Among states that have struggled to find enough teachers to fill their classrooms this school year, North Carolina may be in a special class. Its problems stem not necessarily from how many teachers it is able to recruit, but from how many leave.
Despite some state action to reduce teacher attrition, new data show little or no return on such efforts, with turnover now at the highest rate in at least five years, at nearly 15 percent of teachers. In 2010, turnover was at just over 11 percent.
In August 2014, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, signed into law a budget deal that overhauled the salary schedule, introducing a step system that gave an average 7 percent salary increase to teachers as a way to improve retention. However, the heftiest raises went to new teachers, who tend to have higher attrition, while more-established veterans received raises as small as 1 percent.
In a statement released after that budget deal, House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, also Republicans, made an optimistic declaration:
“Investing $282 million in pay raises will make North Carolina competitive nationally and encourage the best and brightest teachers to make a long-term commitment to their profession, our students, and our state.”
According to an October report from the state education department, though, in the year since that new budget was enacted, the teacher-attrition rate went up.
The state’s classification of “turnover due to personal reasons” is a relatively new term. Up until 2012, those types of attrition were listed (tellingly) as “turnover that might be reduced.” In 2014-15, more than 2,700 teachers left for such reasons, a 21 percent increase over the year prior.
SOURCE: North Carolina Department of Public Instruction
The report collected data from March 2014 to March 2015, and the raises only went into effect in August 2014, so there may be a greater impact visible when new data are available. What the study currently shows, though, is the highest turnover in more than a decade and major disparities in teacher-retention rates among districts.
In Northampton County, a small district in the northeast part of the state, one-third of its 155 teachers left during the 2014-15 school year. By contrast, Graham County, a half-hour drive east of the Tennessee border, had the highest retention rate, with only five of its 87 teachers leaving. Five other districts with 100 or fewer teachers had at least double Graham’s attrition rate.
“Parents support teachers here, the community engages with the teachers here,” said Angela Knight, the Graham County district’s superintendent. “We really do have a small traditional community atmosphere, and [teachers] get invested in that, and they just want to stay.”
(As of press time, representatives from Northampton hadn’t returned requests for comment.)
Where there is greater attrition, Knight recommended looking to the state’s legislature as a cause. “We’re having attrition because the education profession is not supported at all by the General Assembly,” she said.
Indeed, among educators in North Carolina, there is little love for the Republican-controlled legislature. In discussing the department’s report with North Carolina Public Radio station WUNC, state schools chief June Atkinson laid blame on lawmakers for not doing more to increase salaries for veteran teachers.
Lawmakers also attempted to end tenure, but were rebuffed by a state appeals court. A legislative stalemate this summer over school funding in the newest budget only exacerbated matters, reportedly causing anger among thousands of teaching assistants who were at risk of being laid off.
A decade ago, North Carolina paid teachers better than half the other states in the country. The state now ranks among the bottom fifth in terms of teacher salary, according to state and federal data.
Research shows that turnover happens for any number of reasons, only one of which stems from teacher dissatisfaction. The state education department divides turnover into five categories: teachers who left their district but remained in education in North Carolina; teachers who were dismissed or forced out by their district; teachers who left for largely uncontrollable reasons (retirement, mostly, or military transfers, or death); teachers who left for personal reasons; and unknown reasons.
It’s the “personal reasons” category where the real problems appear to lie. North Carolina lost about 2,700 teachers last year due to causes that suggest personal dissatisfaction with the state’s public schools, whether through outright exit from the profession, poaching by other states, or early retirement. That compares to about 2,245 teachers leaving for such reasons the year before, a 21 percent increase. North Carolina employed about 96,000 teachers during the 2014-15 school year.
A Legislative Issue
Some North Carolina school administrators told Asheville’s Citizen-Times that they’re losing teachers to surrounding states like Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina; Texas has repeatedly mined the North Carolina teaching corps with the promise of higher salaries.
According to the National Education Association, both Georgia and South Carolina offer better average teacher salaries than North Carolina; Florida is roughly equivalent.
North Carolina spends less on education relative to many other states. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, state spending on teacher salaries fell more in North Carolina than in any other state between 2000 and 2013, adjusted for inflation. When lawmakers overhauled the salary schedule in 2014, teachers with a bachelor’s degree were promised at least $188,000 more over the course of 35 years of teaching compared with the previous salary schedule, but that rate was still below salary levels from 2007-08 after adjusting for inflation.
The state also lowered the value of master’s degrees, which some researchers say offer little benefit to instructional capacity. There’s still a significant pay bump for teachers who obtain certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
In a memo on its website, the state’s Republican Party says that funding issues aren’t the state’s fault. “The fact remains that our county and city governments could choose to spend more on educating our children, but they don’t,” the unauthored post says.
But more than dissatisfaction over pay, there’s frustration among educators expressed in news articles, in editorials, and in blog posts that the legislature is trying to dismantle the state’s public education system.
“Right now,” Knight said, “public education doesn’t seem to be important.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2015 edition of Education Week as N.C. Plagued by Teacher Attrition Despite Retention, Pay Measures