NC CEOs: Why addressing our teacher shortage is more critical than ever | Opinion

Since 2017, North Carolina business leaders have coordinated closely with our government leaders to increase third grade reading proficiency in our state, something that is key to our state’s talent pipeline and our long-term economic success.

A student who achieves this education milestone is three times more likely to graduate high school and go on to post-secondary training or education. Those who do not are four times more likely to drop out of school.

Jim Goodnight
Jim Goodnight
Dale Jenkins
Dale Jenkins

Six years ago, we released a report from the Business Roundtable, “Why Reading Matters and What to Do about It.” The report outlined state-level policies that, if implemented, would significantly increase third grade reading proficiency.

We urged our state leaders to move forward on those policy recommendations. The General Assembly and Gov. Roy Cooper took important steps to bring those recommendations to life.

Today, we are training our grades P-5 educators to more effectively teach children to read. Our colleges of education are modifying how pre-service teachers learn to teach a child to read, and a new coaching model is being implemented to help teachers hone their new skills.

Preliminary data released just last week shows real progress. Literacy growth in grades K-3 is outpacing and surpassing other states across the country. We applaud our leadership for making this happen. But we run a risk of derailing this progress because of teacher shortages in our K-12 system.

Tuesday, we business leaders are releasing an updated Business Roundtable report, “Why Reading Matters Now More Than Ever.” It underscores the urgent need to have a teacher in every elementary school classroom with a firm understanding of how to teach a child to read, aligned to the science of reading.

This will be difficult to do because of our teacher shortages.

This school year, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) reported 5,540 vacancies on Day 1 of classes, a 46% increase from the 2021-22 school year. On Day 40, 5,091 vacancies still existed, up 58% from the prior year.

This means more than 5,000 of our N.C. classrooms did not have a certified, permanent teacher in the classroom when nearly a quarter of the school year was already over. Some of the highest teacher vacancies are in our elementary schools where a child learns to read.

Fueling these shortages is a decline in the number of university students seeking to become teachers. Between 2010 and 2020, enrollment in UNC undergraduate education programs fell by 44%, down from 14,000 to 8,000. Just last month, DPI reported that, between 2021 and 2022, enrollment of students seeking an elementary school teacher’s license fell 36%.

Many factors impact the decision both to become a teacher and to stay in the profession. But research shows that pay is a primary factor.

A new report from BestNC says North Carolina ranked 6th out of 13 states in the Southeast in 2021-22 on average teacher pay. Worse, for beginning teacher pay, North Carolina (with average beginning pay of $39,685) ranked next to last, only ahead of West Virginia.

Since then, our neighboring states have made additional investments to combat their own teacher shortages. Last year, Mississippi and Alabama funded historic raises for teachers — 10% in Mississippi and 21% in Alabama. This year, both Tennessee and Arkansas – already ahead of North Carolina – announced plans to increase their teacher starting pay to $50,000.

We and our fellow business leaders appreciate the 4.5% raise for teachers the General Assembly included in last year’s budget, as well as the $170 million appropriated for 96 of our 100 counties to fund more teacher pay supplements — a strong step toward more equity in teacher pay. But even with these increases, our severe teacher shortages continue. We believe falling behind our neighboring states in teacher pay is a significant contributor.

We have put much effort in attracting many businesses to our state and encouraging existing businesses to expand. All of these businesses require a strong talent pool. Foundational to creating that talent pool are the efforts we have made to increase third grade reading proficiency. We must not undermine any of these efforts.

In our extremely tight labor market, and with the impacts from persistent inflation, companies across the U.S. are increasing employee pay and instituting changes to make working for those companies as attractive as possible. We need to do the same thing for our teachers.

Jim Goodnight is CEO of SAS in Raleigh. Dale Jenkins is the retired CEO of Curi.