There’s a scene in “Bull Durham” that features the Bulls manager throwing bats into the locker room shower and berating the team for the mortal sin of “lollygagging.” He wonders aloud, after being reminded of his team’s 8-16 record, “How did we ever win eight?”

This scene popped into my mind when I read the latest stats from our UNC System’s Schools of Education. That’s where the largest percentage of North Carolina’s public school teachers are prepared to teach our children. Enrollment is down 30 percent since 2010. Like the Bulls skipper, I wondered to myself, “How did we even do that well?”

Teacher salaries in North Carolina have been on the rise in the last two years for the first time in years. That is without question a positive step. But average teacher salary still ranks 42nd nationally. In 2001 we ranked 21st. North Carolina ranks dead last in teacher salary growth over the past decade. Today, all states bordering North Carolina have higher average teacher salaries.

One concern about the positive salary movement over the past two years is that it did not benefit all teachers. In fact, our most experienced veteran teachers have largely been left out. And one of the increases was a one-time bonus, not a raise. Finally, thanks to a new salary schedule, teachers are eligible for pay adjustments only every five years. What that means is even in a year when the salary schedule is fully funded – like this past year – 7 out of 10 teachers saw no salary increase at all.

North Carolina faces a burgeoning teacher shortage and widespread dissatisfaction in its teaching corps. Teacher turnover is at a five-year high, according to this past year’s annual “teacher turnover report” from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Since 2010, the number of teachers leaving because they are “dissatisfied with teaching” or to make a career change has nearly doubled, and the number of those leaving to teach in other states has more than tripled. Coupled with the steep declines in enrollment in teacher prep programs, our existing teacher shortage is quickly becoming a crisis.

Low pay doesn’t completely explain those numbers. We have to consider what else has happened. Supplemental pay for teachers who earn a master’s degree – eliminated. Longevity pay for veteran teachers – eliminated. Career status/tenure – eliminated for new teachers. The nationally heralded NC Teaching Fellows Program – eliminated. (The Public School Forum created and administered this state program for 25 years, placing 8,000 teachers in all 100 N.C. counties). Over 7,000 teacher assistant positions – eliminated. Funding for textbooks, classroom resources and teacher assistants down almost $1 billion since 2008. Today, our per-pupil spending ranks 46 nationally. Adjusted for inflation, we spend less per child than we did in 2008.

How did we ever win eight?

Election-year boosts

As the legislative “short session” opens this week, teacher pay will likely garner a lot of attention. We already have proposals to increase teacher pay from Gov. Pat McCrory and from Department of Public Instruction Superintendent June Atkinson. Senate leader Phil Berger has also said teacher pay raises are high on his agenda. There will be budget proposals from the governor, House and Senate, all three likely containing proposals to boost teacher pay. It is, after all, an election year, and election-year raises for teachers are as much a time-honored tradition as complaining about the humidity and mosquitoes.

What we need now is not election year tweaks. What we need is a massive, sustained and transformational investment in how the state supports its teachers, beginning with rapidly raising teacher pay to the national average and to the top in the Southeast. Salaries are not the only factor drawing teachers to the profession or determining how long they stay or why they leave. But a dramatic increase in teacher pay is necessary to make the state’s public schools a career destination again for promising teaching candidates, from within the state and without.

If you’ve never seen “Bull Durham,” spoiler alert. The manager’s tirade (along with a Kevin Costner instigated rain out) spurs the team to a franchise-record winning streak. North Carolina can start its own winning streak when it comes to teachers. We’ve done it before. Not so long ago North Carolina was the role model for how to invest in education and support teachers. Isn’t it time to stop “lollygagging” and make the investments we need in our teachers?

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