I’d like to talk today about a great teaching program that I read about, and I think is worth noting.  By all measures, it’s doing great things.  It is a state program, and it’s based in North Carolina.  It’s called the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program.

The program was established in 1986.  It works basically, in this way:  The state of North Carolina recruits top academic prospects graduating from High School, and pays them to attend a public college.  In return, the students, upon completing their 4 year college degree, are asked to spend at least 4 years teaching in the North Carolina public school system.

Btw, I found out about this program through an article in the New York Times.  For those who are interested in reading it, I’ve placed a link to it, along with links to a couple of other articles that I found while researching this topic, on the webpage.  I’ve also placed a link to the program’s website there as well for those who are interested in checking it out.

The program was born out of the need as felt by the North Carolina General Assembly, for an ambitious, State-wide, teacher recruitment program.  It is based on the belief that the quality of education in a school system is determined by the quality of the educators in that school system.  So in 1986, the program was founded.  Each year, the program awards a scholarship of $6,500 a year to high school seniors who are accepted into the program.  The students are paid to attend college and train for future positions in education.  Acceptance into the program is merit based and over the years it has become one of the most sought after awards in North Carolina.  The program accepts 500 students a year, and if the candidate fails to meet their obligations to the program, they are required to repay the scholarship.

It has been, by all accounts, a success.  The SAT score for the average candidate accepted into the program is 1200.  Whereas the statewide average for high school seniors is 1000.  Now, almost 4,000 graduates are currently employed in the North Carolina public school system.  But the real hallmark of the program’s success is its retention rate.  After 5 years, a whopping 73% of Teaching Fellows are still teaching in North Carolina.  An impressive 60% of Fellows who started teaching 20 years ago, are still in the program today.  By most reasonable measures, this program is working.

That’s why many North Carolinians were disappointed last year when the North Carolina General Assembly voted to cut the funding for the program and begin phasing it out.  Assembly members cited a huge budget deficit and the need to make large cuts as the reason for defunding the program. 

Many North Carolinians reacted to the cut by reaching out to the General Assembly and voicing their support for the program.  There is now word that in the face of this public support, many members of the General Assembly have agreed to explore reinstating the program. Many State legislators are now hopeful that a solution can be found.  A spokesman for North Carolina Republican House Speaker, Thom Tillis, is quoted as saying, “We don’t think that in a $20 billion budget that we got every single thing perfectly right.  And we are not opposed to going back and looking for things we can do better.”  End quote.  So that would seem to be a promising sign for the program’s supporters.

There are still reports however, of some Assembly members who remain resistant to reinstating the program.  Their main worry is the existing annual budget deficit of the State.  They are averse to taking on more debt amid worries that the State will not be able to collect the necessary revenue.  The Teaching Fellows program has an annual budget of $13 million.

Now this is certainly a tough call.  There’s no doubt that in tough times, tough choices need to be made.  And any decision that is made will have its supporters and its detractors.  State legislators who have to make the final decisions, on which programs continue to be funded, and which should see their funding come to an end, are certainly not in enviable positions.

But when choices need to be made under tough budget constraints, attention needs to be paid to the consequences of those choices.  Will defunding decisions effect just the present, or will they effect the present as well as the future.  Decisions such as these need to be based not just on dollar amounts, but on priorities. 

In tough economic times, belt-tightening of all forms should be expected by all involved.  But education needs to be treated carefully, because more than any other type of expenditure, education has the potential to lift the future.  To revitalize and reinvigorate ailing economies and communities.  Educational programs, especially those with the track record of success that the Fellows program has achieved, have to be seen not just as expenses, but as investments. 

The State Assembly should identify a source of funding that keeps the Fellows program alive.  As yet another alternative they can consider scaling the program back a bit.  Perhaps instead of phasing the program out entirely, they can decrease temporarily the number of scholarships awarded.  This will keep the program intact but will also cut some of the costs associated with it.  In either case, the General Assembly needs to try their best to keep such a successful program in operation.