Poorer schools to get aid

By: - August 23, 2005 5:22 am

Wilmington StarNews Online
Easley gets $170 million pot to recruit teachers

The new money should help smaller school districts, which have trouble retaining teachers.

By Steve Hartsoe
Associated Press

RALEIGH – Larry Cartner sees the bleeding every year.

As superintendent of schools in rural Stokes County, north of Winston-Salem, he watches his teachers leave for better paying jobs all the time. The district’s annual turnover rate has been around 17 percent, well above the statewide average of 12 percent.

"The biggest difference is we’re bordered by systems that can pay much more in local supplement than we can," Mr. Cartner said.

Larger districts in neighboring Forsyth and Guilford counties pay more than twice the 4 percent local supplement – an amount on top of base pay – that’s offered in Stokes County.

An unusual pot of money in this year’s state budget aims to help struggling districts like Stokes.

Lawmakers gave Democratic Gov. Mike Easley $170 million over two years to spend on recruiting teachers – with few restrictions.

North Carolina’s colleges and universities produce about a third of some 9,000 teachers that need to be hired each year, mostly to replace retiring baby boomers and to respond to high enrollment growth.

Mr. Easley can use the money to give signing bonuses to new teachers or across-the-board pay raises, even to entice retiring teachers to stay in the classroom longer.

"I think the governor has a shot at doing something pretty provocative," said Barnett Berry, executive director of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill.

Not everyone supports giving the governor such power.

"I don’t think that’s the way we should be budgeting for salaries in the budget. I think the General Assembly ought to be making those decisions," said Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.

The money allocated to Mr. Easley – which is on top of an average 2.2 percent teacher raise in the budget – could inspire more North Carolinians to become teachers, leaders said.

"If we’re going to have enough teachers and good teachers, we’re going to have get those salaries up," said House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg. "You’re not going to attract the best and brightest kids in this state to be teachers unless they get the salaries up."

How to spend the money is still in the planning stage, but supporters say more can be done than simply using the money to boost teacher quantity. It could also help improve teacher quality, which could stop the flow of young teachers who get discouraged and quit, experts said.

Those are the teachers who most often are found in struggling schools. Minority students and those in poorer districts are five to 10 times less likely to get an experienced teacher than others in the state, Mr. Berry said.

And North Carolina is under a court order to improve low-performing schools. Last year, Mr. Easley set up a special fund designed to help poor school districts with teacher recruitment, special tutoring and other programs to raise student performance. He’s also called for turnaround teams that will analyze student and teacher data, examine school spending and focus on proven strategies to raise student scores.

Some of the $170 million could further that effort, possibly by getting the state’s top teachers to serve as mentors to beginning teachers.

A forum last week in Greensboro brought together several hundred of the state’s most highly certified teachers to discuss what role they might play in helping struggling schools. They could help build a culture that encourages students and their families to achieve more while also mentoring new teachers.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066