by Mary Ann Wolf
As I listened to North Carolina’s phenomenal Regional Teachers of the Year during today’s episode of Education Matters, I was reminded yet again that our state has work to do to ensure that the teaching profession is well-supported and attractive to our best and brightest educators and leaders. As the daughter of a teacher and a former teacher myself, I know how incredibly challenging the role can be, and yet, the pandemic has exacerbated many of the inequities that our students, teachers and schools face.
Did you know that educator preparation programs in North Carolina have experienced declining enrollments of more than 50 percent since the Great Recession? This reality has had a cascading effect, and attracting and retaining high quality educators to our classrooms has become increasingly challenging over the last decade. One way to turn this around is to improve working conditions, including increasing educator compensation and creating incentives to enable low-wealth districts to attract and retain qualified and well-prepared teachers. Earlier this year, the Public School Forum called for raising pay for teachers and instructional support staff by at least 5% for the 2021-22 fiscal year. Our General Assembly is currently working on developing a budget that includes teacher pay proposals that do not quite meet that goal post — but they do include some increases and bonuses that teachers would appreciate, as they have not had raises since 2018. We hope that our state leaders move expeditiously toward passing a state budget that supports our educators and makes the profession more attractive than it is today.
Another important endeavor we must undertake is to work harder to significantly increase the racial and ethnic diversity of North Carolina’s qualified and well-prepared teacher workforce. Research has found that students of color have stronger academic and social-emotional outcomes when they have same-race teachers in their classrooms, and all students are at a disadvantage by not having teachers of color. The work resulting from the Governor’s DRIVE Task Force has offered a clear roadmap that contains innovative practices to support this effort. We can support district-based Grow Your Own recruitment programs and scale up other promising teacher preparation programs that tackle the critical need to diversify the teaching workforce.
It is also critical that the budget contains an additional provision that safeguards our local school districts’ financial ability to equitably serve all students by holding their budgets harmless this year for any enrollment decreases they experience thanks to the unexpected Delta variant impacting children and families across our state and nation.
Finally, if you’re asking if we have the resources to do more for our public schools — the answer is yes. While we, like all states across the country, have access to federal COVID relief funding, much of that has been and continues to be rightfully spent on materials to protect our children and teachers’ health and safety and programming to mitigate other impacts of the pandemic. Those dollars are also intended to be one-time monies, and North Carolina needs to couple that federal spending with recurring state investments that set us up for success to serve future generations. Fortunately, we have weathered the pandemic well from an economic standpoint, and our state has an additional $6.5 billion in state revenues to spend over this biennium.
To continue to attract thriving industries that will want to do business in North Carolina, a system of strong public schools is an absolute requirement in ensuring a robust economy for years to come. Many of the requirements contained in the court ordered Leandro plan offer targeted, strategic investments in our public school system designed to ensure each and every one of our children has access to a sound basic education that positions them, and our state, to succeed on the global stage. There’s never been a better time to invest in our young people and the necessary supports that ensure they receive a high quality public education— let’s do it now, and let’s do it with strong, recurring investments that will pay dividends over the decades to come.
Education Matters, September 4, 2021