For the last several months, lawmakers and school districts have been at odds over class size requirements for grades K – 3.  On one side, some members of the N.C. Senate contend that dollars set aside for reducing class sizes in these grades have not been used for their intended purposes.  School district officials point out that they are using budget flexibility granted by the legislature and corresponding guidance from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to best meet the needs of their students and staff.  A bill to provide a temporary fix, House Bill 13, passed the House unanimously and awaits action by the Senate.

This legislation would loosen the constraints on K – 3 class sizes but not eliminate them entirely. While much of the debate has dealt with the allocation and use of state funding, few have asked whether districts have enough teachers to meet state-mandated class size requirements.

Class size reduction mandates invariably require additional staff and space.  As you subdivide a student population into smaller groups, finding instructional space for each one can be a struggle, particularly among growing school districts in urban counties.  Yet, these districts often have an easier time recruiting and retaining teachers, thanks to higher salary supplements and generally more desirable local attractions and amenities. Districts with declining student populations have the opposite problem.

In general, classroom space is more plentiful, but it is often much more difficult to recruit and retain teachers in districts with lower salary supplements and fewer amenities.  And when state law further increases the demand for teachers through class size mandates, districts may be forced to employ short- and long-term substitute teachers to staff regular classrooms.

Data on short- and long-term substitute teacher employment are not available from N.C. DPI.  But several school districts have provided information about the number of permanent elementary school teacher positions that went unfilled for at least the first 10 days of the current school year. Rowan-Salisbury Schools, for example, had seven vacant positions in grades K – 3 and another five vacant positions in grades 4 and 5.  Wilson County Schools had 11 unfilled elementary school positions at the beginning of the school year, and Elizabeth City-Pasquotank County Schools had ten. Edgecombe, Robeson, and Vance each had six unfilled positions at the beginning of the year.

Even larger districts and those adjacent to them are not immune.  Cumberland County Schools, the state’s fifth-largest district, started the year with 12 vacant elementary positions.  Johnston County Schools had 11 and Harnett County Schools had seven.  What makes particularly interesting is that this trio of districts competes with the state’s largest district, Wake County Schools, for classroom teachers.

Wake County’s salary supplement, easy access to multiple education schools, and other factors put it at a competitive advantage in the regional teacher labor market.   As a result, Wake County Schools will never have the staffing challenges that other districts encounter.  For example, elementary schools in Wake can fill their vacancies, if necessary, by recruiting teachers employed by public schools in Johnston, Harnett, and even Cumberland counties.  It is often much more difficult for those districts to lure teachers away from Wake County Schools. Admittedly, the numbers mentioned above are not indicative of a crisis.

According to the federal “Teacher Shortage Areas Nationwide Listing (pdf),” North Carolina continues to confront a shortage of math, science, and special education teachers.  But these vacancy figures do point to emerging difficulties in staffing elementary school classrooms.

Much will depend on the production of elementary school teachers in North Carolina colleges and universities, the state’s ability to recruit and retain qualified teachers from other states, the distribution of those teachers across districts, and attrition. Federal Title II data, for example, shows a recent dip in the number of elementary (grades K-6) teachers graduating from North Carolina teacher training programs.  Coupled with a decrease in licenses granted to out-of-state teachers, the market for elementary teachers may become even more competitive in coming years, even if class size mandates are loosened through the passage of House Bill 13.