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State Superintendent Catherine Truitt on staffing shortages, teacher pay, and more

NC State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt poses for a portrait
NC State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt poses for a portrait

The new legislative session begins in earnest this week, and at the top of the agenda is to figure out what — and how much — to spend on public education. Nearly 40% of the state budget typically goes to fund K-12 education.

Catherine Truitt has some ideas on how that education budget should look. She's entering her third year as state superintendent. Truitt, a Republican, started her career as a high school English teacher, and has also been an education adviser to former Governor Pat McCrory and a chancellor at the for-profit Western Governors University.

WUNC education reporter Liz Schlemmer recently sat down with Truitt for a wide-ranging conversation. Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity.

Liz Schlemmer: You were a teacher for 10 years, what did you learn in the classroom that helps you today in your role as state superintendent?

Catherine Truitt: [I] taught in all kinds of settings in all kinds of places, including overseas because I was a military spouse for many years.

I think that one of the things I learned about being a classroom teacher is that a good principal makes all the difference for how happy a teacher is on a day-to-day basis, and therefore how effective she can be. Principal leadership is one of those things that really impacts every single person in the building, including the students.

And so I learned early on in my time, both as a teacher and when I moved into the policy space, that sometimes we don't give enough time to principals as a policy lever. That if we could just pay more attention to our principals, it would be a much more effective and efficient way of improving overall a teacher's experience in school and therefore school quality.

The current state board of education is politically diverse. It's arguably the most bipartisan board in state government right now. How do you foster collaboration and bipartisanship?

I am elected and the state board are all politically appointed. And yeah, it can definitely be something where the conditions are ripe for there to be conflict, but I think anyone who listens to our state board meetings — and they are live-streamed every month — will hear very respectful discourse, even when there's disagreement on ideologies. I think it's important to understand that we are all in this for one reason, regardless of our political affiliation, and that is to support kids, and to create the best education outcomes for all children.

NC State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt
NC State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt

What is one priority you have for this legislative session to improve education for children in North Carolina?

We have seen some very interesting, and I wouldn't say surprising, but concerning data around student mental health needs. I think that one of the things that the state board and I are in total agreement about is the need to ensure that there is at least one nurse in every school and across our state. So we are asking for $100 million from the legislature to ensure that all schools have a nurse in their building.

Kids also struggled academically during the pandemic. What is your administration doing to address this?

One of the first things I did when I took office two years ago was to create the Office of Learning Recovery and Acceleration, and that organization sits literally at the center of my four year strategic plan called Operation Polaris. The Office of Learning Recovery has been charged with being a resource to our school districts when it comes to ways that they can spend our state's $6.2 billion of ESSER funds, which we have about $3 billion left.

ESSER funds being COVID relief funds from the federal government…

That's exactly right. That money has to be spent by the end of 2024. The Office of Learning Recovery has not just been a resource to help [school] districts be good stewards of that money — because districts have freedom to spend that money as they see fit — but they've also been an incredible source of data for our local superintendents and principals and teachers.

So we produced a learning loss report that was the first of its kind in the U.S. that gave student-level data on learning loss so that principals and teachers could look and see where were our biggest losses? Coming out of this pandemic, where do students need the most help with recovery? And they are continuing to be very data-driven.

We have some [school] districts that only have maybe two or three people in their central office staff, and then we have some that have hundreds. So we go where we are asked to go and support. I think we've been a good partner to the General Assembly too in helping to ensure that there was summer programming in place. We created bridge academies for students who were starting in new schools, and we also were able to help put together math boot camps for students, because that's where we saw the bulk of the learning loss was.

Schools are also struggling with staffing right now, from hiring teachers to bus drivers. How much do you think pay is part of that?

I think that there's really no way to know whether or not pay plays into this. We're going to be presenting new data to the board in a couple of weeks on teacher attrition, and I think people are going to be surprised to learn what that data show.

There's a difference between talking about a bus driver shortage and talking about a teacher shortage. So if we want to talk about teacher shortages, they are very specific to districts, we have some districts that don't have any shortages, and we have others that do. They're also specific to subject matter.

We definitely have a need for more special ed teachers than, let's say, fourth grade teachers, and so I think that what my research shows is that it's about all kinds of things, including climate, and including do I have an opportunity to advance in this profession? Is this a job I want to stay in for 25 years in order to realize the benefits of the benefit package that comes with this job? So I think it's a multitude of factors.

