While the teacher attrition rate for the 2016-17 school year is down from previous years, some schools still struggle to attract quality teachers and fill vacancies in certain academic subjects.

Meantime, more than three-fourths of teachers who left the profession did so for personal reasons or because they retired.

That’s the upshot of the State Board of Education’s new report on teacher attrition and mobility for the 2016-17 school year. It shows 8.65 percent of teachers left their profession — down from 9 percent the previous year. Around 4.8 percent of teachers left to teach in another N.C. school district, which is slightly up from 4.36 from the prior school year.

Tom Tomberlin, director of educator human capital policy and research at the Department of Public Instruction, presented the report to the board. It shows the state average for local education agencies is 13.45 percent: 8.65 percent for attrition from the state and 4.8 percent for average mobility rate.

Terry Stoops, the John Locke Foundation’s vice president of research and director of education studies, said the quality of the report has improved over the past few years but specific data remain elusive.

“The data give us a general sense of why teachers are leaving, but in most cases, it does not delineate the circumstances or specific complaints that led to their departure,” Stoops said.

Between March 2016 and March 2017, 94,792 teachers were employed but 8,201 left their position during that time. The attrition rate is 12.1 percent higher for Beginning Teachers, or teachers with fewer than three years of teaching experience. Teachers with more experience under their belts have a 7.57 percent attrition rate.

The majority — 53.6 percent or 4,393 teachers — left their positions for personal reasons, with 12.3 percent citing family relocation. Roughly another one-fourth, or 23.4 percent, of teachers who left did so for reasons beyond the control of their school district. Most of those teachers — 18.7 percent of the overall total — retired with full benefits.

The LEAs with the highest teacher attrition rates are Weldon City Schools, Jones County Schools, Warren County Schools, Bertie County Schools, and Halifax County Schools. Weldon City Schools lost around one of three teachers employed by the system.

For the first time, the teaching profession report included data on teacher vacancies. The highest number of vacancies were found for core elementary teachers, elementary special education teachers, and middle and high school mathematics teachers.

The average vacancy rate is 1.5 percent, but Tomberlin explained that amounts to around 1,500 vacant instructional positions.

“That’s about 30,000 students who went the entire quarter without a certified teacher in the classroom,” Tomberlin said. “On the one hand the sky is not falling because vacancy rates are low, but on the other hand we know there is a substantial number of children that are continuing to not have a full-time certified teacher in the classroom.”

Some school districts, including Anson County Schools, had teacher vacancy rates above 10 percent, a rate SBE board member Tricia Willoughby found very disturbing.

“We have known for at least four decades that our public schools have had difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers in these subjects,” Stoops explained. “The legislature’s revival of the Teaching Fellows Program is a good start.”

Stoops said policymakers should also consider taking steps to address these hard-to-staff schools and subjects, such as creating an expansive incentive pay program and streamlining the licensing process for the profession.

“Unfortunately, those who predicted that Republicans policies would spur a mass exodus of teachers will continue to claim that any attrition, regardless of the reason or rate, is cause for concern,” Stoops said. “The rational response to the report is neither concern nor celebration but contemplation and inquiry that eventually leads to a research-based policy response.”