A snapshot of public education in NC

North Carolina’s quality of public education is declining at an alarming rate. While public education spending is being cut nationwide, teacher pay is being cut most rapidly in North Carolina. NC lowered teacher salaries nearly 16 percent from 2002 to 2012, while other states had a median decline of one percent. This means that currently, North Carolina teachers earn almost $10,000 less than the national average. For a point of comparison, a first year teacher in North Carolina makes $30,800 while the starting salary for teachers in Kentucky is close to $40,000. This pay decrease is making it difficult for North Carolina to compete on a national level. There is less incentive for teachers to work in public schools in North Carolina, where it would take the average teacher more than 15 years to earn a yearly salary of $40,000. Whereas, if teachers decided to move to Virginia they would see this pay increase in only four.

Rodney Ellis, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state’s largest teacher advocacy group says the outlook of North Carolina teachers is bleak.

“Morale is at the bottom of the barrel right now throughout this state,” he says. “Teachers are really questioning why they want to teach, why they want to teach here in North Carolina. They have to take care of their own families, and it’s difficult to do that when our salaries are as low as they are. We’ve got educators who right now qualify for government assistance.”

And teachers aren’t the only ones who are suffering. In 2013, North Carolina legislature made a slew of changes to public education: teachers no longer have job security because of the abolishment of tenure, extra pay for graduate degrees was eliminated, the creation of vouchers means private learning institutions can now tap into the shrinking amount of budgetary allowance for public schools, schools are now required to adopt CommonCore standards. To afford these changes,the budget for materials has been slashed.  Funds for books were cut by a whopping 80 percent, allocating $14.96 per year per student– hardly enough to cover the costs of one textbook. This has moved North Carolina to rank 48th in per pupil expenditures.

In addition to these legislative changes came demographic changes. In 2013 the legislature eliminated funding for 5,200 teachers and 3,850 teacher assistants as the student population grew. The state would have to hire 29,300 people to bring the employee-student ratio back to the same rate it was in 2008.

North Carolina is faced with a situation where teachers have more students, less pay, no books, less assistance and less planning time. The situation is only compounded by the fact that as school spending is cut, child poverty is increasing at an alarming rate and has reached up to 68 percent in some areas of Durham. Public education is a common resource for combating poverty in communities, but schools are finding their resources are being more swiftly depleted.

These changes will likely extend to higher education throughout North Carolina as well. When students have little access to qualified teachers and books, their college readiness drops, which quickly translates to a decline in enrollment – especially for those students entering college with plans of entering the public sector. In the past year since these changes have occurred, enrollment in state education programs has dropped by anywhere from 20 to 40 percent.

This situation mirrors a problem faced by legislators in the early 1990s. In 1992, Governor Jim Hunt ran for a fourth term on the platform of raising teacher pay to the national average. This ambitious plan would require a $10,000 pay raise per teacher. This mission was supported and passed by a bipartisan legislature. North Carolina quickly earned recognition as one of the highest ranking states in public education. Teachers soon were paid above the national average, attracting talented educators and new businesses, impressed by the state’s commitment to educating children.

Soon our legislature will release its plans for next year’s budget. In it will be a financial outline of the state’s public education priorities. Both parties assure  the budget will include teacher pay increases, but only time will tell which reform policies make North Carolina a more attractive state for teachers and families.