RALEIGH — Almost 17,200 additional students packed into North Carolina schools this year while the number of teachers dropped, according to new payroll data, leading to what some advocates say are larger class sizes that inhibit learning.
There were 95,725 teachers working with more than 1.5 million students after the normal churn of the new academic year settled down in October, said the state Department of Public Instruction's chief finance officer, Philip Price.
The payroll and enrollment figures for the current year come as the state Board of Education opened its monthly two-day meeting Wednesday with an annual report on teacher turnover during the school year that concluded in May.
The additional 17,200 students in public schools this year represents about a 1 percent increase over last year. But with static teacher employment levels, the state's schools are about 740 teachers short of what would be needed if the extra 17,200 students were divided into classrooms of 23 each, Price said. That ultimately means class sizes will have to be larger to accommodate the additional students, which reduces one-on-one time with students, makes it more difficult for teachers to be effective and can cause student performance to suffer, said Karey Harwood, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Public Schools First NC.
A similar trend was underway over the previous five years, according to previous reports. North Carolina's 115 local school districts have added 45,071 students since the 2009-10 school year and gained only 348 teachers over the same five-year period. That isn't enough teachers to accommodate the student boom, meaning more students in every classroom, Harwood said.
"Although in any one year the snapshot may not be incredibly significant, I think the students probably feel the difference in their classrooms," said Harwood, who has three school-age children. Bigger classrooms "can make a big impact on how much attention the students receive, how much differentiation can take place in the classroom based on differing abilities. If there are any behavior issues in the classroom, that makes it doubly challenged to try to meet the needs of that many kids."
This year's state budget increased spending on public schools to $7.9 billion — $117 million less than Gov. Pat McCrory's budget office projected would be needed to account for increased enrollment, inflation and other factors. Legislators also eliminated class-size limits for fourth-graders and above. Kindergarten through third-grade classrooms are supposed to have no more than 21 students, with local school boards responsible for keeping within the limit.
Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, and Sen. Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph, top budget-writers who focus on education issues, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The school payroll data shows that reduced state teacher funding this year has been at least partly offset by more teacher salaries picked up by local taxpayers, DPI's Price said. There were 589 fewer state-paid teachers in October than the same time last year, while teachers paid by local sources increased by 529, he said. That ultimately means there were about 60 fewer teachers statewide.
The annual teacher turnover report to the state Board of Education said 13,616 teachers left their jobs during 2012-2013, primarily to teach somewhere else.
The statewide rate of 14 percent of teachers leaving their jobs was an increase from the previous year's turnover of 12 percent and 11 percent in 2010-11. Increasingly, the teachers leaving have worked long enough to earn job security, called tenure. About half the teachers quitting last year had tenure, a percentage that has risen each year from 35 percent in 2008-2009.
About 7 percent of those leaving last year blamed it on a decision to change careers or because they were dissatisfied with teaching, about the same as the previous year.
The report was released a month after teachers held demonstrations around the state to protest other legislative changes they complain created higher workloads, falling buying power and lost job security.
Salaries for North Carolina teachers are among the lowest in the country, down from the middle of the pack before the Great Recession hit with force five years ago. Teachers have received one across-the-board pay raise in that time — a 1.2 percent bump last year — as lawmakers coped with pinched state revenues or shifted money to other priorities.
Republicans who control the Legislature are promising they'll increase teacher pay next year, a move which carries a potential cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.