With teacher salaries among the lowest in the country, North Carolina is watching its teachers leave the state—or decide not to go into teaching in the first place.

North Carolina has given teachers just one salary increase since the onset of the recession and has seen its ranking for teacher pay drop as a result. In the past five years, North Carolina's rank for teacher salary has fallen from 20th to 46th in the nation, and the number of students entering education programs in North Carolina public colleges has dropped by nearly 20 percent. The decline has set the stage for an ongoing dispute between educators and legislators in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Earlier this year, Gov. Pat McCrory approved a new state budget that would boost salaries for North Carolina’s teachers—but the method for the increase is the subject of debate, and there is opposition to the plan from teachers and administrators.

Mark Jewell, vice president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, has witnessed the changes in teacher pay firsthand. When he left West Virginia to teach in North Carolina in 1997, schools recruited him by emphasizing a variety of resources and plans for high pay.

“Mark, if you come to Gilbert County schools, we're going to move our schools to the national average. We have a five-year pay plan that’s going to give you significant pay raises over the next five years," Jewell described the schools' promises. "We’re also going to pay you for your ten years of experience back in West Virginia. Mark, we’re also going to pay you for your Master’s degree in elementary education.”

But 17 years later, none of these privileges exist, he said.

“We saw all of that completely wiped out. Now, my poor state of West Virginia pays the most in the Southeast, and North Carolina is now 12th in the Southeast," Jewell said. "Something is wrong with this picture. Something needs to be done. Our students deserve better than this.”

A number of North Carolina teachers are departing to teach elsewhere, leaving the state to hire more inexperienced teachers from out of state. Alisa Chapman, vice president for academic and university programs in the University of North Carolina system, noted that out-of-state teachers in North Carolina are often beginners with no prior experience, likely because the state currently cannot offer the incentives to draw more veteran teachers.

“North Carolina draws most of its teachers from supply states where jobs are highly competitive, where the best teachers get the jobs," Chapman said. "We get the beginning teachers with no prior experience, who aren’t familiar with the North Carolina course of study or oriented to its culture, and we put them in classrooms.”

Not only are existing teachers leaving the state, but North Carolina is producing fewer teachers of its own. In the UNC system, the total number of students entering education programs has dropped by 17.6 percent since 2010, according to a systemwide report.

The trend has not touched Duke's education program. The number of students receiving a master's of arts in teaching—which grants a North Carolina teaching license—has stayed relatively steady over the past five years, said Alan Teasley, interim director of the MAT program.

But a few miles away at North Carolina State University, enrollment has dropped by 50 percent, said Jayne Fleener, dean of the NC State College of Education. The current economic situation for new teachers in North Carolina has left fewer and fewer high school students willing to pursue the profession.

But money is not the only issue that troubles the profession in North Carolina. Recent state legislation intended to cut costs has abolished raises for teachers with master's degrees and ended the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program, which recruits students into education programs directly after high school—moves which have been seen as a decline in the state's respect for education, Fleener said.

Fleener noted that North Carolina’s current situation is particularly distressing because the state has historically differentiated itself from the rest of the South by recognizing the importance of education. Under governors such as Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford—who served as president of Duke from 1969 to 1985—education was emphasized strongly and teachers were treated well, she said.

“[In the past] there was an understanding that education is the answer to economic viability," Fleener said. "So it was distressing when we dropped down to the bottom with the states that don’t have that historical respect for teachers. I’m hopeful this is short-lived because of what it indicates about the importance of education for a society.”

Although the budget proposed by McCrory includes pay raises for teachers, not everyone is pleased with the format. Under the new budget, pay raises would be front-loaded—so, for example, new teachers in their fifth year would get pay raises of up to 18 percent, while teachers who had been active for 30 years would get pay raises of approximately 1 percent.

Groups including the NCAE have argued that the promise of an overall raise in teacher salaries is unsubstantiated and plagued by the uneven distribution, saying that veteran teachers who head departments deserve more recognition, rather than less.

But the rationale behind the front-loaded pay raises is not unfounded, said Jacob Vidgor, professor of public policy and economics.

“Part of what the General Assembly needed to do was raise salaries at the onset and get that ramp-up period really concentrated in the first five to 10 years on the job," Vigdor said, adding that younger teachers are more likely than veterans to leave the profession or the state.

Even with the controversy over the increases, there is not much doubt that the General Assembly wants to increase the emphasis on teachers, Vigdor noted. In his interactions with state legislators, he said, he has found reason to be optimistic.

“Everybody is interested in recognizing great teachers for doing a great job. From all the conversations I’ve ever had, everyone I’ve talked to has their heart in the right place," Vigdor said. "Everyone understood that teachers are worth a lot more than we have the capacity to pay them. Down the road from now, things could change quite a bit."