Raleigh, N.C. — More than 1.5 million students returned to school across North Carolina this week, but not all teachers decided to come back as well.
Cameron Shumay said this is the first time he hasn't been part of back-to-school week in 13 years.
"I did miss it a little bit," said Shumay, a former Carnage Middle School science teacher.
After years of teaching and having to work two jobs to make ends meet, he now works for a consulting firm in Research Triangle Park.
A few years ago, North Carolina was close to the national average in teacher pay. Six years of state budget cuts and pay freezes have left the state 46th in teacher salaries and 48th in per-student spending.
The state's average teacher salary of $45,967 is almost $10,000 less than the national average. Starting pay for a teacher in North Carolina is $30,800 a year, and it takes 15 years to get to $40,000.
"We love what we do, but we also have to make a living," said Paula Trantham, principal of Millbrook Elementary Magnet School.
Trantham said she recently lost teachers to Kentucky and Tennessee. In addition to frustration over pay, she said, there's a lot of anger among teachers at state legislators for eliminating tenure rights for veteran teachers and ending extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees.
Many teachers feel not just underpaid, but disrespected, she said.
"It was like anything that we had had been taken from us," she said. "It was just, like, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. It was just overwhelming, and I think that's when teachers went, 'Whoa, no more.'"
Shumay said his decision to leave teaching was only partly about the money.
"With some of the different changes in policy that have come through, I kind of saw the writing on the wall," he said.
Other teachers are leaving North Carolina instead of leaving the profession.
"It was like an epiphany. We don't have to stay here," said Stephen Solis, who worked at Panther Creek High School in Cary.
Both Solis and his wife are educators, yet they struggled to get by. In two weeks, the family is moving to Colorado, where Solises will earn 30 percent more than he does here.
He was born in Apex and hates to leave, but he said he's worried about his own children and their education.
"My twin girls are 4 years old. They're going to be going into elementary school in a year," he said. "What is our system going to look like in five years?
"What kind of a state are we going to be? Who’s going to want to bring their business here – even with the low tax rate – if we have a public education system that is 48th in the nation in not only teacher pay but in test scores?"
State Department of Public Instruction officials don't have hard data on the number of teachers opting out, but local school administrators say it is rising.
"I don’t think, in Wake County, we’ll see a shortage of teachers," Trantham said. "I think, in other areas, in more rural areas in North Carolina, I definitely think they’re going to see a shortage of teachers."
Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said he believes lawmakers will give teachers a decent raise next year and may reinstate the extra pay for teachers who earn advanced degrees.
Horn helped write the state budget, but he said the money just wasn't there this year for raises after lawmakers addressed tax reform and a shortfall in Medicaid funding.
"I don't know one single person in the legislature who doesn't want to give teachers a raise," he said.
Teachers are leaving Union County to work in South Carolina, and Horn said he's hopeful some of the teachers who have left North Carolina will eventually come back.
Some may never enter the profession to begin with. North Carolina State University officials said the number of students enrolling in teacher education dropped 17 percent this fall.