What would you tell a young person who maybe wants to teach but is worried that teaching is becoming devalued?

You know, I meet with parents frequently, I have a parent advisory council, and at that first meeting with those parents, I thought for sure that I was going to get an earful about my child's individual teacher, my child's teacher said this or did that. And you know, it was the exact opposite. These parents were so grateful for their children's teachers.

I think, to say that the profession is devalued, it kind of depends on who you talk to. I think sometimes the media reports that it's been devalued, but I know that our parents are so grateful, especially coming out of the pandemic for their child's teachers.

NC State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt, talks with Liz Schlemmer
matt ramey
NC State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Catherine Truitt, talks with Liz Schlemmer

When I talk to teachers, I'm hearing concerns about the ‘devaluing’ being in terms of their benefits, what the pay scale looks like, and how it's changed over time and specific things that support them in their career. Can you address that?

Yeah, let me be very clear. I absolutely believe teachers should make more money. This Pathways to Excellence plan [a proposal to change how teachers are licensed and paid] is something that will definitely allow teachers to earn considerably more money over their lifetime, but also will allow them to earn more money sooner in their career.

So that is something that I will always tell the General Assembly, teacher pay needs to be more competitive with other professions with like education credentials.

Thinking back to when you were a young teacher, what would you think if your earning potential was going to depend on what your critics call merit pay? And can you tell me a little bit about your plans for changing licensure and pay for teachers in the future?

I think the changes that are being considered right now are really about removing barriers to licensure, as well as creating a pathway to advancement for teachers so that they can stay in the classroom and not feel like they have to leave to go into administration or do something else in order to advance in their career.

Research studies around recruiting tell us that Millennials and Gen Z, want to know, where will I be in five years in my chosen career? How much money will I be making? How quickly can I get promoted? What do I have to do to get promoted? It's a very different approach to picking a career than maybe 40 years ago.

Like many things in education, our licensure and compensation system is very outdated and outmoded, and doesn't look like how the rest of the workforce functions. I am actually a teacher who benefited from a pay plan like this. When I taught overseas in the British school system, I was financially rewarded for the impact I had in my classroom. And I think a lot of teachers are really excited that they will finally, under this plan, be able to be compensated for all of the extra duties and responsibilities that they take on — like coaching other teachers — that they are currently not paid any extra money for.

Are public schools adequately funded?

I would say that it depends on your definition of adequately funded, I think it depends on which school district you're talking about. To me, equity means giving all children what they need when they need it. We do fund our highest quartile of poverty schools 34%, more than the bottom quartile. Is that enough? I don't know.

But one thing I do know is that I do not think that we are aligning. I don't think we do a good enough job of aligning the resources where the need is, we can't just throw more money at a problem and expect it to go away. There are underlying challenges that need to be solved for.

And I think that if there was one area where I would want to certainly see more funding, it would be with school support personnel, school psychologists, nurses, as I mentioned before, we're asking for $100 million to fund more nurses across the whole state. And so there are very specific things that I think that we should be putting more money towards in public education.

The Leandro court case is all about increasing funding and equity for high need schools. Are you in favor of fully funding the remedial plan? And if not, are there specific things you think that there's consensus around?

So the comprehensive remedial plan, which is part of Leandro, that's the plan to address these needs, is very much present in my strategic plan Operation Polaris, which is aligned to the state board [of education’s] strategic plan, as well. I think that the timing of Leandro and the funding are things that don't have anything to do with the Department of Public Instruction. I think that what we're asking for is in alignment with Leandro, but I will leave it to others to determine the ‘how much’ and the ‘when.’

We're coming into a legislative session, and we expect there may be bills filed that will focus on Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ issues. Do you think that addressing these topics is necessary, or a distraction from the practical issues that public schools face?

I think that there are parents who are concerned about pieces of these issues, and therefore controversial issues are always worth addressing. I think that there are going to be a lot of education bills filed, as there are every session.

We will approach every bill the same way that we always do, which is to go through it with a fine tooth comb and determine how it will impact public education. Is it something that's going to impact locally? Is it something that's going to impact the Department [of Public Instruction] and the State Board of Education? And we will weigh in as appropriate.

Copyright 2023 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.