Senate Republicans lining up behind Teaching Fellows relaunch; vote set for Wednesday

Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Franklin, Wake

Members of a key Senate education committee appear poised to advance legislation Wednesday relaunching a scaled-down version of the popular Teaching Fellows program that, for three decades, fed thousands of new teachers into the state’s K-12 schools.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, as well as North Carolina’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, are aligned behind Senate Bill 252‘s Teaching Fellows revamp, which will offer $8,250 forgivable loans yearly to prospective STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and special education teachers.

“Our schools are facing a great need for the best and brightest teachers,” Sen. Chad Barefoot, an influential Wake County Republican co-sponsoring the draft legislation, told committee members Tuesday.

The support from Senate Republican legislators is especially noteworthy given GOP lawmakers controversially acted in 2011 to scrap the program, which offered scholarships in exchange for a promise to work in North Carolina classrooms.

In the years since, state Republicans have been under pressure to relaunch the popular program they defunded. State education leaders have reported vexing teacher shortages, as well as dwindling interest in teaching degrees in the UNC system.

Barefoot said Wednesday that math, science and special education have been among the most difficult subject areas to staff in North Carolina schools since 2013.

For every year an applicant is awarded the loan, students would need to teach in a low-performing school for one year or any other school for two years in order to have it forgiven by the state.

Bill sponsors told committee members Wednesday they would bankroll Teaching Fellows with $6 million annually from the N.C. Education Endowment Fund, a pool created in 2014 by Republican leaders such as Lt. Gov. Dan Forest to supplement teacher pay. The fund was created with GOP lawmakers under intense scrutiny over the state’s plummeting national rankings in teacher pay and per-pupil expenditures.

Barefoot said the funds will be enough to offer loans for 150 to 160 prospective teachers each year.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

Forest said Wednesday that the program fits the goal of the endowment fund, which he said is to “do things outside of the norm” on teacher pay.

“Now (the fund’s) sitting there and it needs a purpose,” said Forest. “We have a purpose with the Teaching Fellows program. We’ve been sitting there waiting for an opportunity for a program like this to come along.”

The draft bill creates a commission of appointed members that will determine five participating universities.

Barefoot, meanwhile, resisted suggestions by some lawmakers that the program guarantee participating universities spread across the state, particularly in low-income, rural locales that have struggled mightily to fill teaching vacancies in recent years.

“Geography is not what we’re placing our emphasis on,” said Barefoot. “What we’re placing our emphasis on is excellence.”

N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson

On Tuesday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson called the draft legislation, and its companion House bill, a “step in the right direction.”

“I can tell you there’s a lot of excitement about this proposal. Teachers are really excited to have Teaching Fellows and also to have it so focused.”

If approved by the Senate education committee, the Teaching Fellows bill would still require vetting in the chamber’s budget and operations committees before making it to the Senate floor.

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