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Schools scramble for scarce teachers as kids stream back to NC classrooms

Math teachers are among the hardest jobs to fill across the country.
Ann Doss Helms
Math teachers are among the hardest jobs to fill across the country.

The number of teacher vacancies in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools — more than 500 as of last week — was big enough to grab attention. But the back-to-school scramble to find teachers isn’t limited to the state’s second-largest district.

For instance:

  • Union County Public Schools reported 115 teacher vacancies last week, out of about 2,200 teachers. That’s proportionally similar to CMS, which has 8,742 teachers. Both have vacancy rates between 5% and 6%, with students returning to classrooms today.
  • Cabarrus County Schools opened Aug. 10 and has 62 vacancies, for a rate of 3%. Like CMS, that district says about 20% of the vacant jobs are teachers for students with disabilities, a hard-to-fill specialty across the country.
  • Sugar Creek Charter School in northeast Charlotte is starting its third week of classes and still has six teacher vacancies, out of about 115 teachers. Superintendent Cheryl Turner says they’re mostly in special education and math, another field with national shortages.

Turner says all types of schools are competing for the same shrinking pool of teachers.

“I don’t think this is about ‘I choose district’ over ‘I choose charter’ over ‘I choose private.’ I don’t think that’s what this is about,” she said. “I think this is about a shift in the entire industry.”

A national report released last week said one problem is a decade-long slump in college students who want to become teachers. In North Carolina, the number of students enrolled in teacher prep programs is down by one-third compared with 2013, the National Council on Teacher Quality reports.

Enrollment in North Carolina teacher preparation programs.
National Council on Teacher Quality
Enrollment in North Carolina teacher preparation programs.

At a media briefing last week, CMS Superintendent Crystal Hill and members of her staff talked about the challenge of hiring teachers when pay doesn’t keep up with cost of living. That’s also a challenge for cafeteria workers and other support staff, especially in the north and south suburbs, Hill said.

“When you have staff who are not making a livable wage, it’s very difficult to recruit staff to spend gas to drive all the way to the northern parts of the county or the south,” she said. “The same thing is true with custodial work; it’s very difficult to have custodians work in the north and south.”

And Hill said the state doesn’t do enough to recognize teaching licenses from other states.

“The state has made it extremely difficult for licensure to happen. So a lot of times the delays are because we have people that are here, they’re ready to go, but it’s so difficult to get them licensed to get into the classroom, it just handcuffs us,” she said.

The influx of millions of dollars of federal COVID-19 aid has created bidding wars between districts, with signing and retention bonuses being bumped up as shortages become dire. Last week CMS increased the bonuses for special education teachers and added new ones for assistants who work with disabled students. That money, however, runs out next year.

Turner, whose school matches the CMS pay scale, says she recently interviewed someone working in finance who wanted to become a middle-school math teacher to do more meaningful work. But she was making $86,000 in her finance job and could only make $43,000 as a teacher. “She couldn’t afford to take the job,” Turner said.

“It’s very hard work for not a lot of money,” Turner said. “And it’s getting harder and harder to do.”

Complicating this year’s back-to-school hiring is the fact that the General Assembly has yet to pass a two-year budget, so the teacher pay scale for the current school year remains unknown.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.