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Politicians hurt students with a teacher shortage; they must fix this now with a better state budget

By DIANE MITCHELL and DEE GRISSETT

If you sat down in the dentist chair, you would think it crazy if the receptionist barged in to say, “Good morning, we’re still trying to hire a hygienist. So between phone calls and scheduling appointments, I’m here to clean your teeth.” It sounds like a Three Stooges skit, but something similar is happening in our public schools. It’s not funny at all to educators like us.

Many North Carolina students are going back to school to find classrooms without qualified teachers. Because of a widespread teacher shortage, schools are filling classrooms with substitutes, teaching assistants, and unlicensed instructors. North Carolina has zero education requirements to work as a substitute teacher.

The teacher shortage is worse in some counties, but it’s felt across the state. Scroll through the school district websites, and you will see over a thousand vacant teaching positions even as the school year has already started. Teaching vacancies on the first day of school were three times higher in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools than two years ago. Only 30% of North Carolina students have a fully licensed math teacher. Math teachers in Robeson County are covering classes in person in one school and then jumping onto Zoom meetings to teach math remotely to students in other schools. “The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought,” said a Robeson County assistant superintendent.

The U.S. Department of Education tracks Teacher Shortage Areas across states. For the 2021-22 school year, the federal government says North Carolina has a shortage of qualified teachers in all grades of math and special education and all core subjects in all elementary school grades. Many school districts are offering new teacher signing bonuses funded with federal COVID relief dollars, but the teacher shortage persists.

Behind these numbers is real harm to our children. Students are less likely to learn to read with a substitute teacher who’s not familiar with the best ways to teach reading. Students are less likely to master math with a teacher who is learning as they go. We are letting our students down during their formative years. Our children deserve better.

How did we get here? It’s deeper than COVID. For the last decade, North Carolina’s state lawmakers have passed state budgets that underfund public education and undermine teachers. Politicians are not treating or paying teachers as professionals. North Carolina’s average teacher salary is $10,000 below the national average. Experienced teachers are leaving the state and profession. College students are choosing other careers.

Better pay would go a long way to solve this teacher shortage. New Hanover County recently doubled its local salary supplement for its teachers who are now some of the best paid in the state. A school district with some 1700 teachers started the school year with just ten teaching vacancies. Unfortunately, that’s a solution many rural counties like ours cannot afford. The teacher shortage is a statewide problem that needs a statewide solution.

And our state’s Supreme Court has said public education is the state’s responsibility. In its Leandro rulings, the court said every child has a constitutional right to a “sound, basic education,” and the state is not living up to its constitutional responsibility. Court-ordered improvement plans include placing a well-qualified teacher in every classroom. So far, the state legislature has largely ignored these rulings.

Some politicians have tried to dismiss the teacher shortage by claiming we need more data to see if statewide teacher vacancy numbers are better or worse than last year. That’s like waiting to fight the forest fire until you can confirm the blaze has grown since yesterday. North Carolina’s teacher shortage is obvious now. It’s hurting our children now. Now is the time to fix it.

The immediate first step to ending this teacher shortage is adopting a state budget with better funding for public education. Of course, state lawmakers who have underfunded our public schools are dithering over a $6.5 BILLION surplus and have still not adopted a new budget that was due two months ago. So far, their budget proposals would largely ignore the NC Supreme Court’s funding demands for education. Instead, they would further cut corporate income taxes.

Meantime, many North Carolina schools are leaning on teaching assistants and long-term subs to cover classrooms that don’t have permanent, licensed teachers. Parents, the public, and voters should tell our politicians to fix this now. You would not go to the dentist, and then let the receptionist clean your teeth.

Diane Mitchell is a high school social studies teacher in Hoke County and president of the Hoke Co. Assoc. of Educators. She has been an educator for 40 years.

Dee Grissett is a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Coordinator in Robeson County and president of the Robeson Co. Assoc. of Educators. She has been an educator for 16 years.