In 2023 state policymakers were confronted with alarming data: teacher vacancies had hit record highs. Not only did 1 in every 18 classrooms lack a licensed teacher, but districts serving the greatest share of Black students and students from families with low incomes faced the greatest shortages. In other words, the teacher shortage had reached crisis levels, demanding a dramatic response from lawmakers.

Sadly, that response never came. Now the teacher vacancy problem has gotten worse.

At the 40th day of the 2023-24 school year, 6,006 classroom teaching positions were vacant, smashing the prior year record by 18 percent. This year, more than 1 in every 16 lacked a licensed teacher over a month into the school year.

These vacancies continue to be associated with the demographics of the district. Districts with more students from families with low incomes and districts with more Black students tend to experience higher teacher vacancy rates. The association has grown even more stark this year.

As a result, it’s disproportionately Black students and economically disadvantaged students who pay the price for lawmakers’ unwillingness to make the necessary investments to attract and retain certified teachers in every classroom.

Of course, all students suffer from teacher vacancies. And it’s not just the students assigned to an unlicensed teacher.

Teacher vacancies increase the demands on the teachers who have persisted in spite of state policymakers’ efforts to drive them from the classroom. Vacancies create larger class sizes. They require experienced teachers to assist untrained, novice teachers and to fill in when substitutes are nowhere to be found. This leaves our best teachers with less time to lesson plan, individualize instruction, assist less experienced colleagues, or to find regular opportunities to decompress from an increasingly difficult, stressful job.

As vacancies rise year after year, an increasing number of teachers are taking on more responsibilities to fill in the holes.

It should come as no surprise that North Carolina’s teacher vacancy problem has worsened. The 2023 budget failed to include any meaningful efforts to reverse the ongoing war on the teaching profession. In spite of the teacher shortage crisis, legislators cut public school budgets and provided meager pay raises of only 3.6 percent, barely keeping pace with inflation. Average teacher pay is 23 percent below the national average. Our schools remain among the worst-funded in America, and our teachers continue to earn salaries that dramatically trail their peers in other industries.

Legislators know that teachers remain the most important in-school factor for boosting academic achievement. Yet they have instead chosen to prioritize a massive expansion of the state’s private school voucher program to benefit wealthy families already enrolled in private schools. While investments in teachers have been shown to boost academic performance, statewide voucher programs have produced unprecedented drops in test scores for voucher students.

The voucher expansion also sends a clear message to public school teachers: state leaders would rather subsidize their wealthy donors than provide teachers with competitive salaries, repair dilapidated school buildings, or give teachers adequate support staff such as teacher assistants, nurses and school psychologists.

Legislators’ failure to support teachers and improve their working conditions is at the heart of the long-running Leandro court case which requires that all children have access to highly qualified teachers. The case has spurred a detailed, research-based, multi-year plan to increase investments in educators and students in order to provide the basic level of schooling promised under our state constitution. Unfortunately, legislative leaders have fought tooth and nail to get the plan thrown out by the courts, sending educators (and students) another clear message: they’re uninterested in making things better.

The legislature has further conveyed their contempt for teachers by continuing to meddle in how teachers can do their jobs. The Parents Bill of Rights creates purposefully ambiguous restrictions on how teachers approach subjects related to sexual identity and limits their ability to support trans students or others exploring their gender identity. The bill also allows bad actors to file frivolous information requests and objections to instructional materials, chilling instruction on controversial subjects while also wasting teachers’ limited time and resources.

Other bills targeting teachers’ instructional practices could be revived this year. For example, HB 187, which seeks to create a chilling effect around an honest teaching of history and current events, is awaiting action in the state senate. Additionally, a major candidate for governor has conducted his own witch hunt of teachers – seeking and failing to find “indoctrination” – and has referred to educators as “wicked people.”

Is it any wonder that teacher vacancies continue to rise?

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are several obvious steps that the legislature could take to attract and retain excellent, well-trained professionals in every classroom:

• Large, across-the-board pay raises;

• Proper staffing levels for support staff such as teacher assistants, psychologists, nurses, counselors and social workers;

• Capital improvements to ensure each school offers a healthy, inviting learning environment;

• Restoration of professional development and early career mentoring funds.

Not coincidentally, these are all elements of the Leandro Plan.

If legislators want to address the teacher vacancy crisis, they can implement these evidence-based policies. But if they’d rather erect barriers to make academic success more difficult for Black students and students from families with low incomes, then they can continue their current strategy of undermining and alienating educators.

Kris Nordstrom is a Senior Policy Analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project. He previously spent nine years with the North Carolina General Assembly’s nonpartisan Fiscal Research Division. This column was distributed by NCNewsline.com.