After the new state budget was passed, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger was quick to congratulate his Senate and House colleagues for what he referred to as an ongoing effort to “improve education outcomes.” But provisions buried 400 pages deep in the budget will actually make it even more difficult for North Carolina to address its growing teacher shortage by discouraging teachers from entering the profession.
The budget changes eligibility of retired state employees for health benefits to include only those who “earned contributory retirement service … prior to January 1, 2021.” Teachers hired after that date who devote their lives to serving the children of North Carolina will be forced to purchase their own health insurance after they retire. That’s a terrifying prospect considering the exorbitant costs and uncertainty surrounding health care in the United States.
This change comes at a time when North Carolina is already mired in an education crisis and facing a looming teacher shortage. As teacher salaries have stagnated, additional pay for master’s degrees has been revoked and insurance premiums have steadily risen, our state’s 15 public universities have experienced a 30 percent decrease in education students over the past few years. Across North Carolina, thousands of teaching vacancies have resulted in many students seeing an endless procession of substitute teachers. While these substitutes deserve a lot of credit for the incredibly difficult work they do, they are not equipped to provide the education outcomes we want for our children.
A study by the Rand Corporation found that, among school-related factors, having a high-quality teacher in place has the largest impact on student achievement – two to three times as much impact as factors such as services, facilities and school leadership. The Center for Public Education echoes Rand’s findings and adds that, in order to ensure that every child is taught by excellent teachers, states must step up efforts to recruit and retain top candidates. That’s not currently happening in North Carolina, not by a long shot.
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If our legislators are serious about improving education outcomes, their policies need to make this a more attractive state to teach in. Stripping retirement health benefits merely gives prospective teachers one more reason to turn their back on North Carolina.
Justin Parmenter is a language arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte.