More Pay, More Mental Health Services Top List for NC Education Group

RALEIGH, NC — Student and teacher well-being were dominant themes at the North Carolina Public Schools Forum’s annual Eggs and Issues Breakfast Tuesday morning.

The topics guided the conversation around the priorities that the Forum and many educators and advocates around the state will be pushing for in the coming year, including during the new state legislative session.

The Public Schools Forum has officially unveiled its top five education issues for 2023, largely focused on teacher recruitment and retention and student health and academic needs.

“We know pay is not the only thing,” Lauren Fox, the forum’s senior director of policy and research, said at the breakfast at NC State University’s McKimmon Conference and Training Center. “But we won’t improve recruitment and retention or address teacher vacancies without significantly improving pay.”

The minimum living wage in North Carolina tops $48,000, she said, while the starting salary is lower than that.

Many of the educators who spoke acknowledged the difference between the solutions they proposed and what the North Carolina General Assembly may propose this spring. Only a handful of education bills have been filed in the week since lawmakers began filing.

North Carolina serves 1.5 million public school students, many of whom are still working to overcome the slowed pace of learning caused by the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Test results last spring showed a decline in student achievement in the subject areas, although schools have since stepped up more initiatives to accelerate student progress.
  1. “Fair and competitive” pay and benefits for faculty, including a 24.5% pay increase to make pay similar to other fields that require a bachelor’s degree
  2. Address mental health and school safety crises by providing more counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers in schools
  3. Increase and diversify the pool of new teachers and keep teachers here
  4. “Prepare students for the world they live in.” This includes teaching students soft skills, such as communication and empathy, and ensuring that the curriculum covers history, perspectives and content in diverse settings
  5. Implement the remedial plan in the Leandro case
The lawsuit, known as Leandro, was filed in 1994 by five low-income families and school boards, alleging that the state was not providing all students in the state with an adequate education as promised by the North Carolina constitution. The state Supreme Court sided with the families and school boards, but the ruling remains unenforced.

Increase in teacher pay

Dozens of educators, many of whom are no longer teachers, raised their hands when asked if they worked a side job or a few extra jobs when they were teaching.

Nadia Young was a trainer, worked at a pet store, and worked at a summer camp. She recalled taking a $6,000 pay cut when she moved from Colorado to North Carolina when she was still a teacher in the mid-2000s.

Eugenia Floyd, a former state teacher of the year and current Chapel Hill-Carboro City Schools teacher, said she does not feel financially comfortable as a teacher.

“As a student in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, I also lived in poverty,” Floyd said. “Education was supposed to be my way out of poverty. But I am on a devastating poverty event. And that’s a reality, not just for me, but that’s a reality for a lot of educators, if not across the state.”

Pay has increased since then, but remains too low, Young said. Mississippi raised the starting salary to $41,000, she noted, well above North Carolina’s official starting salary of $37,000.

Young no longer teaches. She is now the Director of Education Practice at SAS Institute.

“I just encourage us as a legislature and business community to keep moving, to keep pushing,” Young said.

Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the state is now providing a $175 million supplement to its base salary, which varies by district, in an effort to boost pay in smaller or more -low rich counties the way larger counties have been able to supplement pay.

To hire more teachers, Lee wants to increase “residency programs,” or more intensive teacher training and support programs for beginning teachers.

Union County Schools Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said leaders should promote the teaching profession to students when they are in middle school. They need to find ways to attract more students to the teaching profession without significant student loan debt, he said. This could include working with a community college or expanding programs that provide scholarships or reimbursements for the training of future teachers. Union County Schools plans to do some of that soon, he said.

Today’s young people fear college debt, he said, and value the opportunity to make a difference quickly.

“This generation wants an immediate return on investment,” Houlihan said.

Union County Schools — once relatively immune to the ongoing teacher shortage — has had trouble recruiting teachers in the past few years, Houlihan said. Many schools have offered retention and signing bonuses, using federal dollars for pandemic relief.

“That money disappears in a year and a half,” Houlihan said. “I’m not sure there’s a district in the state that has a stability plan to continue these funds … (to) continue the strategies that are having an impact now.”

Making schools safer

Leah Carper, the current state teacher of the year and high school English teacher in Guilford County Schools, said she thinks about student safety every day.

“When I hear a balloon pop in the hallway, I don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s somebody’s birthday!'” I think, ‘What am I supposed to do right now?'” Carper said. “That’s where we are right now.”

Wake County Public Schools Superintendent Kathy Moore noted that the state now requires every school system and charter school to have its own plan to address and improve student mental health and safety.

Moore said this is an important step, but not enough.

Schools need resources to implement the plans they think they need, she said.

“Let’s provide what we expect,” Moore said.

Carper said teachers are overwhelmed with responsibilities that are always growing and never taken away.

“We’re at a buffet and we’re not hungry anymore,” Carper said. Schools want to train teachers to teach culturally responsive and trauma-informed teaching practices. Teachers can worry about doing these things and feel overwhelmed at the same time, she said.

“We think, ‘I don’t know if I can do it anymore,'” Carper said.

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