On May 1, public education advocates will march through the streets of Raleigh to the state legislature to demand five things. While student support services, compensation, and Medicaid might be more sexy, there’s another goal on our agenda which is also crucial, as it aims to make it easier to attract good teachers to North Carolina.
After the last state budget was passed in the summer of 2017, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger was quick to congratulate his Senate and House colleagues for what he referred to as an ongoing effort to “improve education outcomes.” But provisions buried deep in that budget actually made it even more difficult for our state to address its teacher shortage, by discouraging teachers from entering the profession.
The budget changed eligibility of retired state employees for health benefits to include only those who “earned contributory retirement service … prior to January 1, 2021.” Teachers hired after that date who devote their lives to serving the children of North Carolina will be forced to purchase their own health insurance after they retire. That’s a really scary prospect considering the exorbitant costs and uncertainty surrounding health care in the United States.
This pending change comes at a time when North Carolina is already mired in an education crisis and facing a teacher shortage. As teacher salaries have continued to lag far beyond the national average, career protections have been stripped, pay for advanced degrees has been revoked, and insurance premiums have steadily risen, the number of students choosing to enroll in UNC teacher preparation programs has predictably declined. Just as troubling is our state’s 49th-and-dropping teacher pay competitiveness ranking, which compares teacher compensation with the wages of other industries requiring a college degree. With so few perks remaining, it’s no wonder we’re struggling to attract people to the teaching profession.
Across North Carolina, thousands of teaching vacancies have resulted in many students seeing an endless procession of substitute teachers. While these substitutes deserve a lot of credit for the incredibly difficult work they do, they are not equipped to provide the education outcomes we want for our children.
A study by the Rand Corporation found that, among school-related factors, having a high-quality teacher in place has the largest impact on student achievement – two to three times as much impact as factors such as services, facilities and school leadership. The Center for Public Education echoes Rand’s findings and adds that, in order to ensure that every child is taught by excellent teachers, states must step up efforts to recruit and retain top candidates. That’s exactly the opposite of what’s happening in North Carolina.
If our legislators are serious about improving education outcomes, their policies need to make this a more attractive state to teach in. Stripping retirement health benefits merely gives prospective teachers one more reason to turn their back on North Carolina’s schools. On May 1, supporters of public education in NC will be putting legislators on notice that we expect them to reinstate those benefits and to do so this session.