I was talking to the superintendent of a small school system last fall, and she mournfully told me about losing her best high school math teacher to South Carolina, where he would earn $10,000 more per year for doing the same job. We all know young adults who would be good teachers, who would like to teach in NC and who won’t go into teaching, or who won’t come to North Carolina, because we do not pay enough for a teacher to live on. We all know of schools that will open this month without a qualified teacher in each classroom.
Almost all of us in North Carolina believe that our public schools should prepare each child for a meaningful and productive life. Parents deserve to be confident that their children will finish school prepared for the future. To accomplish this, schools must have good teachers in each classroom and enough up-to-date textbooks and technology.
Since North Carolina is currently significantly behind in providing enough funding for teachers, textbooks, and technology, I was surprised to read that talk of TABOR, the so called “tax-payer bill of rights,” has resurfaced in the legislature. This proposed amendment to the state’s Constitution would both cap NC’s income tax at 5 percent, helping those with higher incomes, and cost the state $1.5 billion a year in revenue. It would also limit increases in state spending based on inflation and population growth with no room for improving public schools even in prosperous times.
We are fortunate to have thousands of effective, dedicated teachers in our schools. To keep them, and to attract new ones, we need to recruit smart young adults into the profession, prepare them well and pay them enough so they can support their families. Currently, about half of our teachers quit in their first five years. If we invested in recruiting, preparing and supporting them, more would stay longer, allowing us to invest in the next round of new teachers.
North Carolina has never been at the top of the pack on teacher pay, but in the 1990’s we decided to raise teacher pay by $1 billion over four years and bring it to the national average. Student achievement soared! Now, because of the recession, years of no or minimal pay raises and elimination of pay increases for masters’ degrees, pay levels have gotten much worse. Currently, it takes 10 years before a new teacher earns $40,000 a year. The top pay, no matter how many years, is $50,000. Enrollment in UNC’s teacher education programs has dropped 27 percent over the past five years. One education dean said her biggest challenge in recruiting smart college students into teaching is that their parents know they won’t earn enough to support their families as teachers.
North Carolina needs to increase teacher pay on average by $10,000 per year to reach the national average, so we can attract and keep qualified teachers for the classrooms of our future. That means we need to raise teacher compensation by about $1 billion per year – a big number. But having good teachers is important, and we could pay for this increase for less than TABOR would lower taxes on the most well off.
We’re stuck, however, if we adopt a constitutional amendment that reduces our income and caps our spending essentially at the current level. Why would we want a constitutional provision that would prevent us from deciding to make smart investments? Why would we want to prohibit our legislature from having and using available revenues to invest in teachers, textbooks and technology? Why would we want to tie our own hands?
Leslie J. Winner is the Executive Director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.