by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
In an op-ed published in major newspapers across the state in December, North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) President Tamika Walker Kelly urged teachers to initiate local protests and disruptions to address the so-called “educator exodus” and “staff vacancy crisis” in North Carolina public schools. While social media offers ample anecdotal evidence of staffing challenges, a survey of the available data suggests that these challenges are not extraordinary and hardly constitute a crisis.
When elected officials hear claims that public schools face an “educator exodus” and “staff vacancy crisis,” their initial instinct is to consider a range of policy responses focused on recruiting and retaining school-based personnel. Targeted bonuses and pay increases are valuable tools for combating documented shortages for teachers and support staff in high-demand subject areas and schools. Across-the-board bonuses based on perceived staffing shortages are unproductive expenditures of taxpayer dollars. Regrettably, several North Carolina school districts opted for the latter approach.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction publishes personnel data annually in the North Carolina Public Schools Statistical Profile. This online database details full-time instructional and noninstructional personnel employed as of October 1 of each school year for all charter schools and school districts in North Carolina. Last week, the agency uploaded the personnel data for the current 2021-22 school year.
Public schools encountered a slight drop in full-time employment during the unpredictable 2020-21 school year, but state data reflect a notable rebound. North Carolina district and charter schools combined had 187,239 full-time employees this school year compared to 184,718 employees during the previous school year. Just over half of all full-time employees are elementary, secondary, or “other” teachers.
Despite this overall upward trend, teacher employment in district and charter schools are moving in different directions. This is due, in part, to the migration of families from districts to schools of choice. Enrollment in district schools has dropped by nearly 6% over the last five years, while charter school enrollment has surged by over 36%. Thus, it was not surprising that the total number of teachers employed by school districts was nearly unchanged since the last school year or that charter schools have increased their teacher workforce by 7% since 2021.
Yet the limitations of an analysis of overall employment levels are apparent. For example, I do not question reports that school districts have insufficient numbers of substitute teachers, a category not included in the Statistical Profile data. District and charter boards across the state have made the sensible decision to use federal coronavirus relief funding to raise daily rates to increase the pool of available substitute teachers.
Moreover, Statistical Profile data do not provide information about vacancies, attrition, or employment trends specific to classroom teachers. The Annual Report on the State of the Teaching Profession does. The statutorily mandated State of the Teaching Profession report offers the most detailed look at district teacher attrition, retention, mobility, and vacancies available. This week, the State Board of Education will discuss the most recent report, covering teacher employment trends during the first year of the pandemic (March 2020 to March 2021).
North Carolina Department of Public Instruction analysts reported a slight increase in teacher turnover last year. The 8.2% teacher attrition rate in 2021 was higher than the 7.5% rate in 2020 but lower than the 9.0% rate posted five years ago. The report authors concluded,
In general, North Carolina teachers continue to remain teaching in the state and their respective LEAs. While the state attrition rate of 8.2% may be comparable with the attrition rates of other professions, this report has demonstrated that there is substantial variation in that rate across the 115 LEAs in the state.
Indeed, attrition rates were highest in the northeast, southeast, and Sandhills regions, while public schools in the northwest had minimal teacher turnover.
Teacher vacancy rates also varied by region, school district, and subject. Three school districts (Polk, Graham, and Rowan-Salisbury) had no core instructional positions staffed by temporary or substitute educators, while four districts (Bladen, Anson, Thomasville City, and Person) had vacancy rates at or above 13%. As of the 40th instructional day of the 2020-21 school year, the vacancy rate was 3.4%. As they usually do, vacancies in elementary and exceptional children positions topped the list.
While staffing and personnel figures fall well short of the “crisis” described by teacher union officials, it would be a mistake to discount the difficulties produced by compulsory remote learning, mandatory masking, and the like. Measures imposed by government officials in the name of coronavirus mitigation impeded children’s social and cognitive development in ways that researchers struggle to quantify. Fortunately, resilient educators throughout North Carolina remain in the classroom and are committed to guiding children through challenges that were beyond their control.