The outrage of ending North Carolina’s teaching fellows program

If you are looking for an example of how the pettiness and bitter partisanship of the folks currently running North Carolina have hurt the state, it’s hard to find a more illustrative one than the decision to end the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program.

No one disputes that the state faces a teacher shortage. Enrollment is down at private and public schools of education while student enrollment in K-12 public schools continues to grow as the state’s population increases.

Low and stagnant teacher pay and budget cuts to the classroom are prompting many veteran teachers to leave for other states or leave the profession altogether and are hurting efforts to recruit bright college students into the profession.

It is clearly a crisis.

You would think state leaders would be desperate to support a scholarship program that would encourage top students from North Carolina to train to be teachers, especially one that would attract applicants from every corner of the state – many of whom stay in the classroom long after they have fulfilled their time commitment for the scholarship.

But not these legislative leaders or the current governor.

North Carolina had exactly such a scholarship program in place since 1986 when the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program was created by business and education leaders and funded by the General Assembly with the cooperation of the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Martin.

The program, run by the Public School Forum, provided four-year scholarships for students who agreed to spend at least four years in the classroom. Almost 11,000 students participated, and more 8,500 graduated and headed into schools in all 100 counties.

Almost 80 percent of them stayed in the classroom after their four-year commitment was over, and almost two-thirds were still teaching six years later. Many of them are still teaching today, and many have gone on to lead schools as principals.

The program was nationally recognized, and leaders in other states are still calling to ask questions about setting up something similar in their own states.

But when Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2011, they ended the annual appropriation to the teaching fellows program, and the funding ended completely March 1.

The Public School Forum recently issued a report summarizing the 30-year history of the teaching fellows, and it’s an impressive history indeed, making the decision by legislative leaders even more maddening.

No one has actually explained why the funding was eliminated. Lawmakers did expand funding for Teach for America, though those young teachers generally don’t hang around after their two-year commitment is over.

No can dispute the effectiveness of the teaching fellows. It’s there in the numbers and the stories. That only leaves politics.

Activist groups on the Right attacked the program because it was created and administered by the forum, which had close ties to prominent Democrats like former Gov. Jim Hunt. And it’s true that the forum has not always supported the education policies of the current General Assembly leadership.

But the forum is not a political group; it’s a policy nonprofit, and its board chairs have included former Republican legislator Gene Arnold and prominent Republican and former State Board of Education Chair Phil Kirk, who writes letters to the editor every other week defending Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders.

None of that apparently matters. The folks in charge want to punish every group with ties to Democrats, regardless of the consequences for the state. That includes McCrory, who signed the budgets that eliminated the funding for the teaching fellows.

There’s talk in the legislative halls of creating some new scaled-down version of the program that would not involve the forum, but don’t bet on it.

Partisanship and punishing political foes are more important to legislative leaders than addressing the teacher shortfall or improving public schools.

Otherwise, there’d be 2,000 more bright, eager North Carolina college students on a teaching fellow scholarship looking forward to starting a career in the classroom.

It’s a scandal that there are not.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, from which this is reprinted.

By the numbers

47,611 The number of teaching fellows applicants since 1987

8,523 The number of teaching fellows graduates

79 The percentage of those graduates still employed in a public school system at least a year after completing their initial four-year teaching requirement

64 The percentage still teaching six years later

2,000 The number of applications the program received for the 500 scholarships available in its final year

Read more from a Public School Forum report.