Facing a $2.5 billion budget shortfall in 2011, the new Republican legislative majority eliminated $13.5 million in annual funding to the NC Teaching Fellows program. Now several legislators – all Democrats – have introduced a bill (House Bill 21, Restore Teaching Fellows Program) that restores $3.6 million in annual funding to the Teaching Fellows program. Specifically, the money would provide 500 Teaching Fellowships of $6,500 for the 2016-17 academic year. Another $400,000 is sought for the Department of Public Instruction to cover marketing and recruiting costs associated with the program.
And this isn’t the legislature’s first attempt to restore the program. A bill was introduced in 2013 to do just that, which at that time garnered its own Bad Bill of the Week designation.
In short, the Teaching Fellows program provided state-funded college 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.
There are numerous reasons why restoring funding for the Teaching Fellows program is a bad idea. The decision to restore funding assumes the program is working and doesn’t need to be changed. The facts say otherwise. Public education and the teaching field are in a state of flux. Concerns about accountability, return on public investment, the need for higher standards and quality teachers dominate the field. Is it prudent to ramp up a program when so much clearly needs to change and in which there are so many unanswered questions?
For example, UNC’s School of Education has seen a 30 percent decline in enrollment since 2010, and other schools of education in North Carolina have seen an overall decline in enrollment of about 18 percent. Why the decline? Opinions vary. Some even question whether there is a teacher shortage; others contend it’s merely a maldistribution created in large part by the licensing requirements. The point is, there are lots of questions that still need to be answered.
One area where there seems to be consensus is that we need to do a better job of educating teachers. Curricula need to be more rigorous. In addition, alternative pathways to teaching also need to be explored. Why should an engineer with years of experience in math and science be kept out of the classroom because he lacks a teaching license? Under the current system, faculty at our best colleges and universities would lack the credentials to teach in our public schools. This isn’t right and it needs to change. Restoring the Teaching Fellows program does nothing to address these changes and instead makes a statement that its business as usual.
Supporters of the Teaching Fellows Program say the program is working. I ask: for whom? Let’s do some simple math. According to the Teaching Fellows web site, in 2013-14, there were 4,632 fellows employed in the field. The Teaching Fellows classes are approximately 500. Let’s assume 475 of every class of 500 graduate four years later. If we multiply 475 x 26 (the number of graduation classes since 1989), the number of Teaching Fellows graduates approximates 12,350. If 4,632 Teaching Fellows are in the field, that means only about 37 percent of all graduates remain in the teaching field in North Carolina. That also means about two of every three Teaching Fellows Graduates are not. In my view, those aren’t number you want to replicate.
The national shortage of math and science teachers is well documented. The Teaching Fellows program could do much to fill this need if graduates sought to focus in these areas. A random review of some recent graduates, however, showed only a few Teaching Fellows were qualified to meet these needs.
That North Carolina needs good teachers is not debated. What is debated is how best to educate our teachers. The NC Teaching Fellows program offered one way to address those needs. However, it’s not 1986 anymore and its obvious North Carolina’s need for quality teachers is clearly changing.
Supporters of the Teaching Fellows program say we should do all we can to keep the program alive. The reality is government can’t nor should it get in the business of funding what amounts to recruitment and professional development programs. Yes, the Teaching Fellows program did some good things. However, those considerations need to be weighed against the total amount spent on the program and whether or not the money could be better spent elsewhere.
One option put forward to sustain the program was to solicit private funding or to establish an endowment. Both efforts failed. People can claim to be impressed with the support of Teaching Fellows alumni. However, the unwillingness of people or organizations to dig into their own pockets is a loud statement that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Why should public taxpayers pick up the tab when the most vocal backers seem unwilling to ensure the program’s future? It’s also one of the many reasons why HB 21 is this week’s Bad Bill of the Week.