Teachers’ salaries are crucial in post-pandemic schooling and the economy

North Carolina will soon mark — but not celebrate — the second anniversary of the emergency order to close public schools in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak. As the March 14 date approaches, the state continues to grapple with the consequences of lost instructional time, staffing shortages, teacher morale, and inequities made more evident by the pandemic.

Based on data collected from December 2021 to February 2022, the National Center for Education Statistics found that 44% of public schools nationwide reported having at least one vacant teaching position in January. More than 50% of teaching or staff vacancies were due to resignations.

“Among schools reporting at least one vacancy,” said NCES, “special education was identified as the teaching position with the most vacancies, with 45% of schools reporting this vacancy, followed by general elementary education (31%) and substitute teachers (20 percent).Resignation was reported as the leading cause of teacher vacancies (51%), followed by retirement (21%).

In North Carolina, the State Board of Education this week received a report showing a relatively modest increase in teacher attrition during the first school year of the pandemic. In 2020-21, the report said, 7,735 of the state’s 94,000 teachers left the profession — an attrition rate of 8.2%, slightly higher than the rate of 7.5% in 2019-20.

Uncertainty and concern remain over the fallout from Year 2 as schools reverted from online to classroom instruction. Additionally, North Carolina had unfinished business before the pandemic to bolster teacher recruitment and retention, quality and diversity — and no measure can be more important than paying teachers as professionals.

Pulling data from the UNC system dashboard, Public Schools First NC, a Raleigh-based advocacy organization, pointed out that enrollment of students majoring in education fell sharply from 2012 to 2021 at public universities in the state, the largest source of new teachers. Bachelor’s enrollments fell from 12,434 to 7,901 and master’s enrollments from 5,918 to 5,411.

Of particular note is the public schools-first observation that North Carolina’s six “minority-serving” public universities…whose early-career faculty are primarily racial/ethnic minorities, have been particularly impacted by declining enrollment. With the exception of NCCU (North Carolina Central University), enrollment and program numbers have dropped dramatically for all schools.

Amber Northern, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, recently took note of research at the University of Maryland that found that “compared to their white colleagues, teachers of color have large and lasting effects on the socio-emotional, academic, and behavioral outcomes of their students.”

“Teachers of color,” she wrote, “are more likely than their white colleagues to see student intelligence as malleable rather than fixed, to build interpersonal relationships with students and their families, to spend more time planning instruction and differentiating students’ instructional approaches. ‘ needs, and for leading well-organized classrooms… Even more interestingly, the effects of teachers of color on self-efficacy extend not only to students of color, but also to their white peers.

North Carolina has, of course, taken steps to repair and expand its pipelines for recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers. Governor Roy Cooper appointed a DRIVE task force to address the need for greater teacher diversity. The UNC and community college systems have a new articulation agreement under which community college students would transfer into university teacher training programs. The General Assembly reconstituted a reduced program of teaching grants which it cheerfully de-funded in 2011.

Always, the Southern Regional Education Board’s online dashboard shows that North Carolina’s starting, overall, and top salaries, as well as teachers’ take-home pay, were below national and regional averages in 2019-20. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan liberal think tank, reported that teachers in North Carolina earned 25% per week less than “their peers with a similar education” before the pandemic. How teachers’ compensation does or does not align with that of government and corporate professionals is a stronger metric than the conventional debate over state salary rankings.

For teachers, lawmakers decreed salary increases of a meager 1.3% for each year of the 2021-23 biennium, plus one-off bonuses. The budget also gave most counties — with the exception of several urban communities — additional funds to supplement teachers’ salaries.

Overall, however, the current budget falls far short of putting North Carolina on a sustainable path toward paying professional salaries to teachers. As North Carolina and the nation recover from the shutdown that began two years ago, its public institutions, especially schools, are entering a battle for talent in a post-pandemic economic environment.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is Director of the Public Life Program and Professor of Practice at UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and Vice President of EducationNC.

Norma A. Roth