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Chris Fitzsimon: Remember Teaching Fellows?

State lawmakers have finally taken a bold step toward addressing the looming teacher shortage in public schools. The Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate worked with Democrats to create a scholarship program to encourage bright high school students to enter the teaching profession.

Students in the top 20 percent of their high school class can apply for a scholarship of up to $7,500 a year for their four years in college if they agree to spend at least five years as a teacher.

The bill passed the House and Senate nearly unanimously and was signed by the conservative Republican governor with great fanfare.The program will gear up this year with the first scholarships awarded for the 2017-2018 academic year.

But there’s a problem.

Bright high school students in North Carolina won’t have access to the program. It was created this year not by the N.C. General Assembly but by the conservative Republican Indiana House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican nominee for vice president.

And if the details of the Next Generation Hoosier Educator Scholarship sound familiar, they should. The program is not only patterned after the widely-acclaimed N.C. Teaching Fellows Program that the General Assembly abolished here in 2011, Indiana officials checked in with the staff of the Public School Forum of North Carolina that operated the Teaching Fellows program when designing the Indiana version. Forum President Keith Poston says he has been contacted by folks from numerous states.

The concept is helping students and public schools across the country but not in North Carolina. The new Republican majority made sure of that not long after they took control of the General Assembly in 2011, ending the annual appropriation for the Teaching Fellows with the last students finishing in 2015.

The N.C. Teaching Fellows began as a project of the Forum in 1986 and involved almost 11,000 students in its 25 years. More than 8,500 graduated and headed into schools in all 100 counties, where many remain today.

Eighty percent of the teaching fellows stayed in the classroom after their four-year commitment was over and roughly two-thirds were still teaching six years later. Many fellows stayed in education and eventually became principals.

The existence of the program elevated teaching as a profession, something that was sorely needed in the 1980s and is needed even more today.

Legislative leaders never adequately explained why they abolished the popular program, especially at a time when the state faces a teacher shortage, with more students enrolling in public schools and fewer college students entering the schools of education at state universities.

But the motivation isn’t hard to figure out. Activist groups on the right constantly attacked the Teaching Fellows program because it was created and administered by the Forum, which had close ties to former Gov. Jim Hunt and other Democrats.

But the Forum is not a political organization, it’s a policy group, and its past board chairs have included former Republican legislator Gene Arnold and prominent Republican and former State Board of Education Chair Phil Kirk.

None of that mattered. Republican legislative leaders went on a rampage when they took over in Raleigh, punishing every group they could find with ties to Democrats regardless of the consequences for the state. Gov. Pat McCrory signed budgets that ended funding for the Teaching Fellows.

The House included in the budget it passed this year a new limited scholarship program for students who agree to teach in struggling schools, but the Senate refused to go along.

So with the teacher shortage looming, North Carolina is left without a major teacher scholarship program to encourage bright students to consider teaching as a career.

But the spirit and the amazing work of the N.C. Teaching Fellows program lives on, in places like Indiana where the man North Carolina Republicans want to be vice-president is a major advocate for it.

Too bad our state’s current leaders couldn’t take off their bitter partisan blinders long enough to allow the program created in North Carolina to continue helping students and schools in our own state.

Fitzsimon is founder and executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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