NC Teaching FellowsThe NC Teaching Fellows are back, sort of.

Leaders in the House and Senate released a plan on March 9 to offer forgivable loans to college students who become STEM or special education teachers. The plan revives a successful program that the General Assembly ended a few years ago. The fellows would be eligible for tuition loans from the state up to $8,250 per school year that would be repayable over 10 years or forgiven after two years of teaching for each school year they received the loan. There’s additional incentives if the fellows choose to teach in a low-performing school.

This is a step in the right direction to address the acute need to hire more teachers. North Carolina’s teacher shortage is growing annually because so many experienced teachers have left the profession and fewer college students are pursuing degrees in education. According to some reports, the UNC system has experienced a 30 percent reduction in enrollment in its teacher-prep programs as part of a national downward trend, but it doesn’t help that there were fewer incentives for people to become teachers.

Many have argued the situation is the result of several measures taken by the General Assembly in recent years to undermine teachers, stagnate salary, and reduce benefits. The tide has started to turn in the past two state budgets with significant increases in teacher pay, but more needs to be done.

More can be done, and hopefully the initial revival of Teaching Fellows is a sign of more to come. The program is expected to cost $6 million per year at the outset, it will hopefully help the schools that need the best and brightest teachers, and science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and special education positions are the hardest to staff.

However, there’s also a tremendous need for rockstars in elementary schools. The General Assembly has made early elementary literacy a priority with its Read to Achieve law of 2012 that requires all students to be reading at grade level by the end of third grade. And the Business Roundtable, which includes state leaders like Jim Goodnight of SAS, has made early literacy a similar priority by recently releasing a report titled “Why Reading Matters”. The General Assembly needs to feed that priority by adding teachers who pursue elementary education degrees to this new fellows program because STEM learning initiatives lose their value if the students can’t read the necessary content to be successful.

Having some form of NC Teaching Fellows back in the mix of options for future teachers will be a welcome initiative. It will join other local efforts to encourage college students to pursue an education degree.

For example, Wake County Public School System, in absence of any action, before last week, by the General Assembly to promote the teaching profession, started a new program last year called Wake Future Teachers. Students who graduated from a WCPSS high school were given a contract to come back and work in a WCPSS school after successfully completing a four-year teacher-preparation program. This shows that WCPSS Superintendent James Merrill, with the support of the Board of Education decided to literally grow his own teachers.

This is the type of forward-thinking North Carolina needs for its education system. All school districts should focus on producing the state’s future teachers just as much as they are focused on producing a private-sector-ready workforce. Demand for teachers will remain for the next several years unless there is a visible push to encourage students to become educators, and unless the state makes it easier to switch careers to become teachers.

Bringing back the Teaching Fellows in this form is a good start, but it needs to be promoted widely and expanded quickly. We encourage the General Assembly to get this proposal on Governor Roy Cooper’s desk, with the added measure of including elementary educators, by the end of this long session. It will go a long way to encourage current and future college students to pursue teaching certification at a time when demand is far outpacing supply.

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