Make education a real priority in North Carolina

Feb. 27, 2014 @ 09:07 PM

North Carolina has many educational firsts of which to be proud -- the first residential math and science high school, the first governor’s school and the first public university. So it baffles me as to how a state with such a rich history and strong record of valuing education has now become an embarrassment with regards to the treatment of its teachers.

Earlier this month, Gov. Pat McCrory announced a new plan to increase teacher pay, but the plan falls short. First, it only awards pay increases to teachers with zero to five years experience. What about those teachers who have not received a pay raise for the last six years? We do not want to drive our experienced teachers out of the state. Even with this new plan, North Carolina’s average teacher salaries are not competitive and remain below the national average.

Our legislature should increase all teacher salaries -- regardless of years in the profession -- so that we are paying teachers at or above the national average. It is time to move our position from 46th in average teacher pay to the top 20. Former Gov. Jim Hunt was able to do it in 2001, and it can be done again -- but only if we make our educational system a top priority and understand that stable schools and a strongly supported teaching force are essential to achieving the vision of excellence for North Carolina that we all share.

The failure to support North Carolina’s teachers is already having negative consequences across our state.  Many future teachers I work with will be exploring teaching opportunities outside of our state due in large part to the low salaries in North Carolina. I have also seen a steep decline in the morale of our teachers.  Many have expressed to me that they must either leave the profession entirely or relocate to a neighboring state in order to adequately support their families. I know of two teachers who live in North Carolina but travel nearly 100 miles each day into Virginia to teach for a higher wage. These examples do not even account for the thousands of teachers from other states who remove North Carolina from their list of possible locations to begin their careers.

As the debate in our state legislature gets underway, I am sure we will hear that there simply isn’t enough money in our state’s budget to raise teacher pay to competitive rates. However, our leaders always seem to find money to support other important initiatives. It is imperative that our legislators begin viewing our state’s educational system as a top priority that is key to our continued economic growth and development. 

The late James J. Gallagher, from UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, had a vision for a sound educational infrastructure. He acknowledged that our policymakers will only see education as a priority in the presence of fear and ambition. It seems our legislators do not fear what will happen to our public school system if we experience a massive teacher shortage. It seems they are not afraid of how North Carolina will be perceived by others across the nation, including corporations and industries, nor do they worry about the negative economic impact that the neglect of our public school system will surely bring. But even if they have no fear, don’t they at least feel a desire or ambition for North Carolina to be the best it can be?

It is critical that we fully understand the place and importance of our public education system in our state’s larger economic picture. If we really aspire for North Carolina to lead other states in all areas of human endeavor, then we must also understand the supporting infrastructure that needs to be in place to support our goals. This infrastructure includes providing the necessary resources -- both financial and human -- to fully support our teachers and schools. 

It is time for our legislators to restore North Carolina’s status as an education leader. Let’s throw our full support behind our teachers and get the job done.

Kristen R. Stephens is the director of the Academically/Intellectually Gifted Licensure Program and an associate professor of the practice in Duke University’s Program in Education.