Listen up, N.C. lawmakers: Here’s why our teachers are leaving

The Observer editorial board

More than 100 educators and support staff from across North Carolina rallied in downtown Raleigh last year.
More than 100 educators and support staff from across North Carolina rallied in downtown Raleigh last year. rwillett@newsobserver.com

After this year’s marathon General Assembly session drew to a merciful close in Raleigh last week, Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, fired off a celebratory press release.

“Senate Republicans fulfilled our number one goal this session,” he said. “We maintained the spending discipline and commitment to tax cuts and reform that led to a $400 million budget surplus this year.”

We hope their No. 2 goal wasn’t to stabilize public schools and teaching staffs, because on that front, there’s precious little to celebrate.

The latest warning sign at our distressed public schools? A report last week showing the teacher turnover rate has reached a five-year high of 14.8 percent statewide, and a 12-year high of 16.5 percent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

That amounted to 1,420 of CMS’s 8,609 teachers for the 2014-15 school year. Departures for personal reasons – including dissatisfaction with teaching – have jumped statewide in the past two years.

It’s a job that’s getting harder and harder. In an improving economy, should anyone be surprised that fewer teachers are willing to accept what little our struggling local communities and indifferent state politicians are willing to give them?

It stands to reason that Charlotte’s teacher turnover rate runs higher than the state’s. We have more high-poverty schools with tough challenges, not to mention the presence of lower-stress, higher-paying S.C. school systems just across the border.

Sure, lawmakers approved an average 7 percent pay hike for teachers in the 2014-15 budget year. This year saw them give a $750 one-time bonus, along with pay hikes for new teachers and some “step” increases for others.

That’s far from enough. Even with some of the biggest pay raises in the nation last school year, teachers in Wake, Guilford and Charlotte still rank near the bottom nationally in terms of inflation-adjusted lifetime pay, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Business leaders are concerned about our schools’ ability to supply skilled workers. The state ranks 46th nationally in meeting its 2020 workforce needs, and a survey showed 40 percent of N.C. businesses had critical vacancies, according to Business for Educational Success and Transformation North Carolina (BEST NC), a reform group that includes 115 corporate leaders.

Walter McDowell, retired CEO of Wachovia Bank of North Carolina and the chairman of BEST NC, said in a recent press release of his own that the legislative session Berger is so proud of represents a missed opportunity to transform education in a state that ranked last in the nation in college and career readiness, as measured by ACT exam results.

The General Assembly’s modest education budget increases would be fine “if our schools were leading the nation and keeping pace globally,” he said. “However, in a global economy, failing to lead means you are actually falling behind.”

In a digital-age economy that favors big brains over big biceps, we need strong teachers more than ever. But judging from Berger’s jubilant press release, our leaders have other priorities.

There will be consequences for their dismissive treatment of teachers. Until they realize that, the rising turnover rate is just the tip of a much larger problem.