More reasons to worry about public education’s future in NC

Why, we wonder sometimes, would anyone want to become a teacher? It’s hard to imagine a more demanding job that rewards trained professionals less. Our teachers need at least a college degree and most are encouraged to have a master’s as well. There are strict licensing requirements. And, since the recession, resources and pay for teachers in North Carolina have diminished to the point that most of them would be better off in just about any other state.

That was the depressing conclusion reached by analysts at the number-crunching website WalletHub. In a study released last week, WalletHub’s education experts scored the 50 states and the District of Columbia on average teacher salaries (adjusted for cost of living), quality of school systems, student-teacher ratios, public school spending per student, teachers’ income growth potential, the 10-year change in teacher salaries and teacher safety.

Their conclusion: It doesn’t get much worse for teachers than North Carolina. The state ranked 49th in the country, ahead of only Arizona and Hawaii. You’re better off as a teacher in every other state — and yes, that includes such education luminary states as Mississippi (46th) and Arkansas (37th). A teacher only needs to drive north to Virginia to work in a state that ranks 12th in the nation for teachers’ quality of life and work — the study’s top-ranked state in the South.

This state ranks 30th in average teacher salary, 32nd in the quality of school systems, 34th in student-teacher ratios, 38th in teachers’ income growth potential, 39th in public school spending per student, 43rd in teacher safety and 46th in the 10-year change in teacher salaries.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone preparing for a teaching career would be motivated to stay in North Carolina.

The WalletHub study is just the latest reason for concern about the future of our public education system. As longtime Cumberland County school superintendent Bill Harrison pointed out in an op-ed column last week, “Adjusted for inflation, per-student funding remains 5 percent below pre-recession levels.” Our schools have “fewer teachers, assistant principals and teacher assistants. Funding for textbooks and classroom supplies is about half of where it was before the recession.”

Harrison, a former chairman of the State Board of Education, aimed his critique at state Sen. Wesley Meredith of Fayetteville. But the indictment really belongs to most of Meredith’s fellow leaders in the General Assembly, who have been irresponsible stewards of the North Carolina Constitution’s directives on public education. The constitution requires the state to maintain “a general and uniform system of free public schools.”

As the state Supreme Court pointed out in its 1997 “Leandro” decision, all children in North Carolina are entitled to a “sound basic education,” and they’re not getting one. More than 20 years ago, our state’s highest court ruled that economic disparities between the counties were preventing children in “low wealth” counties from getting that sound, basic education. The decision specifically targeted the school systems in Hoke, Cumberland and Robeson counties.

The General Assembly’s reaction to Leandro was to ignore it — and this was true of the Democrats who led the General Assembly in pre-recession times as well. But under Republican leadership, it’s gotten significantly worse. And as they emerged from recession, most other states have restored their education systems and improved spending. North Carolina is lagging far behind them.

The WalletHub study shows just one more reason why the best and brightest young teachers are likely to look for work elsewhere.

And it’s one more reason why we should be deeply worried about the future of public education in North Carolina.

The Fayetteville Observer