Facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit in 2011, the state legislature reduced and eliminated a variety of programs in order to balance the budget. One program the legislature ended future funding for was the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program. The Teaching Fellows program awarded renewable scholarships of up to $6,500 annually to 500 high school students who were interested in becoming teachers and who promised to work in North Carolina public schools for at least four years after graduation.
Recently state Reps. Deb McManus (D-Chatham) and Joe Sam Queen (D-Haywood) introduced legislation (HB 447, Restore Teaching Fellows Program) to provide $3.25 million to restore the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program for this year and subsequent years.
Understandably, eliminating the Teaching Fellows program produced an outcry of support from teachers, alumni and other supporters of the program. Still there were valid reasons why the state stopped funding it.
The Teaching Fellows program was created in 1986 as part of a 10-point teacher recruitment plan. At the time North Carolina population and student enrollment was increasing at record rates and more teachers were needed. Those conditions don’t exist today. With all the cutbacks and demographic changes, North Carolina actually has 231 fewer teachers than in 2009-10.
While there is no denying there are areas of growth, we can’t forget that almost half of North Carolina’s counties are expected to lose population in the coming years. There are areas where teachers are in demand, but the problem is a maldistribution of teachers, not a shortage.
How are localized shortages addressed? North Carolina is contracting with Teach for America to serve parts of North Carolina. So far the experiment has worked well for both sides. Alternative certification programs can also help to meet the need. Both of these options can help to meet the need for teachers at far less cost than Teaching Fellows.
And speaking of cost, it’s important to note the bill requests $3.5 million for tuition and scholarships. However, that is only for one class of teachers. In subsequent years, second- third- and fourth-year classes would also be added. Hence, the $3.5 million figure is really $14 million to keep the program running. Add to that another $810,000 annually – the amount think tank Public School Forum of NC was being paid to administer the program – and you’re looking at a very different bill.
In 2009, the News & Observer ran a story about the difficulty Teaching Fellows were having finding jobs. According to the state’s Department of Public Instruction, less than half of all graduates of UNC education schools had a job in education a year after graduating. Yes, it’s true the job market is slightly better than in 2009, but that’s not saying much. Teachers with math and science background have better options, but an informal check in 2011 revealed only a smattering of Teaching Fellows had such a background. It’s unlikely the figure has changed much since then.
Program supporters say Teaching Fellows shouldn’t be eliminated because the program is working. They forget that North Carolina is not where it was in 1986, nor is the demand for teachers.
An abundance of research attests to the important link between quality teaching and student achievement. North Carolina needs quality teachers more than it needs more teachers. While the Teaching Fellows program has certainly produced some good teachers, our needs today are different.
Because it ignores the ability to improve teacher quality through other less expensive options, (professional development, alternative certification, raising academic standards, etc.), and conceals the true long-term costs, restarting the Teaching Fellows program is a bad idea for North Carolina, and makes HB 447 this week’s Bad Bill of the Week.