Kevin Bastian, PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This article originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer

Over the last 30 years, North Carolina built a public education infrastructure that helped us become a regional and national leader in K-12 education. North Carolina created the Teaching Fellows program, took a leading role in the state standards and accountability movement and strongly supported the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. We invested in competitive teacher salaries, built professional development programs and won $400 million in the Race to the Top competition. These and other initiatives helped to advance the quality and retention of our teacher workforce.

However, in recent years North Carolina has asked its teacher workforce to do more with less. State policy has become teacher-adverse.

Over the last decade, teacher salaries fell further in North Carolina than in any state in the nation. Inflation-adjusted teacher pay dropped 17 percent between 2004 and 2014. As of 2014-15, North Carolina ranked 42 in average teacher salaries. The state now trails Georgia (24), Virginia (28), South Carolina (38) and Tennessee (39).

In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly de-funded the state’s nationally recognized Teaching Fellows program. The Teaching Fellows attracted 500 academically competitive students each year and supplied the state with teachers who were more effective and more likely to remain teaching in North Carolina classrooms. Two years later, North Carolina ended 10 percent pay increases for teachers earning graduate degrees and attempted to repeal career-status protections for teachers.

While the economy is starting to recover, funding for the state’s public schools remains low. As of 2013-14, North Carolina spent $8,632 per-student, ranking 47th nationally. Since 2008-09, North Carolina has reduced its teacher workforce by 4,500 teachers and its instructional aide workforce by 7,500 teaching assistants – a whopping 25 percent. The recent N.C. Senate budget proposal would cut teaching assistants even further. Now average class sizes are larger and teachers have less support to complete classroom tasks.

As a consequence, North Carolina faces several critical challenges with respect to its teacher workforce. Since fall 2010, enrollment in UNC system teacher education programs – the largest supplier of teachers in the state – has fallen 28 percent, from 23,600 to 17,100 enrollees. The Department of Public Instruction’s teacher turnover analyses show that district-level teacher attrition rates increased from 11.1 to 14.1 percent over that same period. This means that North Carolina school districts had to fill nearly 3,000 additional teaching positions in 2013-14.

Drops in teacher education enrollments and increases in teacher attrition, combined with a growing K-12 student population, mean that North Carolina will soon face a shortage of teachers, particularly in hard-to-staff schools and subject areas. Schools will need to fill open positions with demonstrably less effective options.

So how does North Carolina move forward?

Given the importance of teachers to student outcomes and the future of North Carolina, asking more of teachers is well-founded. However, if North Carolina wants to advance the quality of its teacher workforce, then the state must do more itself.

An oft-cited solution is to raise teacher pay to the national average. Certainly, investing in higher teacher salaries is important, but raising salaries is not enough. The state needs to go beyond the national average and build a new, comprehensive infrastructure to support teaching and public education. As argued in a new report for Think NC First, “More than the National Average,” North Carolina needs an interconnected set of policies to better recruit, prepare, develop and retain teachers.

Reinstating recruitment incentives to attract more high-caliber individuals to teaching and bolstering a teacher compensation system that ensures a competitive level of base pay throughout a teacher’s career will make the teaching profession more attractive to prospective and current educators;

Requiring in-state teacher education programs to raise standards and use data for continuous program improvement, while providing high-quality and comprehensive coaching to support all beginning teachers, will increase the performance and retention of our future teacher workforce.

Recommitting to funding public schools at a level that is competitive with our neighboring states and beyond will signify North Carolina’s commitment to our teachers’ success.

In all these efforts, North Carolina policy-makers must commit to conducting rigorous research and using evidence to inform policy decisions. As our elected leaders come together on a compromise state budget, know that a new, well-funded infrastructure built on research and evidence is required to improve the quality of our teacher workforce and guarantee better results for our students.

Kevin Bastian is a research associate at UNC-Chapel Hill and specializes in research on North Carolina’s teachers and school leaders.