By any measure, Asheville Middle School’s Chris Gable was a teaching star.
Gable outperformed all of his colleagues as measured by his students’ test scores, and he had a gift for engaging his students. He coached young writers and was always finding innovative ways to make language arts interesting.
But a salary low enough to qualify him and his family for Medicaid and food assistance, combined with a lack of other professional support, forced him to leave his beloved town and state in search of a living wage.
“I feel guilty,” said Gable, who left two years ago for a teaching position in Columbus, Ohio. There, Gable said, he would earn nearly $30,000 a year more than the $38,000 he was making in North Carolina with 10 years’ experience and a master’s degree.
“I wanted to continue to serve this community, but the state legislature has made it impossible,” he said.
Gable is one of many. According to surveys conducted by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, teacher turnover rates have risen significantly over the past five years.
What’s up for debate is why teachers are leaving. Some say the figure does not represent a mass exodus because teachers are fed up, but rather that teachers are simply retiring early or moving to other school districts within the state.
But what is clear is that the teaching profession in North Carolina has taken a lot of hits over the past several years and that many teachers are exhausted, frustrated and ready to get out.
Teacher pay hits bottom
In the 1990s, then-Gov. Jim Hunt persuaded legislators to lift teacher pay to the national average to make North Carolina an attractive destination for highly qualified teachers. But the commitment didn’t last. Between 2008 and 2014, teachers saw their salaries frozen, save for a small increase offset by a rise in health insurance premiums. By 2014, the state had fallen in national rankings on teacher pay to 47th.
National Superintendent of the Year and former State Board of Education adviser Mark Edwards has a daughter who recently completed a teaching degree. She didn’t even try to teach here, Edwards told the State Board, instead taking a teaching job in Tennessee, where she will make about $11,000 a year more than a starting teacher in North Carolina.
In 2013, the starting salary for beginning teachers was just $30,800. Lawmakers have worked since then to bring the starting pay back up to $35,000 (where it was in 2008, adjusted for inflation). But compare that with Texas’ average starting salary of $47,000.
“On starting teacher pay and average teacher salaries, we are below Virginia, we’re below Tennessee, we’re below Kentucky, we’re below South Carolina, we’re below Georgia,” said Keith Poston, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. “How can we expect to get the kinds of high quality teachers that we need when we can’t even keep our own teachers in North Carolina?”
While lawmakers raised beginning teachers’ salaries in 2014 and 2015, veteran teachers were for the most part left behind, with minuscule pay bumps over the past several years, base salaries capped at $50,000 and salary supplements eliminated for teachers who earn master’s degrees.
“Of all industries, education should reward lifelong learning,” said June Atkinson, the state’s top school official. “And there is plenty of evidence to show that a master’s degree in a teacher’s area of study really makes a difference in student achievement.”
CJ Flay, a teacher at North Iredell Middle School in Olin, expressed his disappointment in a letter to N.C. Policy Watch about the ending of salary supplement for advanced degree holders. “I would never have gone on to pursue my degree if that decision had been made prior to August 2006,” said Flay in his letter. He said his wife, also a teacher, decided not to pursue a master’s degree because she could not expect a raise that would help her repay the cost of obtaining that degree.
Lawmakers do away with Teaching Fellows
As teachers expressed frustrations with the changes inflicted on their profession by the legislature — not just low pay, but also cuts to classroom supplies and teacher assistants and the loss of tenure — the UNC system has experienced a 27 percent decline in undergraduate and graduate teaching programs from 2010 to 2014.
One incentive was eliminated in 2011 when state lawmakers began phasing out the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, which awards scholarships to North Carolina high school students to pursue teaching degrees in the state. Graduates of the highly selective program were then required to teach for four years in North Carolina. More than 75 percent of Teaching Fellows stay in the state beyond five years.
The legislators took money earmarked for the program and put it toward expanding the presence of Teach for America (TFA), a national program designed to provide college graduates without degrees in education minimal training and place them in jobs in low-performing schools.
Teach for America’s retention rates are poor, however. On a national level, only 28 percent of TFA teachers remain in public schools beyond five years, compared with 50 percent of non-TFA teachers.
While the Teaching Fellows program was relatively small, doing away with it was a symbolic gesture, according to one of the program’s last graduates, Tacey Miller.
“Teaching Fellows was created in North Carolina and used as a national model for other programs looking to do something similar,” said Miller, who questioned why there is a will to eliminate a program that has worked so well to prepare future teachers and lure those thinking about teaching into the profession.
Due process rights eliminated
Another serious blow to the profession is the elimination of tenure, formally known as “career status.”
Tenure isn’t a guarantee of a job, but rather an assurance of due process before a teacher can be fired or demoted. It was an important benefit for teachers who often found themselves at the mercy of politicized school boards if they spoke out against harmful policies.
Legislation passed in 2013 would have eliminated tenure for all teachers by 2018, but the courts rolled back part of that that law last year, saying it violated the state constitution. The courts also rejected lawmakers’ proposal to offer some tenured teachers fatter pay raises and four-year contracts in exchange for giving up their tenure before 2018.
The result is that currently tenured teachers retain that benefit for the remainder of their careers, but teachers hired since August 1, 2013, can no longer rely on any kind of due process if they are fired or demoted. Instead, they get temporary year-to-year contracts — unless pending litigation overturns the law.
The list of hits to the teaching profession is taking its toll.
Melissa Noel, an AP English teacher in Johnston County with 19 years in the classroom, came to North Carolina five years ago to support her aging in-laws.
“It feels like we’re being encouraged to leave the profession,” said Noel. “Sending money to private schools in the form of school vouchers, reducing public school budgets, telling us our advanced degrees are not appreciated, and now our governor says experience is not appreciated? I know a lot of my colleagues will leave.”
Lindsay Wagner, former Education Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. Wagner now works for the A.J. Fletcher Foundation as Education Specialist.