All eyes and ears were on education funding and teacher pay at the Public School Forum of North Carolina annual Eggs and Issues conference. The event was held in person at the McKimmon Center, on Tuesday, January 31, 2023, for the first time since 2020, with over 400 stakeholders in the room, plus more joining virtually from across the state.
Elected officials. K-12 educators. Students. Teaching fellows.
Department of Public Instruction representatives. Nonprofit and advocacy partners.
All there to focus on NC education issues.
With Alfred Mays, Public School Forum Board Chair, and Dr. Lauren Fox, Public School Forum Senior Director of Policy and Research, joining her, Dr. Mary Ann Wolf, President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of NC welcomed attendees and gave an overview of their top education issues for 2023-2024.
- Ensure fair and competitive compensation for educators.
- In introducing the recommendation to increase state-funded base pay for teachers by 24.5% to reach the national average and eliminate the teacher pay penalty, Wolf emphasized the low pay in NC is not even a living wage.
- Grow, retain, and diversify the teacher pipeline.
- Teacher vacancies topped 3,600 at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. Districts also reported that more than 3,600 certified teaching roles were filled by staff who were not fully licensed to teach in NC. Vacancies spanned all grade levels and subject areas, and showed a significant increase from the previous year.
- Address the root causes of mental health and school safety crises.
- When referring to the need to provide funding for professional development in trauma-informed practices for educators, Wolf said, “Kids have the right to feel safe and supported at school.”
- Prepare students for the world they live in.
- One action highlighted here was how important social-emotional learning was with an evidence-based pedagogy and the action for that is to implement robust SEL and equity plans in every district, as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
- Implement, monitor, and evaluate the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.
- With this point, Wolf noted that we are “not fulfilling” what is “constitutionally owed to our children” by not implementing the plan, also referred to by its Leandro case name, and that “we have a long way to go.”
Following the top issues overview, Wolf moved into panel discussions first exploring teacher recruitment, retention, and diversity, and then mental health, school safety, and school culture with school leaders, policy makers, teachers, and students, sharing insights on both.
NC Teacher Recruitment, Retention & Diversity
With this first panel on teacher recruitment, retention and diversity, we heard from:
- Dr. Andrew Houlihan, Union County Superintendent, who shared concerns for how compensation and working conditions impact recruitment, and also expressed needing more support to offer employees in schools who might want to be teachers, but don’t have the pathway.
- Nadja Young, Director of Education Practice for SAS, who shared that the business community recognizes that it all starts in K-12 education and how she faced challenges and a significant pay cut just relocating from out of state to become an educator in NC.
- Dr. Anthony Jackson, Chatham County Schools Superintendent, questioned how we’re trying to solve (post) pandemic problems with pre-pandemic solutions. “We systematically crippled our systems. If we keep hitting the same walls, don’t blame the walls,” he shared to a round of applause.
- Jacqueline Dickens, a new third grade teacher from Edgecombe County and recent graduate of East Carolina, who asked for more effective resources and training to keep up with the fast-paced technology being introduced to our students and teachers.
A key barrier noted: the lack of incentives to recruit high school students to pursue working in the education field. There is regular talk about shortages of funding, low teacher pay, and the gatekeeping to pathways to working as school educators or staff. And this isn’t exactly great marketing to reel in those we need to shape the brains of our best and brightest young minds.
What the whole panel agreed upon: it’s important to invest in good school leaders and both the resources and opportunities matter.
Eugenia Floyd, 2021 NC Teacher of the Year in Chapel Hill / Carrboro Schools, reflected on the immediacy and urgency with which teachers adapted to the pandemic, urging the NC General Assembly to act with a similar sense of urgency to address teacher pay and the teacher pipeline.
We often find ourselves waiting for needed change and just accepting that government and politics are slow. But, we wouldn’t do that with our garbage collection, as Floyd pointed out how essential and better paid garbage collectors are. She noted how a trash truck driver is an absolute necessity to keep our society clean and functioning, with a requirement of a CDL, and about $50,000 in pay. Yet, we have teachers living in poverty. What does this say about our value for teachers, education and giving our students quality resources and opportunities?
On hand to explore this, with Floyd, was Senator Michael Lee (R), who represents District 7 in New Hanover County, and said, “If we don’t do something we will fail a generation. We’ve got to find a new model, by which to reach children.”
Mental Health, School Safety, & School Culture in NC
The second panel, called “Mental Health, School Safety, and School Culture” further explored the ways to reach children and offer all in our learning communities a better environment. This panel shared insights from:
- Xavier Adams, NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching (NCCAT) 2022 Prudential NC Beginning Teacher of the Year for Orange County Schools, who noted that our state doesn’t “have teachers trained to care for all students,” when we’re adding free school meals only to have them taken away, sending children back to food insecurity while learning, and the trauma imposed upon our students not only through COVID, but other issues that get picked apart in teaching certain topics or pedagogies.
- Catty Moore, Wake County Schools Superintendent, who pointed out that we need to “resource what we expect” and “we cannot start with inadequacy and stay there. Normal is not where we want to go because normal didn’t work for our students.”
- Maritza Rosado, Principal for Johnston County Schools, who emphasized that we need to “bring back service to our community” and that means ensuring that students are getting what they need and so are teachers.
- Bushra Elfgee and Onesty Sutton, Duplin County School students, who each shared sentiments on how communication is key within the school systems to ensure good leadership and care for the whole health and well-being of students. Elfgee said, “A school should feel like a home” and Sutton shared about the collaboration necessary to prioritizing mental health.
- Magan Gonzales-Smith, Durham Public Schools Foundation Executive Director, who outlined the importance of “community-rooted” interventions, with the goal to amplify more resources and ideas to improve upon mental health, safety and culture in NC schools.
The closing discussants, Leah Carper, 2022 BWF NC Teacher of the Year, out of Guilford County Schools, and Senator Sydney Batch (D), who represents District 17 in Wake County, reiterated that we must meet our children and our educators where they are and bring real, personal stories to policy makers, in order to impact on mental health, school safety and school culture.
The sharing of real, personal stories from across NC is especially important – even more so than data and statistics – because, as Senator Batch pointed out, only three out of 170 legislators in the NC General Assembly, are moms of school age children and can understand the journey of so many parents, children, and families today. There’s still much progress to be made and many stories of childhood learning experiences to be shared.
Moving Forward to Focus on the Top Education Issues
In closing, Dr. Mary Ann Wolf, reminded NC education stakeholders of the importance of possibility for student-centered learning. It’s not as much about being 48th in the nation on education funding, but looking at where that money is going and what it is used to support. As the conference concluded, Wolf asked:
“We have the resources; the question is, do we have the will?”
Only time will tell, but we remain focused on the intersection of early care and education as so important in ensuring overall success for our educators and students.
The NC Early Childhood Foundation is driven by a bold – and achievable – vision: Each NC child has a strong foundation for life-long health, education, and well-being supported by a comprehensive, equitable birth-to-eight ecosystem. We build understanding, lead collaboration, and advance policies to ensure each NC child is on track for lifelong success by the end of third grade.