Keith Poston speaks at a public school forum at the K.E. White Center, Wednesday, July 20.

North Carolina is facing critical teacher shortages while more students are swelling the public school system, one of the state's top education policy experts told local educators and public officials last week.

Keith Poston, president and executive director of the N.C. Public School Forum, based in Raleigh, told Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools officials that North Carolina's public schools face many major challenges in the coming decades as the Tar Heel State's population continues to increase and become more diverse.

Additionally, he pointed out, more than half a million of North Carolina's children live in poverty, and data shows students from traditionally disadvantaged groups are less likely to succeed in school.

“We're not going to get at these things unless we start getting more comfortable talking about it. I mean, we're going to have to start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Poston said.

Poston, who spoke Wednesday at ECPPS' annual summer leadership conference held at the K.E. White Center, said fewer college students are choosing careers in education, while many school teachers are quitting or leaving the state to teach elsewhere. Also, gaps between affluent and poor counties and racial inequities in metropolitan districts continue to grow.

In the Albemarle region, Poston showed enrollment in Elizabeth City State University's education degree program, from autumn 2010 to autumn 2015, has declined 57 percent. Such data translates into 375 future teachers who aren't coming out of ECSU anymore, he said. “This ought to scare you,” he said.

The figure for ECSU is part of data showing a 30 percent decline the past five years in enrollment in educator preparation programs in the University of North Carolina System.

Poston said the decline in North Carolina's college or university students majoring in education is compounding what he believes is an already alarming turnover of teachers.

He said that last year, 14.8 percent of the state's approximately 96,000 teachers left their positions, which was the highest rate the past five years. His illustration also showed that in Elizabeth City-Pasquotank, the turnover was 17.5 percent, or 68 teachers.

Based on N.C. Department of Public Instruction exit interview data, approximately 5,600 teachers this past year left their jobs for personal reasons, compared to approximately 2,100 a few years ago, Poston said.

Last year, more than 1,000 teachers left North Carolina to take jobs in other states, with that figure being triple since 2010, he said.

Additionally, the percentage of teachers altogether who've quit is 16 times higher than 2010, he said. “This is real,” he said.

Poston, who lives in the Raleigh-Durham area, said even in resource-rich Orange County, which is the home of Chapel Hill and UNC, public schools officials there face elementary schoolteacher position vacancies all the time.

Poston went on to provide average public school teacher pay data, which showed North Carolina, from 1999 to 2013, was last nationwide. North Carolina’s Republican state government leaders have made clear they've been working on increasing teacher salaries and Poston acknowledged the state has moved up a bit in the rankings.

Presently, Poston said, North Carolina ranks 41st nationally and near the bottom in the Southeastern region in terms of teacher pay.

Poston used a chart illustrating that, regionally, only West Virginia and Mississippi have had an average teacher salary lower than North Carolina, where the average pay is just under $47,800. He acknowledged that's not counting a scheduled pay raise, set to take effect next year, that will bring North Carolina’s average salary above the $50,000 mark.

Still, Poston said, “That's the company North Carolina is in right now. Are you kidding me? With the history that we've had in North Carolina in support of public education, that that's what we're competing with now?"

Poston maintained that North Carolina's public schools system, while not perfect, is improving. At the same time, he said he believes the overall growth in student enrollment is going to drive budgeting decisions for North Carolina's public schools.

North Carolina presently ranks ninth in overall population and sixth in population growth from 2000 to 2010, at 18.5 percent.

Poston said North Carolina is projected to gain a million residents each decade through 2040. Meantime, student enrollment has grown from approximately 1.36 million in 2004 to approximately 1.52 million in the 2015 to 2016 time period.

“Now, keep that in mind when you hear that we're spending more on public education than ever before,” Poston said. “Yeah, we are. We're also teaching 200,000 more students than we were 10 years ago.”

However, Poston said the present growth trends are far from uniform because many districts have been losing students between 2004 and 2015.

Halifax County's enrollment, as an example, plummeted from 5,053 to 2,939 students (nearly 42 percent). Elizabeth City-Pasquotank's enrollment slipped from 5,884 to 5,744 students (2 percent) during that period.

By contrast, Wake County's enrollment has surged from 113,547 to 153,488 students (35 percent) in the same time frame, while Charlotte-Mecklenburg's enrollment has surged from 117,179 to 144,497 students (23 percent). Just outside Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Union County’s enrollment has surged from 28,535 to 41,296 students (nearly 45 percent).

Poston said while he believes North Carolina's public schools as a whole aren't broken, they're broken for some students. He cited a lack of progress in closing student achievement gaps between the races as one concern.

Poston also expressed concern because, in an increasingly minority majority state, 80 percent of North Carolina's public school teachers are white and 80 percent of North Carolina's public school teachers are women. He said that means minority students in many parts of the state could complete their education without seeing a teacher of the same race.

He said he's also concerned about teachers and students, in the future, being able to communicate with one another and for teachers to understand where students may be coming from in terms of backgrounds.

“It's going to make things more challenging," he said, making clear he's not criticizing teachers who are white.

Poston noted that, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, home of the state’s largest public school district, approximately 54 percent of students come from low-income families, while approximately 49 percent of black Charlotte-Mecklenburg students are attending schools in high-poverty areas.


Photo: Keith Poston, president and executive director of the N.C. Public School Forum, speaks at a public school forum held at the K. E. White Center, Wednesday .