Teacher Shortages Put Pressure on Governors, Legislators
There's heated debate nationally over whether K-12 teachers really are in short supply and—if so—what's caused the shortage and how widespread it is.
But in a number of states with dwindling supplies of new teachers, overcrowded classrooms, months-long substitute assignments, and droves of teachers quitting midyear, activists on both sides of the issue are seizing the opportunity to push their policy agendas.
Those divisions are on stark display in places like Indiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Washington, where policymakers, including governors and legislators, are floating a variety of approaches to address the challenge of recruiting and retaining teachers.
Conservatives and free-market lobbyists, for example, want to completely eliminate or scale back certification requirements, expand their Teach For America corps and other alternative routes into the profession, and allow superintendents to sidestep bargaining agreements to give bonuses to special teachers in hard-to-staff fields like special education, science, and math.
Liberals and re-energized teachers' unions want to raise taxes to boost teacher pay and make significant changes to states' teacher-evaluation systems, which they say have gone too far in their reliance on test scores and damaged teacher morale.
The slate of legislation aimed at fixing teacher shortages, constructed by blue-ribbon panels and outlined in governors' annual addresses last month, comes shortly after President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which hands much of the power over to state governments to shape the way they hold teachers accountable.
While most states have decided to wait until the law goes into full effect in the 2017-18 school year to decide how to legislate under those powers, advocacy groups are telling politicians to act now or risk seeing shortages worsen and test scores suffer.
"Politicians all want to give teachers face time and shake our hands and tell us they think we're heroes and that their uncle or grandmother was a teacher," said Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma's 2016 teacher of the year, who has traveled the state asking teachers what they'd like to see this legislative session. "Alright, that's cool. But what are you doing for teachers today?"
In Oklahoma, at least 850 classes were cut last school year because principals couldn't find anyone qualified to staff them. The state's board of education in 2015 distributed more than 840 emergency certifications to teachers not certified in the subject they teach, more than it had passed out in the last four years combined.
A panel convened by Joy Hofmeister, the state's superintendent, determined in January that, with starting teachers making $31,000, the state has the lowest teacher pay in the region, resulting in many teachers heading for the borders.
"The single thing that will solve this crisis is for young people to know that when they have $20,000 of [student loan] debt, they could make enough money to pay it off," said Craig McVay, the superintendent of El Reno schools, a suburb of Oklahoma City which has at least six openings but has drawn zero applicants. McVay said he attempted last summer to hire a Northwestern University graduate from Evanston, Ill., to coach his high school's wrestling team and teach a handful of math courses for $32,000. The applicant turned down the offer to be a manager at Wal-Mart.
The Sooner State has a nearly $1 billion revenue shortfall this year after the oil industry, which the state is heavily dependent on, went into severe decline in recent years.
David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma, launched an initiative last year to have voters decide whether they want to add a penny sales tax to provide teachers with a $5,000 raise.
In response, Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, proposed in her state of the state address last week to raise cigarette sales taxes, consolidate districts, and eliminate company tax breaks to provide teachers with a $3,000 pay raise, which would cost the state $178 million.
"The education of our children remains a top priority of mine in the budget even in fiscal climates like this year," Fallin said.
But Amber England, the director of the state's Stand For Children chapter and a lead organizer for the penny sales tax initiative, says Fallin's proposal doesn't go far enough and is not a long-term solution.
"We think there should be a dedicated revenue source for a teacher pay raise," said England whose group has advocated for differentiated pay and the expansion of charter schools.
After teachers' unions launched a strike in several districts last year partly over pay, Washington's Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee proposed in December to raise the minimum amount teachers in the state make by $4,300 to $40,000, raise other teachers' salaries 1 percent, and start a teacher-mentor program. He would pay for it by eliminating several tax exemptions.
Teacher pay is already at the core of a years-long legal battle in Washington over the state's school funding formula, which the state's supreme court has ordered lawmakers to revise.
A third of the state's districts had unfilled teacher positions last year, Inslee said.
"It's impossible to compensate teachers for what they do, but we're not even trying," said Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a high school teacher in Tacoma.
South Dakota's Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard last week came out with a proposal to tie school funding to teacher salaries—a shift that would move the state's overall funding mechanism away from a traditional per-pupil approach. It would instead be based on class sizes. By increasing the state sales tax by a half-cent, the state would be able to raise its average teacher salary from $40,000 to $48,500. Daugaard also wants to beef up its teacher-mentor program and establish clearer guidelines on how to grant teachers licenses from other states.
He said in his recent address to lawmakers that South Dakota won't get a new generation of high-quality teachers "unless we become more competitive with surrounding states."
In Indiana, a panel convened by Glenda Ritz, the state's superintendent of public instruction, last month recommended decoupling teacher-evaluation ratings from the state's standardized test scores.
The state last year issued 33 percent fewer teaching licenses than it had in 2009, the result, educators say, of a punitive and demoralizing accountability system ushered in as a result of federal Race to the Top grants to districts and a waiver to the state from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.
In January, state Rep. Randy Truitt, a Republican, proposed legislation that would leave it up to districts to determine whether to evaluate teachers using the state exam, give raises to teachers who receive "improvement necessary" on their evaluations, and set aside $12 million to pay teachers $1,000 a year to mentor recently hired teachers.
Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, signed legislation in January to pause for one year any consequences the state's exam would have on teachers after it was revealed that scores on the state's newly revised tests tanked across districts last year, and that some of the scores were botched.
But Pete Miller, a Republican state senator, said efforts to dismantle the state's evaluation system to fix the state's teacher shortage are shortsighted. He has instead proposed allowing district superintendents to give math and special education teachers higher pay than other teachers.
"We pay surgeons more than we pay family doctors," said Miller, who cited a statewide study that argues the shortage was contrived as a political tool to block new accountability measures. "That doesn't mean there's jealousy in the hospital. If there's lower supply, we need to give a higher salary."
Teacher unions have argued that efforts to differentiate pay will pit teachers against each other and corrode school teamwork.
Other states have targeted—or tried to get around—certification requirements to bring in more teachers.
Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last month set aside $3 million of his budget to pay for more Teach For America recruits.
Alabama's state board of education loosened its teaching requirements to let those with a high school diploma to teach some classes part time.
And in South Carolina, where Gov. Nikki Haley wants to spend $15 million to forgive student loans to teachers willing to teach in rural parts of the state, the state last year loosened certification rules and began to recruit teachers from overseas.
The change in certification angered the state's teacher unions.
"That's caused the profession of teaching not to be looked at as the noble profession that it is," said Bernadette R. Hampton, the president of the South Carolina Education Association. "Just because you can read doesn't mean you can teach. This work impacts students' lives."
Vol. 35, Issue 20, Pages 1, 18-19Published in Print: February 10, 2016, as In States Hungry for Teachers, Policy Menu Expands