, and policy reforms that benefit students in the classroom and fulfill our promise of a teacher appreciation agenda in North Carolina,” House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement Monday.

But critics of the GOP-led legislature say what the report shows is that dedicated teachers are choosing not to leave despite the difficult conditions they face.

“I’d say that anyone who looks at this data as evidence that ‘it’s not that bad’ is really disconnected from the reality that we face in our schools,” said Justin Parmenter, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Waddell Language Academy.

“Our struggles with inadequate resources, overcrowded classes, out-of-control standardized testing and crumbling buildings are very real. But North Carolina is blessed to have really dedicated teachers who are willing to stay and fight to improve those conditions because we believe our kids are worth it.”

Parmenter is a leader in Red4EdNC, a statewide advocacy group for teachers.

Last school year, 7,674 educators quit the profession compared to 8,636 teachers in the 2015-16 school year and 8,249 in the 2016-17 school year. The state attrition rate has declined since the 2015-16 school year from 9 percent to 8.1 percent of North Carolina’s 94,909 teachers.

Statewide, 12.46 percent of teachers either quit the profession or moved to work in another North Carolina school district or charter school last school year. It was at 13.53 percent in the 2016-17 school year.

“These numbers are very encouraging to see,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement Monday. “Republicans believe that education is the great equalizer, and our commitment to that principle is clear: we’ve made record-breaking investments in education, including five consecutive pay raises for teachers and a historic, multi-billion dollar proposal for school construction and maintenance.”

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, downplayed the report, saying there’s not much difference in the numbers.

But Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project, was more willing to give state lawmakers credit for raising teacher pay. But he added that there’s more legislators can do to support schools, teachers and students.

“The economy is improving,” Nordstrom said. “Teacher pay is improving. You have slightly less turnover.”

The statewide drop in teacher turnover was mirrored in Triangle school districts.

Wake County’s district attrition rate, which includes both teachers who left the profession and the school system, dropped from 11.9 percent to 10.3 percent. It fell from 18.9 percent to 16.2 percent in Durham, from 14.2 percent to 10.2 percent in Orange County, from 13.9 percent to 12.9 percent in Chapel Hill-Carrboro and from 10.1 percent to 10 percent in Johnston County.

Of the Wake County teachers who quit the profession, 60.8 percent said it was for personal reasons.

The most common reasons cited by teachers statewide for resigning were retiring with full benefits, resigning due to family relocation, and resigning due to career change. Nine percent of the teachers who resigned said they were doing so to teach in another state.

The data shows only 123 teachers quit due to being dissatisfied with teaching. Terry Stoops, vice president of research for the John Locke Foundation, said that goes against the narrative being portrayed on social media and at events such as last May’s mass teacher rally in Raleigh that teachers are quitting because they’re dissatisfied with state policies.

“Overall, the report is pointing out that teachers are generally remaining in the profession,” Stoops said “There’s no teacher turnover problem in North Carolina. Rather, there’s a perception of a teacher turnover problem.”

But John deVille, a social studies teacher at Franklin High School and member of Red4EdNC’s board, said that quitting isn’t a viable option for many teachers even when they are unhappy with conditions.

“Many American workers are dissatisfied but remain where they are because of insurance, mortgage payments ... we have bills, you know,” deVille said in a message.

Jewell of NCAE focused on how beginning teachers have among the highest turnover rates in the state. He said the problem has been aggravated by the state cutting funding for experienced teachers to serve as mentors to new teachers.

“We need to make sure we keep our beginning careers in the profession,” Jewell said.

The report also shows that teachers with at least 27 years of experience have high attrition rates, which the report attributes to retirement becoming more financially viable for those experienced educators, But Angie Scioli, who founded Red4EdNC, said it means something when teachers don’t stay on for 30 years to get full retirement benefits,

“There are clearly some teachers who are so desperate to get out that they’re willing to take the financial hit and leave,” said Scioli, a social studies teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh.

Scioli said the report also doesn’t show how many educators may be taking second jobs to get by.

Scioli said that for the first time in her career she’s hearing experienced educators saying they know when they’re going to retire and are counting down the days. She said veteran educators used to be more ambivalent about retiring.

“What’s it say about the profession when the people who are in it can’t recommend it to the people they know and love?” Scioli said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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