In the state of North Carolina, approximately 1.4 million students in 2,500 public schools across the state are taught by around 100,000 teachers. In many rural and/or poorer counties, the public school system – which is overwhelmingly funded by the state, not by local governments – is one of, if not the, biggest employer. These are all important reasons why teacher compensation is a major state public policy issue. Though the most important, of course, is why this system exists in the first place: North Carolina’s kids.
A special legislative committee, called the “House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future,” was formed earlier this year with the task of developing recommendations for potentially dramatic changes to (some say “reinventing”) North Carolina’s public school system. The committee is expected to deliver a report by the end of 2022, which means legislation – again, potentially dramatic – based on that report could emerge in the 2023 legislative session.
In other words: this is the blueprint for how very significant legislation gets developed. And what we’ve seen thus far should send chills down the spine of every supporter of public education in North Carolina. Because what the committee is suggesting so far doesn’t seem directly related to actual, observable problems that our school system faces.
A Pattern of Steady Decline
It’s important to first understand the policy context in education.
Since taking control of North Carolina’s legislature a decade ago, Republican lawmakers have already made sweeping changes to the education system: primarily by halting and reversing basic investment in education. After a decade of this approach, North Carolina’s schools today are badly underfunded compared to neighboring states:
- School funding per-pupil is 41st in the nation.
- Compare to Virginia (22nd), Georgia (31st) and South Carolina (30th) and Tennessee (38th).
- Average teacher pay ($54,863) is below the national average ($66,397), ranking 34th.
- Starting teacher pay is even worse, at $37,127, ranking 43rd in the nation. (National average: $41,770)
- Teachers are paid significantly less than parole and corrections officers.
Sources: NEA Teacher Salary Benchmarks
Beyond base salary, teachers’ benefit packages have also been cut back to a point where they’re clearly at a competitive disadvantage to neighboring states.
North Carolina’s “teacher pipeline” is also in serious trouble. A decade of declining teacher pay and more difficult conditions has had a disastrous effect on the number of people choosing to teach. Nearly every school system in the state has a worsening staffing shortage on its hands today – a crisis that the COVID pandemic only exacerbated further.
The folks at Public Schools First NC have an excellent summary of the health of NC’s teacher pipeline, but in short, it’s very bad. Enrollment in education programs in the UNC System – which produces most of North Carolina’s teaching corps – has dropped by over a third in the last decade. NC’s nationally-acclaimed Teaching Fellows Program, which once produced a significant number of teachers for the state, was cut entirely by Republican lawmakers in 2011. It was partially revived in 2017, but on a much smaller – and inadequate – scale.
Perhaps most importantly for recruiting purposes, teachers in North Carolina now earn about 25% less than comparable college graduates. That makes for a very difficult recruiting pitch – particularly in a labor market as tight as ours today.
What should be done?
Republican lawmakers on the “Education System for North Carolina’s Future” committee are pushing a puzzling, twofold policy proposal: (1) completely overhauling the teacher compensation system and replacing it with a version of merit pay, and (2) watering down teacher licensure standards.
Unfortunately, neither of these proposals seems likely to help the situation.
The group that developed the merit pay proposal (the “Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission”) was originally formed by the same Republican legislative leaders now reviewing their work. The Commission is oddly shy about calling their plan “merit pay.” But that’s really what it is: their plan would completely change teacher compensation from a traditional experience-based pay scale to one mostly dependent on test scores measured by a system called EVAAS, developed by Cary software firm SAS (owned by local billionaire, and major Republican donor, Dr. Jim Goodnight). It would also take into account reviews from school principals, colleagues and even students.
One obvious issue with this plan is that standardized testing is deeply flawed and often doesn’t accomplish its goals. Specifically, it’s not a good indicator of actual student learning and is not a valid measure of teacher performance. Georgia and Ohio are both cutting back their reliance on standardized tests for exactly these reasons. What standardized tests often measure best is students’ household socio-economic level and parental education. Wealthier students consistently score better than poorer ones. That is an obviously bad measure upon which to base teacher pay.
Moreover, and as most people understand, teachers’ actual duties go well beyond what any test can measure. As Mecklenburg teacher and public education advocate Justin Parmenter points out:
Veteran teachers often work as mentors, run athletic departments, coach sports and deliver professional development for peers. They have long-standing relationships with school families and community members that position them to be excellent advocates for the needs of their schools. None of that value is reflected in a veteran teacher’s EVAAS score. (NotesFromTheChalkboard.com)
A so-called “merit” system would introduce greater competitiveness between teachers in a field that needs more collaboration instead. It would also provide a clear incentive to “skim away” the students who, because of their family backgrounds, are the easiest to teach, and thus most likely to score well on standardized tests. By the same measure, it would provide a very tangible, financial disincentive for teachers to work with students who needed more time, attention or teaching approaches.
The proposal to water down teacher qualifications is also alarming, and for obvious reasons. Not just anyone can – or should be – a school teacher, which is a skilled profession that requires real training. There are already numerous successful pathways to becoming a teacher in North Carolina already – pathways which, like the Teaching Fellows program, Republican lawmakers have chosen to cut, instead of expand.
Why Trust is So Low
The reason why North Carolina has a teacher shortage is obvious: the compensation is poor and working conditions are increasingly difficult by design. Not only are teachers’ salaries used as a bidding chip every two years during the state budget process (recall that in 2019, Republicans held teacher raises hostage in exchange for deeper cuts to corporate taxes), but when teachers do receive raises, they are meager. Teachers are routinely treated as Public Enemy #1 by Republican politicians and their boosters at hard-right groups like the Art Pope-John Locke Foundation.
Just in the last several years, the Republican-led legislature has passed blow after blow to North Carolina’s schools:
- Revoked extra pay for teachers to obtain advanced degrees
- Removed caps on class sizes
- Slashed thousands of teaching assistant positions
- Poured millions into a voucher program for discriminatory and often low-quality religious schools
Perhaps most glaringly, legislative leaders openly mock the Leandro Plan, which was developed because the state courts determined that the legislature is not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education” to every child in the state. (See: What would the Leandro Plan mean for you?)
Thus, the very same legislators who have slowly crippled North Carolina’s public education system now propose to “reinvent” it. There is obvious reason for skepticism at their motives. Neither watering down teacher licensure, nor manipulating their compensation, will fix a basic lack of resources, which is the clear problem at stake. Nor will it fix or reverse the innumerable policy choices along the way that have left North Carolina’s schools in disrepair.
Any discussion of “reinventing” public education in North Carolina that does not start with a basic recalibration of funding to the school system is fundamentally unserious. Unfortunately, that is the state of play in our legislature today.