North Carolina faces a widespread teacher shortage, and Cumberland County is no exception.
As of last week, there are 155 vacant teaching positions in the school district out of a budgeted 3,551, according to numbers provided by Cumberland County Schools. That’s a vacancy rate of 4.36%.
Since the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the rate has spiked, quadrupling from the prepandemic rate of 1.2%, Associate Superintendent Ruben Reyes said in an interview.
The current vacancy rate, however, is lower than the statewide percentage. According to a report by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and obtained by The Raleigh News & Observer, the statewide vacancy rate at the beginning of this school year was 5.89%, although it did drop to 5.41% by the 40th day of the school year.
Republican state Sen. Tom McInnis, who represents Cumberland and Moore counties, spoke about the CCS teacher shortage when meeting with the Fayetteville City Council last week.
McInnis said in an interview with CityView that the teacher shortage could have a damaging impact on students.
“They don't have the appropriate educational offering,” McInnis said. “That could affect them in their ability to gain an interest into college. There's a lot of ramifications for this.”
Reyes said the shortage not only degrades educational outcomes, but it also takes a toll on teachers when they are asked to do more because of shortages.
“We have great teachers in our district,” Reyes said. “They're willing to do whatever, whatever is needed to really positively impact the outcome of kids, for our students. But what it does do is over time, it leads to burnout. It is not the most ideal situation.”
Permanent substitute teachers
According to the school system, there are 80 permanent substitute teachers teaching students in Cumberland County.
The classification of a permanent substitute teacher, Reyes said, is a system that was initiated during the pandemic to address the growing teacher shortage and a shallower pool of substitute teachers. Before COVID, the school district would use a system that selects substitute teachers from a pool in the case of a teacher being absent, usually because of sickness.
Because of growing vacancies and fewer substitutes available during the pandemic, substitutions became more permanent.
“Our substitute pool was a little diminished,” Reyes said. “We wanted to ensure that schools had some support there. And so that's where really those permanent sub positions came into play.”
The diminishing substitute pool was due to, among other things, remote learning during the height of the COVID pandemic. Many substitutes looked for employment elsewhere, Reyes said.
“We needed to just ensure that our schools had the support available to address staffing needs,” Reyes said.
Many of these substitutes, however, don’t have the extensive training that full-time teachers would.
Typically, full-time teachers have a four-year degree or a teaching licensure in a particular area of study, Reyes said. Substitute teachers only need to meet the standard substitution requirements.
“There's a difference in the level of pre-educational attainment for each of those groups,” Reyes said.
McInnis is critical of the permanent substitution system, though he’s not critical of the individual teachers. “I'm not throwing anybody under the bus,” he said.
“The word ‘permanent sub’ is an oxymoron. We're supposed to have a substitute in the classroom for when the regular teacher is out for maternity leave or out for sickness or a health issue of them or their spouse, where they're out for a short period of time,” McInnis continued. “The word ‘permanent sub’ leads me to believe that they're there for an extended period of time.”
Why is there a shortage?
The causes behind any labor shortage, not just for teachers, are complex and multifaceted. Many, however, such as the Public School Forum of North Carolina, point to low teacher pay as a culprit, The Raleigh News & Observer reported in January.
According to the National Education Association, North Carolina, with an average teacher salary of just under $53,500 a year, ranks 38th among states in the country. The state’s average teacher starting salary of just over $37,000 a year ranks 45th.
The median annual salary for CCS teachers is $49,000, according to the school district. That’s above what’s needed — $41,480 annually — to comfortably afford fair market rent in Cumberland County, according to the N.C. Housing Coalition’s 2023 housing need report.
Reyes said that higher pay would help, but it’s not the whole answer to recruiting teachers.
“Part of the issue, quite honestly, is our educator prep programs are not enrolling enough teachers,” Reyes said. “There's not a steady pipeline of individuals to fill these vacancies on a year-to-year basis.”
Reyes said several universities are no longer holding teacher-specific career fairs, where CCS would recruit, because of a lack of students in teaching programs.
Reyes did say, however, that the current pay scale does not match up with the inflation rate.
“You're seeing people leaving the profession and not staying through retirement, which was not something that you saw 10, 15 years ago,” Reyes said.
Reyes also referred to a provision of the state budget, approved by the state legislature in 2017, that cut health retirement benefits for any teacher entering the state’s education system starting in 2021.
“If you started working as a teacher two years ago, you're not guaranteed health insurance and retirement anymore like your teachers who are currently in the system,” Reyes said. “That is a huge impact, especially with the labor force being the way that it is right now.”
The state budget that cut this provision is Senate Bill 257 and was passed in 2017. It was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, but both the state House and state Senate voted to overturn the governor’s veto.
Sen. McInnis voted in favor of the bill and also voted to overturn Cooper’s veto. The senator’s office could not be reached for comment late last week.
McInnis said in an interview, however, that he plans to file a bill this week that would make it easier for teachers to obtain and keep licensure. The senator said he also plans to file a bill that would make it easier for a military spouse with out-of-state licensure to teach in North Carolina.
Ben Sessoms covers Fayetteville and education for CityView. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.