High levels of teacher turnover in the country’s most sparsely populated state is draining millions out of Alaska’s education coffers. Every time a district loses a teacher and has to find a new one that process costs an average of $20,500, adding up to $20 million a year throughout the state, according to a new study by the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research.
“Imagine, if we lowered the turnover rate by 50 percent in rural Alaska—suddenly we’re having millions of dollars to invest in these educators and in our classroom rather than in trying to hire,” Diane Hirshberg, the director of the Center for Alaska Education Policy Research and a professor of education policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, told the Alaska Dispatch News.
The study found that turnover rates in rural districts averaged about 20 percent between 2004 and 2014. While in about a dozen districts, annual turnover rates exceeded 30 percent.
Connie Newman, the superintendent at the Iditarod Area School District, told the Alaska Dispatch News that she wasn’t shocked by the findings at all. She told the paper that only 12 of the district’s 20 teachers were planning on returning next year.
“It’s very expensive to try and replace them,” Newman told the paper. “We had to send a team to Anchorage to recruit and it’s pretty competitive. Our little district doesn’t have quite the same resources.”
One way policymakers in the state are hoping to lower teacher turnover rates is by getting more teachers with Alaskan roots. The Alaska Dispatch News reports that University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen has made preparing more educators for the state’s classrooms a top priority.
But this is far from a new problem and one whose resolution has long eluded policymakers. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s long-time Republican senator, laid out the problem in one of her first speeches as a senator in 2003.
"[I]n many parts of rural Alaska the teacher turnover rate is 100 percent every three years,” she said in a speech before the state legislature. “We need to find innovative ways to reduce this high teacher turnover rate in rural Alaska. Rural students, like students in urban Alaska, need predictability and stability to thrive, and that is hard to achieve when you have a completely new teaching staff every few years.”
A 2014 report by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, however, called for a return to state policies that paid rural teachers a premium for staying in remote Alaskan towns: “Decades ago, rural school districts offered teachers a premium salary, making teacher recruitment and retention easy. In the 1990s, limited school funding ushered in an era of high teacher turnover. Without the security of top-notch salaries, teachers found opportunities elsewhere and began leaving their posts.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.