You’d have to be pretty out of touch to have missed that teachers, who have been striking all year from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to California, have been showing us their pay is inadequate and their working conditions are horrible. Schools in too many places feature huge classes (too few teachers) and an absence of counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses. All this ultimately signals a school finance problem stemming from the Great Recession a decade ago and state legislatures and governors determined to cut taxes.
All this is well documented in academic research. Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss recently released the first in a series of studies from the Economic Policy Institute, a report they summarize in a short, policy piece: “In our report we argue that when issues such as teacher qualifications and equity across communities are taken into consideration, shortages are more concerning than we thought. If we consider the declining share of teachers who hold the credentials associated with teacher quality and effective teaching (they are fully certified, took the standard route into teaching, have more than five years of experience, and they have an educational background in the subject they teach), the teacher shortage grows. If we compare the share of these teachers in high-needs schools (schools with a large share of students from families living in poverty) with other schools, we see that the shortages there are even more severe in those high-needs schools.” Garcia and Weiss are particularly concerned about the growing percentage of teachers who are not fully certified, or who began teaching with only alternative—sometimes only a few weeks long—preparation for teaching, or who are currently teaching subjects in which they have no educational background themselves, or who are inexperienced. The number of emergency-certified teachers has grown as well qualified and experienced teachers are giving up and leaving the profession.
At a nationwide level, EPI’s new report replicates findings by Linda Darling-Hammond and the Learning Policy Institute about the chronic shortage of qualified teachers in the state of California. In a research brief last September, Darling-Hammond tracks the history of California’s teacher shortage: “Budget cuts and layoffs resulting from the recession contributed to a steep decline in the number of teachers in California, falling from a high of 310,362 teachers in the 2007-08 school year to 283,836 four years later. Recent efforts, including Proposition 30 and the Local Control Funding Formula, which, respectively, raised taxes for public education and transformed the state’s school finance method, have helped to regrow California’s teacher workforce. However, with sharp decreases in the supply of new teachers, there are still not enough qualified teachers across subject areas in many schools and districts to meet California’s staffing needs.”
Here are some of the Learning Policy Institute’s more detailed findings: “California’s supply of new, credentialed teachers plummeted by nearly 70% in the decade from 2001-02 to 2011-12, as the state’s education budgets shrank… When spending cuts further deepened in the four years after the recession began in December 2007, there were widespread teacher layoffs and the total teaching workforce decreased by about 9%… Schools serving higher percentages of low-income students of color are shouldering a disproportionate share of the burden… When vacancies go unfilled, schools are left with the choice of increasing class sizes, eliminating some programs, or turning to an assortment of emergency-type credentials. Most turn to emergency-type credentials.”
In California, here’s how you can qualify for emergency credentials. People without teacher preparation or any demonstration of subject-matter competence can be hired for one year. Or under a Limited Assignment Teaching Permit, a credentialed teacher can teach outside her/his subject area. In California, teachers in training (those from alternative, Teach for America-type training programs) can also be licensed to teach while they complete their certification.
In LPI’s brief, Darling-Hammond explains factors driving the shortage of fully qualified teachers: “Several factors appear to be driving the shortage… new demand for teachers as districts seek to return to pre-recession course offerings and class sizes… a rapid decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs… (and) teacher attrition. Teacher turnover currently accounts for about 88% of the annual demand for new teachers. Put another way, nearly nine of 10 hires each year are needed to replace teachers who left. Retirement is just a small part of this loss. Most attrition is caused by teachers changing districts or leaving the profession… The highest turnover rates are in districts serving high-poverty students, students of color, and English learners… The main reasons teachers report leaving… are dissatisfaction with testing and accountability pressures, followed by a lack of administrative support; frustration with the teaching career, including lack of opportunities for advancement; and poor working conditions.”
California’s EdSource is covering the teacher shortage in a series of articles. In one report, EdSource describes rising rents in the San Francisco Bay Area driving teachers away from desperate school districts, EdSource profiles one West Contra Costa Unified School District teacher who just got a job in more affordable Las Vegas, Nevada: “The West Contra Costa Unified School District, serving some of the poorest neighborhoods in the San Francisco Bay Area, can use every excellent teacher it’s able to recruit. That is why the decision by Sarah La Due to pack up and leave the district, just two years after winning a Teaching Excellence Award, hurts. But La Due, after five years in the district, is tired of living with two roommates and sharing a bathroom in order to afford housing… “I’m a 35-year-old professional woman and I shouldn’t have to live with roommates.”
Here is EdSource‘s summary of the economics of trying to live in the Bay Area or other coastal or metro area on a teacher’s salary: “In nearly 40 percent of the 680 school districts that reported salary data to the state, first-year teachers did not earn enough to rent an affordable one-bedroom apartment. In 39 districts, first-year teachers faced the prospect of spending more than 50 percent of their income on a modest one-bedroom apartment. In more than a quarter of school districts the highest-paid teachers could not afford to rent a three-bedroom house or apartment. Teachers fare better in rural areas, where in nearly 90 percent of the districts, teachers earning an average salary could afford a two-bedroom apartment.”
The problem is not limited to California. In Oklahoma, where, a year ago, striking teachers alerted us to their paltry salaries and outrageous class sizes, Tulsa World reports, “that the percentage of Oklahoma educators leaving the profession has increased over the past six years, representing more than 5,000 per year, a total of approximately 30,000. The exodus represents an average of 10 percent of Oklahoma’s teacher workforce, in comparison to a national attrition rate of 7.7 percent.” In this 2018-2019 school year the number of unqualified teachers who are emergency-certified by the state reached 2,915, an all time high—and exponentially higher than the 32 emergency-certified teachers hired in 2012.
And in Michigan, Eclectablog reports, “Teachers… are now paid less today in real and corrected-for-inflation dollars” than they were a decade ago. “In 2009, the average teacher salary… was $63,025. In 2017, the most recent year for which we have data, the average was only $61,908. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a whopping 16% drop in just 8 years.” The result? “Michigan is battling a persistent shortage of teachers…. From the Upper Peninsula to Metro Detroit, job postings for K-12 positions across the state advertise hundreds of open positions from foreign language, music, science, and math teachers to paraprofessionals to counselors. Detroit Public Schools Community District, one of the most challenged districts in the state, had 90 teacher vacancies at the beginning of the school year last September. That was down from over 200 at the beginning of summer. But Detroit isn’t the only district dealing with the predictable outcome of corporatist, anti-public school policies. Schools in Grand Rapids, the home of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, had 40 vacancies as of February.” Eclectablog blames former Governor Rick Snyder and a conservative legislature: “Once Rick Snyder and the corporatists rolled into power in 2011, they cut education funding to pay for corporate tax cuts and passed right to work legislation.”