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As the new school year approaches, defenders of the status quo are complaining that districts do not have enough teachers to fill their posted vacancies. 

The truth is that school districts rarely filled all teaching positions, even when Democrats were in charge of state government.


Nora Carr is the Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff to Superintendent Mo Green and writes columns on communications and messaging for the American School Board Journal.

She’s also mad at Republicans.

In an interview with NC Policy Watch’s Lindsay Wagner, Carr blames Republican legislators for the district’s 50 remaining teacher vacancies.  She says,

It’s a perfect storm.  I think our state legislature has done a really great job of discouraging teachers from staying in North Carolina.  Several years of budget cuts and many elected officials and pundits saying very negative things about teachers in general — there is a general feeling, at least among the educators I know, that public education is under attack in NC. And so people are leaving.

So there you have it.  Carr has talked to a few unidentified teachers, likely educators affiliated with public school advocacy organizations, and that was enough to convince her that the state legislature and pundits are to blame for so-called teacher shortages across the state.

Carr’s politicization of the issue is a poor communications strategy, but I will get to that later.  For now, it is important to address the issue of teacher supply and demand.

Will teaching positions go unfilled this year?  Yes. 

Has this ever happed before?  Yes, it happens every year.

Between 1999 and 2012, the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) collected and published teacher vacancy data.  Every fall, school districts reported the number of unfilled teaching positions, including licensure area, to DPI analysts.  According to the annual vacancy report, statewide vacancies ranged from a pre-recession high of 1,096 in 2007 to a low of 560 positions near the start of the Great Recession in 2009. 

In addition, it was common for Guilford County to have between 30 and 50 vacancies by October of each school year.  In 2003, Guilford had 64 teacher vacancies (despite Democratic control of state government). In other words, Guilford’s current vacancy count is hardly cause for alarm, that is, unless your goal is to cause alarm.  

It’s a "Carr alarm."  Ba dum tss!

The question of why teaching positions remain unfilled is not an easy one to answer because the teacher labor market is unfathomably complex, even in a state like North Carolina.

Without a doubt, there are supply problems that state legislators — Republican and Democratic alike — have failed to address. For decades, school districts have struggled to fill hard-to-staff positions, specifically math, science, special education, and English Language Learner vacancies.  Unfortunately, elected officials on both sides of the aisle have been unwilling to provide differentiated pay based on the supply and demand of teachers in selected fields.

Other districts find that existing staffing levels are adequate to manage school enrollment. Districts may prepare to fill a position that they later find unnecessary due to lower than expected enrollment or student assignment changes.  Enrollment projections are an art, not a science.  People are free to move themselves or their children, and it is impossible for school district officials to account for these decisions.

Most importantly, vacancy trends, much like attrition, reflect employees’ and potential employees’ perceptions of economic conditions.  Like all workers, teachers make rational employment decisions.  If the economy is good, job opportunities and higher incomes draw teachers out of the profession.  If the economy is bad, teachers will remain in the profession, while others will be attracted to teaching because they perceive it as a stable occupation in an unstable economy.  A new research paper appears to substantiate that common sense formulation.

According to a new, first-of-its-kind study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research last month, the quality of teachers appeared to improve during the Great Recession.  In "Weak Markets, Strong Teachers: Recession at Career Start and Teacher Effectiveness," Markus Nagler, Marc Piopiunik, and Martin West examined 30,000 Florida test scores from 2000 to 2009 and found compelling evidence that math, and to a lesser extent reading, scores improved due to the caliber of teacher employed during the recession, compared to those hired before it.

Rather than inducing a recession in an attempt to raise teacher quality, the authors suggest increasing pay for starting teachers.  Coincidentally, that has been a strategy pursued by Republican lawmakers, who have boosted starting pay for teachers by $5,000 a year.  In some urban and suburban counties, starting teacher pay will hover around $40,000 a year.

That brings us back to Carr blaming Republicans for Guilford’s teacher vacancies.  Roughly 90 percent of operating funding for the Guilford County Schools comes from the NC General Assembly and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, both of which have Republican majorities.  Publically slamming the political party that controls most of your funding — "biting the hand that feeds you" — is a ridiculous communication strategy, particularly for a school district employee who is dependent on their support.

Acronym of the Week

GCS — Guilford County Schools

Quote of the Week

"Teacher shortages are widespread, especially in urban areas, according to the New York Times.

The vacancies are pushing school districts to hire more inexperienced teachers who may not even have their teaching credentials yet.

And a recovering economy means that graduating college students have more employment options, often with better pay than what a school teacher can earn.

Enrollments in teacher preparation programs are down across the country, as is the case in North Carolina."

– Lindsay Wagner, "NC classrooms brace for teacher shortage, N.C. Policy Watch, August 19, 2015.

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